The Museum at the Center of Egypt’s Revolution

The Egyptian Museum became an improbable backdrop to Egypt’s ongoing revolution when on Jan. 25, 2011, pro-democracy protesters first occupied Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, where the Victorian-era museum happens to be located. As the rebellion unfolded the rose-colored walls of the museum were seen on television and computer screens all across the globe; it was quite possibly the first time many non-Egyptians had ever heard of the museum, which holds the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the world. An examination of the intrigues swirling around the museum, and by extension, taking a closer look at Zahi Hawass (Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities), reveals much about the current situation.

After the Egyptian Museum was broken into by looters on Jan. 28, I wrote an article refuting claims made in the mainstream press that attributed the looting to pro-democracy protesters. By now everyone knows about the ransacking of the museum, but few have paid attention to another distressing report; the Egyptian Museum has been used as a detention center where the army held, abused, and at times tortured protesters it arrested during the uprising. More on that later, but first let us reappraise Mr. Hawass, perhaps best known to Americans for appearing on the U.S.-based History Channel special called “Chasing Mummies.

As his country’s chief archaeologist, Mr. Hawass has served as the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), and more recently was appointed Minister of Antiquities. There is no doubt Hawass has made major contributions to Egyptology, and I do not mean to denigrate his accomplishments. Nonetheless, it is impossible to overlook his ignoble side; Hawass is a loyal supporter of the ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.

On Jan. 28, Mubarak ordered the ferocious police repression that resulted in crowds of infuriated protesters burning down the headquarters of his despised National Democratic Party (NDP). With the people taking to the streets to topple the Mubarak regime, Hawass went on state-controlled television to call on Egyptians not to believe the “lies and fabrications” broadcast about Mubarak on Al Jazeera. On Jan. 31, Mubarak appointed Hawass to the cabinet post of “Minister of Antiquities,” a special position the dictator created for Hawass. On Feb. 1, even as Mubarak’s hated secret police and hired goon squads were beating, torturing, and killing pro-democracy demonstrators, Hawass told the New York Times that protesters “should give us the opportunity to change things, and if nothing happens they can march again. But you can’t bring in a new president now, in this time. We need Mubarak to stay and make the transition.” On Feb. 6, 2011, Hawass appeared on the BBC to exclaim:

“The president would like to stay, he and all of us would like him to stay, not all of us as a government, but all of us as the majority of the Egyptian people, because we need President Mubarak to make the smooth transition of the government, he’s the only one who can do that. All of us of course agree with the people who did the marches, who asked for freedom and democracy, all of us would like that, but the only one who can continue and make the stability in Egypt is only one person – President Mubarak (….) He made the whole world respect Egypt, and he was a kind man and a good man, and I myself always respected this man, and I would like this man to stay.”

Also on February 6, Hawass posted the following proclamation on his official website:

“In these very critical moments of Egypt’s history, I believe that President Mubarak is capable of insuring a peaceful and democratic transition of power; especially since he has announced that he would not seek re-election. I also would like to remind everybody that Mubarak is a decorated war hero, and should be allowed to leave his office in dignity. I say that as an Egyptian who honors the war heroes of this country, but not as a cabinet member.”

Screenshot of Zahi Hawass (left) giving NBC's Richard Engel a tour of the Egyptian Museum. From the Feb. 9, 2011 NBC Today show broadcast.
Screenshot of Zahi Hawass (left) giving NBC's Richard Engel a tour of the Egyptian Museum, Feb. 9, 2011.

On Feb. 9, Richard Engel of the NBC Today show was given a tour of the Egyptian Museum by Zahi Hawass, who confirmed that artifacts damaged by looters were being restored.

NBC failed to describe Hawass as a Mubarak supporter, or as having accepted a high position in the dictator’s thoroughly discredited regime while the majority of Egyptians were calling for its abolishment. As a corporate news outlet NBC is not alone in rushing to conduct uncritical interviews with Hawass, which should give one pause over the state of U.S. journalism.

It has come to light that a dozen or more priceless artifacts were stolen from the Egyptian Museum on the night of Jan. 28. Hawass had previously told the press that objects at the museum had only been damaged, but after museum staff conducted an inventory it was found that a number of items were missing. This led Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor to write that Hawass “appeared to have hid the extent of the damage done at the famed Egyptian museum.” Murphy quoted an unnamed acquaintance of Hawass, who said “I think he held the information back because he understood it would be catastrophic for the regime’s legitimacy.”

