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Eqypt's Antiquities Boss Is Sacked

18 July 2011 3:29 pm
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After nearly a decade as chief of Egypt's antiquities, Zahi Hawass is now out of a job.

The 64-year-old archaeologist was fired yesterday by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf as part of a wider shakeup of his cabinet. Protestors at Cairo's Tahrir Square had been calling for his ouster as minister of antiquities for months. "All the devils united against me," Hawass told Science Insider.

The country's most prominent figure in archaeology, Hawass was instrumental in sending large blockbuster exhibits abroad, creating a host of new museums and secure storerooms, and pressuring foreign excavators to publish their finds more quickly. But he was also criticized for his portrayal on American television of archaeology as treasure hunting, excoriated for his dictatorial management style, and accused of shoddy research in carrying out his own digs. Sharaf is said to have appointed Abdel-Fattah El-Banna as Hawass' replacement, but there are reports that protestors have rejected that nomination, and that Sharaf might reverse his decision and name someone else.

El-Banna is an engineer and stone specialist at Cairo University with experience in restoring ancient buildings. He has been an outspoken critic of Hawass in recent months, accusing him of being involved in the illegal antiquities trade, a charge that Hawass denies.

Egyptian critics say they are delighted by the departure of Hawass, who became a minister in January when the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), the organization he has led since 2002, was given Cabinet status. "Finally we got rid of him," says Amany Taha, a Cairo tour guide active in the protests.

But some foreign archaeologists say they will be sorry to lose Hawass, who has been a dynamic if controversial leader of the country's ancient monuments. "In the ensuing free-for-all, now that he is gone, I beg you to remember all the good that Zahi did for Egypt and Egyptian antiquities in his term as SCA," says W. Raymond Johnson, an archaeologist of the University of Chicago in Illinois who works at Luxor. "It's easy to condemn, much harder to give credit for what is due."

Hawass resigned in March to protest the looting of sites, but was recalled to help bring tourists back to Egypt. For now, Hawass says, "I will rest."