The Case of the Disappearing Ministry

Whatever is happening at Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities?                                                                         ….. by Robert Bauval, 8th March 2011

Author at the Sphinx. © Richard Fusniak

The term ‘Byzantine’ is often used to mean “relating to or characterized by intrigue; scheming or devious; highly complicated; intricate and involved” when speaking of confusing negotiations, deals or, especially, politics.  What has been happening in Egyptian politics since 30th January 2011 certainly deserves such a term to explain the shuffling, reshuffling and re-reshuffling of the Government and the very confusing state of affairs regarding the month-old Ministry of Antiquities created by ex-President Hosni Mubarak two weeks before his ousting.

But first a brief history of the control of antiquities in Egypt: In 1858 Said Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt, approved the creation of the ‘Services Des Antiquités’ headed by Auguste Mariette, to supervise all antiquities and archaeological activities in Egypt. The ‘Services’ was always headed by French scholars until 1953, when Dr. Mustafa Amer became the first Egyptian to become its director. The ‘Services’ was then under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, but in 1960 it was transferred to the Ministry of Culture. In 1970, under the tenure of Dr. Gamal Mokhtar, it was renamed the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO). In 1994 it was again renamed the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) under the tenure of Dr. Abdel Halim Nur el Din, the Secretary General (or Chairman). In 2002 the position of Secretary General/Chairman went to Dr. Zahi Hawass. (see table below)

Egyptian Directors of the ‘Services Des Antiquités’ (1953-1971)  
Mostafa Amer (1953-1956)
Abbas Bayoumi (1956-1957)
Moharram Kamal (1957-1959)
Abd el-Fattah Hilmy (1959)
Mohammed Anwar Shoukry (1960-1964)
Mohammed Mahdi (1964-1966)
Gamal Mokhtar (1967-1971)
Directors General of Egyptian Antiquities Organization (1971-1993)  
Gamal Mokhtar (1971-1977)
Mohammed Abd el-Qader Mohammed (1977-1978)
Shehata Adam (1978-1981)
Fuad el-Oraby (1981)
Ahmed Khadry (1982-1988)
Mohammed Abdel Halim Nur el-Din (1988)
Sayed Tawfik (1989-1990)
Mohammed Ibrahim Bakr (1990-1993)
Chairmen Supreme Council of Antiquities (1993-2011)  
Mohammed Abdel Halim Nur el-Din (1993-1996)
Ali Hassan (1996-1997)
Gaballa Ali Gaballa (1997-2002)
Dr. Zahi Hawass (2002-2011)

Average time of tenure for Antiquities leaders is 2.5 years.
The time of tenure for Dr. Zahi Hawass amounts to 9 years

Dr. Zahi Hawass
Dr. Zahi Hawass

In November 2009, seven years into his tenure of the SCA, Hawass declared that he was about to retire next May, because he was reaching the limit legal age imposed on government officials. But at this crucial point something rather special happened, a sort of political ‘miracle’. In Dr. Hawass’s own words:

“There is a rule in Egypt that when a government official reaches a certain age, they retire. Therefore I was planning to retire next May…But then President Mubarak called me on the phone to ask me when I am really retiring. He said he would appoint me as Deputy Minister of Culture, which would mean that I would not have to retire next year, as Ministers and Deputy Ministers in Egypt have no set age for retirement…I would also like to say how grateful I am to President Mubarak. He is a unique man, who has given a lot to his country. He has been in public service for years and I have not once seen him make a decision just for himself. Everything he does, he does for Egypt. His wife, Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak, I feel deserves a Nobel Prize for the work she has done for peace…”

Hawass thus remained as Chairman of the SCA until this year. But then things began to go very wrong very quickly. On the 25th January 2011 began the people uprising in Tahrir Square demanding that Mubarak steps down. On the 30th January Mubarak reshuffled the Cabinet. And just as many observers thought that Hawass would loose his job when his boss, Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosni was sacked, Mubarak pulled out of thin air a brand new ministry, the Ministry of Antiquities, and Hawass was promptly sworn in as its minister. Also Mubarak appointed Ahmed Shafiq as Prime Minister. On 11th February Mubarak was forced to step down and to handed over the presidential powers to a Supreme Military Council headed by Field Marshal Tantawi. The ‘Ahmed Shafiq’ Government was retained. There followed massive pressure from the protesters on the Military Council to remove the Ahmed Shafiq Government. On the 3rd March Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq resigned, and the Military Council appointed Essam Sharaf as the new Prime Minister, and asked him to form a new Cabinet. On that same day The New York Times announced that Hawass had resigned, although the announcement was later modified to “he said he will resign”. On 5th May, however, Dan Vergano of USA TODAY received an e-mail from Dr. Hawass confirming his resignation.  “In a note e-mailed to USA TODAY on Saturday, Hawass confirmed his resignation from his recently-named post heading Egypt’s antiquities ministry. Excerpts from his note follow:

“Yes, it is true. I resigned because of three main things.”