Al-Ahram (Arabic for “the Pyramids”) is the most widely read Arabic language newspaper in Egypt and it also runs a weekly English language website. Owned by the government, it has been a dubious source for news; its editors having been handpicked by the Mubarak regime, at least up until the present. The Feb. 10 weekly edition of Al-Ahram published “Not getting away with it,” an article about the looting of the Egyptian Museum. It reported that Irina Bokova, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), had contacted Hawass over the condition of museums and archaeological sites during the violence. According to Al-Ahram, Hawass told UNESCO the museums and archaeological sites were “safe and sound” under his hand!

In addition, Al-Ahram reported the International Committee of Museums (ICOM) had decided to establish a committee to protect and monitor the Egyptian Museum; Hawass rejected this, saying “We don’t need any international supervision.”

Sounding every bit as pompous as his despotic boss, Hawass said, “I want everyone to relax and to know that I am here and we are all watching with open eyes. I want people to know that after days of protest, the monuments are safe.” Yet on Feb. 17, Hawass would write on his official website that multiple archeological sites had been broken into and pillaged.

State museum workers in Egypt hold a protest for higher wages on Feb. 9, 2011. Rallying in front of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the workers were confronted by Zahi Hawass. Some of the signs read, "No to corruption, no to oppression," and "Increase Pay." AP Photo/Ben Curtis.
State museum workers protest for higher wages in front of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Feb. 9, 2011. Some of their signs read, "No to corruption, no to oppression," and "Increase Pay." AP Photo/Ben Curtis.

Enjoying the status of being Mubarak’s hand-picked Minister of Antiquities, Hawass is now in the position of having to contain labor unrest, as thousands of workers emboldened by the dictator’s departure go on strike for better working conditions and higher wages.

On Feb. 9 dozens of state museum workers and staff held a lively protest in front of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), where Hawass has his office. Rallying for higher wages, Hawass came out of the building to argue with the workers, telling them that their wages could only be increased after things returned to “normal.” Hawass appears unable to grasp the significance of what has happened in Egypt; a return to normal is untenable for the Egyptian people.

On Feb. 14, the protests in front of the Supreme Council of Antiquities were aimed directly at Zahi Hawass himself. Chanting “Get out!” nearly 200 graduates of Egyptian archaeology schools called for his resignation, denouncing him for corruption and for being a stooge of the Mubarak regime.

What particularly angers the archaeologists is that they are impoverished despite the fact that Egypt’s tourism industry, centered around the legacy of ancient Egypt and the pharaohs, generates billions of dollars. They are undoubtedly correct in believing the old regime and its many cronies simply made off with that money, and they suspect Hawass has been part of that wrongdoing.

 "Get Out!" Nearly 200 demonstrators chant a message to Hawass in front of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Feb. 14, 2011. AP Photo/Ben Curtis.
"Get Out!" Nearly 200 demonstrators chant a message to Hawass in front of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Feb. 14, 2011. AP Photo/Ben Curtis.

Robert Mackey of the New York Times The Lede blog, interviewed archeologist Nora Shalaby, who helped organize the protest against Zahi Hawass.

Ms. Shalaby chided Hawass for referring to the revolution as “a black week” in Egypt’s history and for his close relationship with Mubarak’s wife, the “First Lady” Suzanne Mubarak, but Shalaby also lambasted Hawass for being “surrounded by a bunch of corrupt officials who have been sucking most of the SCA money.” At the protest, archaeologists complained about the salary the antiquities ministry pays them (an equivalent of $75 per month), and raised objections to “wasta”, or the arrangement of connections, pay-offs, and influence that secures a job.

When an army tank arrived at the front door of the SCA building, Hawass snuck out a side door to avoid the protesters. Though he managed to duck this militant demonstration, it certainly will not be the last of its kind. The protest against Hawass by archaeologists was not the first time he has came under fire for abusing workers in his field. In Oct. 2009 the pan-Arab human rights organization, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), condemned Hawass for waging a campaign of intimidation against fellow Egyptologist and researcher, Ahmed Saleh. Mr. Saleh, who holds a Master’s degree from Manchester University in England, expressed different views from Hawass on the way Egyptian antiquities should be handled, which led Hawass to publicly mock Saleh in the state-run press.

