Giza Plateau News Articles

Sphinx and Osiris Pyramid

Revolution Dims Star Power of Egypt's Antiquities Chief


July 12, 2011


Until recently Zahi Hawass, Egypt's antiquities minister, was a global symbol of Egyptian national pride. A famous archaeologist in an Indiana Jones hat, he was virtually unassailable in the old Egypt, protected by his success in boosting tourism, his efforts to reclaim lost artifacts and his closeness to the country's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak.


But the revolution changed all that.


Now demonstrators in Cairo are calling for his resignation as the interim government faces disaffected crowds in Tahrir Square.


Their primary complaint is his association with the Mubaraks, whom he defended in the early days of the revolution. But the upheaval has also drawn attention to the ways he has increased his profile over the years, often with the help of organizations and companies with which he has done business as a government official.


He receives, for example, an honorarium each year of as much as $200,000 from National Geographic to be an explorer-in-residence even as he controls access to the ancient sites it often features in its reports.


He has relationships — albeit ones he says he does not profit from — with two American companies that do business in Egypt.


One, Arts and Exhibitions International, secured Mr. Hawass's permission several years ago to take some of the country's most precious treasures, the artifacts of King Tut, on a world tour; its top executives recently started a separate venture to market a Zahi Hawass line of clothing.


A second company, Exhibit Merchandising, has been selling replicas of Mr. Hawass's hat for several years. Last year that company was hired to operate a new store in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.


Mr. Hawass says his share of the profits from those products goes directly to Egyptian charities. But the fact that both charities, a children's cancer hospital and a children's museum, were overseen by Ms. Mubarak before the revolution has angered some critics.


"We don't know how Egyptians lived all this time under this government or under these people," said Entessar Gharieb, a radio announcer with a degree in archaeology who helped organize a recent protest calling for Mr. Hawass's removal. "Zahi Hawass was one of this system, the system of Hosni Mubarak."


Remarkably, given his Mubarak ties, Mr. Hawass has been able to hold on to his government post through the aftershocks of the revolution, though he resigned briefly in March and was reinstated. He travels a lot, serving as a cultural ambassador, praising the revolution and urging foreigners to visit Egypt. This month Peru honored him for his help in securing the return of artifacts that had been taken from Machu Picchu nearly a century ago.


"You can feel the energy in the air when he speaks to people about Egypt," said John Norman, the president of Arts and Exhibitions International, which runs the Tut tour.


Nonetheless, Mr. Hawass remains dogged at home by unflattering reports in newspapers and on television. The gift shop at the Egyptian Museum had to be closed after a dispute over how the contract was awarded threatened to land him in jail. And critics have gone to Egyptian prosecutors with complaints about Mr. Hawass's relationship with National Geographic and other matters.


"I have never done anything at all contrary to Egyptian law," Mr. Hawass said in an e-mail response to questions. "Egyptian law permits government employees to accept honoraria and fees through outside contracts."


The accusations against Mr. Hawass are much less serious than those made against other former government officials, but they show how quickly the landscape has tilted.


"I think he's going to have to realize that there is a new way of doing business, or at least there may be," said Michael C. Dunn, the editor of The Middle East Journal, a scholarly publication.


National Geographic first brought Mr. Hawass on as an explorer-in-residence, one of 16 it has around the world, in 2001 when he was director of the Giza pyramids. He has appeared in numerous National Geographic films about ancient Egypt, and the organization publishes some of his books and arranges his speaking engagements, for which he asks $15,000.


It is not clear how the National Geographic payments compare in size to Mr. Hawass's government salary, which he would not disclose. National Geographic says it pays Mr. Hawass to advise it on major discoveries and help shape its policies on antiquities issues. It says it has never received preferential access to archaeological sites or discoveries.


Mr. Hawass said his impartiality was evident when the Discovery Channel won out over National Geographic in a bid to make films about DNA research on royal mummies.


"All proposals about films go before a committee," he said in an e-mail, "and decisions are made to maximize both the scientific results and the profit for Egypt."


But Mr. Hawass also said this week that he has decided to resign temporarily as a National Geographic explorer so that he can focus on protecting antiquities.


Mr. Hawass's relationship with Arts and Exhibitions International dates back to 2003, when it approached him about staging a tour of Tutankhamen artifacts. Two Tut exhibitions organized by the company have traveled to 15 cities so far.


By the time the tours end in 2013, they will have brought Egypt close to $100 million, much more than the country reaped from the first United States tour of Tut artifacts in the 1970s, the organizers say.


Under the contract with Egypt, the organizers also donated $2 million to what was then known as the Suzanne Mubarak Children's Museum, according to Mr. Norman, the president of Arts and Exhibitions International.


Mr. Norman said there is no connection between the Hawass clothing line, which he is producing under a separate venture, Adventure Clothing, and the Tut tour, which was negotiated years earlier. The clothing, he said, is just an effort on Mr. Hawass's part "to leverage his image to benefit Egypt, which to me seems like a good thing."


Mr. Hawass said his share of any profits will go to the Children's Cancer Hospital in Cairo.


Mr. Norman started Exhibit Merchandising in 2004 to run the souvenir shops for the Tut exhibitions, but he and his partners sold the company in 2007. It continues to make the Hawass hat and run the Tut souvenir shops.


Mr. Hawass has said the hats have raised about $500,000 for charity, a figure that Exhibit Merchandising characterized as too high.


Last year, when Egypt looked to open the new, larger souvenir store at the Egyptian Museum, Mr. Hawass's agency awarded the contract to a state-owned entity that then hired Exhibit Merchandising to run the store.


"The award was challenged in court by the operator of a bookstore, Farid Atiya, who said he had hoped to compete but had been unfairly excluded from the bidding.

"These were the days before Mubarak fell," he said in an interview, "and they were behaving as though power would stay forever with them."


The court found that Mr. Atiya had been treated unfairly and ordered the contract rebid. Last April an Egyptian criminal court sentenced Mr. Hawass to a year in prison for defying that court order, but Mr. Hawass appealed and closed the new museum store. His sentence was lifted and a new contract will be awarded.


Curt Bechdel, a vice president with Exhibit Merchandising, said that Egyptian officials wanted his company because they were familiar with the Tut exhibit shops and they "wanted a well-run, Western approach to retail," rather than something like Mr. Atiya's store, which he characterized as less sophisticated. "The fact that we sold his hat had nothing to do with" the award, added Mr. Bechdel, who said his company had no direct role in the bidding.


On Monday, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf of Egypt said he planned to replace several ministers this week. It was not clear whether Mr. Hawass will be among them.


"I'm starting to really feel that he has 10 lives, more than cats," said Randa Baligh, an archaeologist at Mansoura University north of Cairo.


Mr. Hawass said he agreed to resume his position in March only after the interim government assured him that it would work to protect Egyptian monuments.


"I am not an elected official," he said in an e-mail, "so the question of public support is not relevant to my position."


"I am not a politician," he added. "I am an archaeologist."


Amr Emam contributed reporting from Cairo.

Source: New York Times

© 2004-2026    Bill McNulty All Rights Reserved