On Sunday the 6th March the new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf announced the candidates for his new Cabinet. It was announced that Dr. Emad Abou Ghazi would become Minister of Culture and Antiquities. On the 7th March, according to Sayed Mahmoud of Al Ahram newspaper: “The choice of Emad Abou-Ghazi as head of the Ministry of Culture in the caretaker cabinet of Essam Sharaf was received with a warm welcome from many Egyptian intellectuals…Abou-Ghazi succeeded during his meeting with the prime minister to get back the Ministry of Antiquities, after it having been split in the previous cabinet. In Abou-Ghazi’s vision, there is no separation between archeology and culture in its broader sense.”

It would seem that Abou Ghazi wished to re-integrate the antiquities under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture as it had been since 1960, and presumably by a new Chairman Supreme Council of Antiquities. (In this case it would not be possible for anyone over 63 years old to become the Chairman of the SCA, according to Egyptian law). But also on the 7th March Nevine el Aref also of Al Ahram newspapers announced that the Prime Minister Essam Sharaf had changed his mind: “After protests by archaeologists, the ministry for antiquities is no longer under the jurisdiction of the culture ministry but rather that of the cabinet. Following several decisions and counter decisions, the ministry for antiquities became a Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) under the direct supervision of the Cabinet, rather than the ministry of culture. Egyptian archaeologists managed to keep antiquities independent from the ministry of culture. Egypt’s newly appointed Prime Minister Essam Sharaf agreed to keep the ministry of antiquities an independent body among the cabinet echelon and separate it from the ministry of culture. Such a ministerial decision came following demonstrations held by hundreds of Egyptian archaeologists who picketed from the garden of the Egyptian museum in Tahrir up to the cabinet building in Qasr El-Aini street demanding an independent ministry.”

Heba Fahmy, of Daily News Egypt, explains this swift U-turn by the Prime Minister:“Initially, Sharaf bundled antiquities and culture in one ministry under Emad Abou Ghazy. But on Monday the PM decided to separate them again in response to employees in the antiquities authorities, who protested in front of the Cabinet headquarters. They called for independence of the Ministry of Antiquities to preserve Egypt’s treasures. The Minister of Antiquities is yet to be announced.”

Observers remain somewhat baffled by Monday’s decisions by Prime Minister Sharaf to first accept re-integrate the antiquities into the Ministry of Culture only to separate it again within a few hours. As for Dr. Hawass, he has stated on his Blog that he will remain in his office until his replacement is nominated.: “I would like to tell people that I am still in my office and will be until the government has announced my successor. I have not been as happy as I have been for the last two days for a very long time.”

The post to control Egypt’s antiquities is now open. Had it become again under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture, as Abou Ghazi had wished, and as Prime Minister Sharaf had (temporarily agreed to), it would not have been legally possible for those over 63 years old to be appointed. But now by being a ministry, the position is open to all men or women of any ages which, of course includes Dr. Hawass. This is also confirmed by Hawass in a recent statement he gave NATURE. 

“Having been a minister, I cannot go back to being head of the SCA,” he says. “I have to step down from everything.”

Will Hawass well-known very close association to the old regime and the Mubaraks hamper such a re-appointment? In recent days many accusations against him involving corruption and illegal deals have been flaunted in the local media by government officials. Only yesterday the newspaper Almasry Al Youm (English Edition) announced that Dr. Yasser Seif, head of the International Association for the Development of Environment and Culture openly accused Zahi Hawass, along with ex-Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, of “gifting a piece of ancient jewelry to Suzanne Mubarak during the opening of the Jewelry Museum in April 2010.”

So what could be Hawass’s future in this climate?  Only time will tell… soon. But, as Eliza Doolittle told Professor Higgins: “we will muddle through without you.” Or as Egyptologist Selima Ikram, a close friend of Hawass, pointed out: “The idea that Egyptian archaeology is Hawass is just something made for TV. Archaeology will go on.”

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