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Is the face of Egyptian culture the next to topple?

Egypt's Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass talks to reporters earlier this month during his country's crisis.


"All the chants that used to be used to insult Mubarak [are]now being substituted with Zahi Hawass, beautiful." - Egyptian archeologist Nora Shalaby on Twitter, Feb. 16.

Until Hosni Mubarak suddenly became a television staple a few weeks ago, Zahi Hawass was probably the best-known Egyptian outside that country's borders.

As vice-minister of culture and, since 2002, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), he's been the country's most prominent ambassador to the West and the East, donning his now famous Stetson for appearances in umpteen TV documentaries and penning shelves of books with titles such as Secrets from the Sand and Curse of the Pharaohs. When Barack Obama visited the pyramids and the Sphinx near Cairo in June, 2009, it was Hawass who gave the U.S. President the personal tour. When Hawass visited the Tutankhamun exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario last March, his lecture in Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto drew turn-away crowds.

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Now is he about to be turned away himself? Until recently, Hawass seemed unassailable, much like Mubarak. "Everybody loves a star and Hawass in a way is a reality-TV star," one observer says. Certainly at 63 he's had his critics, who've labelled him, variously, a corrupt blowhard, petulant control freak, publicity hound, promoter of dubious scholarship and whimsical decision-maker. But the criticism, much of it made on condition of anonymity, never seemed to coalesce into anything substantial, not least because Hawass's power flowed directly from Mubarak; the former president's wife, Suzanne, was one of his best friends. If you were an archeologist who wanted to dig in, say, the Valley of the Kings, Hawass controlled all access. "You don't want to hurt people's feelings. You don't want to ruin the diplomatic relationships that have been set up," is how one archeologist put it to me.

But less than three weeks after Hawass made the perhaps fateful decision to formally enter the Mubarak government by accepting an invitation to become minister of antiquities (a new post), Hawass's power and influence are being strenuously tested. On at least two occasions last week SCA headquarters in Cairo has been besieged by demonstrators calling for Hawass's ouster. Some of the protesters have been SCA employees, irked by poor wages and lack of advancement, others unemployed or underemployed archeology graduates and impoverished tour guides. As one Egyptologist told me, "a living wage is hard to come by … in Egypt," where the average annual income is between $1,500 (U.S.) and $2,000, and most of the 3.4 million people who "depend on tourism for their income live on tips."

"If Hawass can hold on, it'll be by convincing the military first of all and whatever new emerging power structure there is in Egypt that he is indispensable," says Alex Joffe, a U.S. archeologist who writes on Middle East affairs for The Wall Street Journal and the Middle East Quarterly. But "everybody who had a position in and around the old power structure is in a much more precarious position.… Nobody's indispensable anywhere." (Indeed, the country's former interior minister was arrested last Thursday on corruption charges; the former tourism minister was arrested late last week.) Adds Joffe: "I'm not going to lay odds. But at the same time there's a lot of people suddenly talking about how unhappy they are with him, which has never happened before."

Hawass has been taking his lumps internationally, too - and not just for giving the okay to pricey touring shows such as Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt, which began its international run last week in Cincinnati, Ohio. Since the uprising, he's issued a series of confusing statements as to just how secure various excavations and historic sites are, including the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. One day his "heart is breaking and [his]blood is boiling" over reports of break-ins, vandalism and looting, the next he's the picture of calm, a soothing sayer, the next he says 17 artifacts - make that 18, or maybe eight? - have been stolen from the museum but three (or is it two?) have been returned. (This past Thursday, it was reported that a limestone statue of the father of King Tutankhamun, stolen in late January, was found beside a trash can in Cairo and returned.)

Indubitably, the protests, the looting and the inconsistencies over what's been pillaged or damaged are sure to hurt one of Hawass's key ambitions - the return to Egypt of a trove of beloved but foreign-based treasures. Included among these are the 2,200-year-old Rosetta Stone which has been housed in the British Museum in London since the early 19th century, and the Nefertiti bust, dating to 1345 BC, a proud possession of Neues Museum in Berlin, the city that's been its home since 1912. Less than three weeks before the uprising, Hawass was telling New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that he should take better care of Cleopatra's Needle, a 3,400-year-old obelisk that's towered over Central Park since 1881. If he didn't, Hawass would gladly take it off the mayor's hands.

To help convince Western museums to return such contested antiquities, Hawass has poured hundreds of millions of Egyptian pounds into upgraded and new infrastructure, including the Grand Egyptian Museum near the Sphinx, tentatively scheduled to open in 2014, and the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo, which is expected to begin receiving visitors this summer. But for the time being and possibly for years to come, no European or North American institution with holdings coveted by the Egyptians is likely to entertain either polite requests or heated demands for their return. It would just be too risky - although "when stability returns and the new regime looks for a gesture [of solidarity]from the West," Joffe observes, the repatriation calls could intensify.

(The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is Canada's largest public repository of "Egyptiana," with more than 25,000 objects. Most were brought into the permanent collection, legally, at the turn of the 20th century by Charles Trick Currelly, the ROM's first director.)

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Tourism, too, is bound to be affected. It's always been a vital yet precarious source of revenue. Vital because a reported 20 per cent of Egypt's foreign currency earnings come from tourists; in 2008 close to 13 million foreigners visited, generating revenue of about $12-billion. Precarious because terrorist violence, shark attacks, wars and the like have been deleterious. In 2009, for example, the global recession resulted in a roughly 20-per-cent drop in visits in the first third of the year. (A rebound occurred at the end, resulting in the Egypt government reporting an overall decline of 3.1 per cent from 2008.) Most of the country's major tourist sites were scheduled to reopen Sunday but no one's expecting more than a trickle of visitors for the immediate future.

So just how expendable is Hawass? "Lots of people could [replace him]" one veteran Egypt watcher says. "But nobody sees them," at least not yet, as the world remains blinded by the glare coming off Hawass - National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence! One of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world! Omar Sharif's best friend! "I can't think of another field offhand where one person [Hawass]has managed to position himself so much in the centre that people can't conceive of who can replace him. There just isn't," the Egypt watcher says. Now at least there's the possibility of asking, "Is there room for more than one Egyptian Egyptologist to be the face of Egyptian archeology?" and maybe getting an answer in the affirmative.

Another Canadian Egyptologist, again requesting anonymity, lauded Hawass for not only initiating excavations but also projects to "conserve and manage archeological sites … For example, he has placed more emphasis than ever before" on sites in the Nile Delta "which would otherwise have disappeared, unrecorded," as a result of erosion and agriculture.

At the same time, no one should underestimate Hawass's survivability. For all his deep attachments to the Mubarak regime, Egyptians have admired the man's international stature and his swaggering chutzpah. As The New Yorker noted in a 2009 Hawass profile, the long history of Egyptology has largely been a tale of foreign-led excavations using Egyptian labour. Hawass is seen by his countrymen as at least trying "to Egyptianize Egyptology." As one source observed: "They take pride in the fact he can tell all the foreigners what to do, when to get off and how long they stay off."

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