Hawass resigns; looting far worse than initially stated

The New York Times reports that as of today, Zahi Hawass has resigned his position as Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities. The position and ministry were created by former President Hosni Mubarak to form part of a new putatively reformist cabinet, but since Hawass had been Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (in substance Egypt’s dictator of antiquities) for 20 years, it didn’t seem to alter his job description very much.

After Mubarak was deposed, Hawass became a target for protesters. Hundreds of unemployed archaeologists held a rally at the Ministry of Antiquities gates protesting the corruption and nepotism rife in the ministry. The tourism industry is a huge foreign cash cow for the country, protesters pointed out, but there is no public accounting of where it all goes.

Zahi Hawass gave intimations he might take this step in a phone interview on Tuesday when he said his ministry was incapable of protecting Egypt’s ancient sites and museums, a full 180 from his earlier statements downplaying the looting in the wake of the protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak’s government.

In a telephone interview he said that thieves on Monday had broken into two warehouses near the pyramids of Giza that held artifacts excavated in the early 20th century. It was not yet clear what had been taken. He said that the police were no longer protecting Egypt’s monuments and that his own staff was unarmed and unable to stop attacks.

“During the revolution nothing happened, but after the revolution many things are happening everywhere,” Mr. Hawass said. “People building houses, taking archaeological land, excavating at night — it’s like a nightmare, and I don’t know what I can do.”

The decision also comes in the wake of an allegation of misconduct far worse than self-promotional dishonesty. Apparently, Egyptian Manager of Antiquity Locations Nour el din Abdel Samad alleged in an interview (YouTube of interview in Arabic here, a translation that I can’t vouch for here) that Hawass had pocketed the money from fictitious building projects. He also suggested that Hawass covered up, and possibly profited from, thefts of artifacts from the Cairo Museum. He then tied it all together with some Zionist conspiracy stuff that is pretty unhinged, so who knows what’s fact and what’s fiction.

Hawass responded with a blog post in which he responded to the accusations by saying that they only strengthened his resolve to remain on the job.

Throughout this ordeal, there have been people who have been completely dishonest, and have tried, through their statements, to make the situation worse, in some cases by accusing me (in vague terms) of various inappropriate or even illegal behaviors. Of course, as even these people themselves know, none of these accusations has any basis in reality. When I was first appointed Minister of Antiquities Affairs, I thought my tenure might be very short, given the political situation. I did not care; I was only glad that the antiquities service had finally been given independence, and would no longer be under the Ministry of Culture. However, these attacks have convinced me that it is important for me to stay, so that I can continue to do everything in my power to protect Egypt’s cultural heritage. I have written to Egypt’s attorney general, asking him to look into some of the false accusations that have been made against me. I believe that addressing these issues will help stabilize the Ministry of Antiquities Affairs.

Today Hawass updated his blog again, only this time with a long list of damaged and looted sites that Egypt’s authorities have been unable to secure. He includes dire news of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s storage warehouse storing artifacts from the museum team’s excavation in Dahshur. Hawass reports it was attacked twice and that looters were able to overpower and tie up the guards. The news of his resignation followed.

Since Egypt’s prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, also resigned today, the army has asked the new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, to form an interim cabinet, of course including a replacement for Hawass. We’ll see how it all pans out.