Subsequently the Supreme Council of Antiquities, under Hawass’ leadership, launched no less than 42 investigations against Saleh. ANHRI “decided to adopt Saleh’s case and support him in the face of this injustice.” At last word in ’09, the Egyptian court system was reviewing Saleh’s case against Hawass and the Supreme Council of Antiquities, but with the intervening revolution, the status of the case is unknown to this writer.

All of the aforementioned pales in comparison to the report published by the Guardian on Feb. 9, detailing how the army used the Egyptian Museum as a detention center for pro-democracy demonstrators it had seized during the uprising.

Within its grounds, a number of captives were tortured, and some detainees remain unaccounted for. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information has stated the army still holds “hundreds” of people arrested during the uprising, “but information on their numbers is still not complete.” The Guardian report raised serious questions about the army as a “neutral force” in Egyptian politics, but it also produced doubts about Mr. Hawass. As a Mubarak loyalist, the former Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, and now the Minister of Antiquities, he is the ultimate steward of the Egyptian Museum.

The Guardian reported “the Egyptian military has secretly detained hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected government opponents since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, and at least some of these detainees have been tortured.” The paper went on to report that “some of the detainees have been held inside the renowned Museum of Egyptian Antiquities on the edge of Tahrir Square. Those released have given graphic accounts of physical abuse by soldiers who accused them of acting for foreign powers.”

One account of abuse came from a 23-year-old man who was seized and beaten by the army while delivering medical supplies to the free clinics protesters operated in Tahrir Square. He said soldiers tied his hands behind his back and beat him before moving him to a makeshift army post located at the back of the Egyptian Museum. He said soldiers “got a bayonet and threatened to rape me with it. Then they waved it between my legs. They said I could die there or I could disappear into prison and no one would ever know.” After 18 hours of imprisonment the young man was released but warned not to return to Tahrir Square.

On Feb. 13, 2011, the army cleared the remaining demonstrators from Tahrir Square, resorting to force when protesters resisted. The Guardian reported that “demonstrators said about 30 were arrested and taken to a military compound at the nearby Egyptian museum where detained protesters have previously been beaten and interrogated.”

Reports of the army using the Egyptian Museum as a detention center have been confirmed by Amnesty International (AI). On Feb. 17, 2011, AI released a report detailing the torture inflicted upon protesters by the army just prior to the fall of Mubarak, abuses that included whippings, beatings, electric shock, simulated drowning, along with threats of rape. An 18-year-old student from Cairo told AI that he and a friend were arrested by the army and taken to an “area of the museum which is controlled by the army and held us there in an outdoor area.” The two were beaten by soldiers before being transferred to another location where they were tortured with electric shock. In another case a 29-year-old detainee was arrested by the army and taken to an annex next to the Egyptian Museum, where soldiers beat him with a whip and a chair until he was unconscious. One must ask, has Zahi Hawass been unaware of the army using the campus of the Egyptian Museum in this way?

In a Feb. 16 post to Hawass’ official website concerning the search for missing antiquities inadvertently dropped on the museum campus by looters, it was stated that a meticulous search had just been conducted, and that a “full and thorough search of the museum and its grounds” continues. In all of this rummaging around no one has noticed any evidence of a temporary military compound on museum property? The web post on Hawass’ blog rather ominously states that, “museum staff is not yet able to move freely within the museum, and has, until now, had to walk in groups of 10-15 people, accompanied by soldiers. Unfortunately, this has slowed down the search, and made it very difficult to carry out a final inventory. The army is allowing very few people into the museum, and the first time the museum’s office staff was allowed in was on 6 February 2011.”

Zahi Hawass might be one of the more innocuous members of the Mubarak cabal, but he is nevertheless part of the old regime. With Mubarak’s departure the components of that old order – the corrupt judiciary, state-controlled media, security forces, government ministers, crony capitalists, and above all the army – remain intact and in control; it is Mubarakism without Mubarak. An authentically democratic Egypt can only be achieved if there is massive and constant pressure from below applied to the upper echelons of power. That process, now fully underway, must eventually erode and completely dismantle Mubarakism for democratic governance to be successful. It is for that reason that Zahi Hawass must resign from his position as Mubarak’s Minister of Antiquities – sooner rather than later.

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