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Egypt's Hawass Fires Back at Critics

22 February 2011 12:02 pm
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Egypt's ancient monuments reopened to tourists Sunday as the country's beleaguered antiquities minister forcefully defended his stewardship of its treasures. "Under my direction, the SCA [Supreme Council of Antiquities] has always been an honest department," Zahi Hawass told ScienceInsider in an e-mail. "Unfortunately, at the moment there is a lot of upheaval and some people are saying things for their own benefit and with their own agenda in mind."

Hawass is under fire for his close ties to the regime led by deposed President Hosni Mubarak, who elevated Hawass in late January from his position as head of the SCA to leading a new ministry of antiquities. SCA employees have demonstrated for higher pay outside of his office and individual SCA managers have harshly criticized their boss. For example, Hany Hanna, an SCA conservator, accused Hawass in an online letter 2 weeks ago of overseeing a "system of corruption." Meanwhile, the thefts at the Egyptian Museum and at cemeteries south of Cairo have shaken confidence in the country's ability to protect its ancient heritage.

Hawass says that as head of SCA he "raised salaries three times, created a social club for SCA staff, started the Festival of Archaeologists (which recognizes the achievements of Egyptian archaeologists at all levels), assisted employees in getting into university programs abroad and started many training programs for young archaeologists in Egypt." He added that Hanna "should have approached me first with his evidence of corruption." One foreign archaeologist, however, says that Hanna has been critical of Hawass's tenure for years and that his complaints were not new.

Others echo Hanna's concerns. Wafaa El Saddik, the former head of the Egyptian Museum and now president of the Children's Alliance for Traditions and Social Engagement, says that "everybody knows that there is corruption at SCA." She notes that many employees are paid for doing "honorary" work while "the rest of the SCA people didn't have enough to feed their children."

Hawass said on his blog today that he has asked Egypt's attorney general to look into what he calls "false accusations" in order to lay the matter to rest. And he told ScienceInsider that the new ministry, which Hawass says is an idea he has pushed for years, will mean more money for curation, protection, and preservation. "Money from the SCA's sites and museums was being redistributed throughout the [Ministry of Culture] and not necessarily being used to improve these things and to fund new projects," he notes. He adds that "I have also been trying to set up a union for archaeologists and now have the authority to do this, too."

Hawass also said he met yesterday with a group of young archaeologists representing the protestors picketing his headquarters. He said they offered him flowers and an apology for not understanding that the ministry is "trying to increase the number of jobs available for newly qualified archaeologists and restorers."

In an interview today with Germany's Spiegel online magazine, Hawass argues that the real issue is the lack of jobs for young scientists. "Thousands of young archaeologists in the country are unemployed," he said. "We have way too many faculties churning out archeologists — many more than we need. Now these people see their chance to demonstrate loudly." But meanwhile, he adds, "my administration has no money."

While Hawass has been a staunch defender of Mubarak, both before and during the demonstrations, he told Spiegel that "I am not a leader. I am not a politician. I'm a scientist," adding, "I demonstrated with the people in Tahrir Square and they love me." Hawass also told the British newspaper The Express that while "the revolution may have been a good thing, … it has also caused thieves and vipers to come out." He promised that looters arrested for breaking into the museum last month "will be severely punished." And he seems shocked by the change brought about by the revolution. "Once you would not dare to show no respect to a government minister, now they come and spit in your face if they do not like what they hear."

Will he remain? He told ScienceInsider: " I hope that I will keep my new position because I believe that the monuments and museums of Egypt need me. If I am made to leave, I am confident that the young Egyptologists and archaeologists in the Ministry of Antiquities will do everything in their power to protect Egypt's cultural heritage."

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