Feature Articles – The Last Pharaoh & His Vizier
With the removal of President Mubarak, Egypt has entered a new era. It is clear that this was a very profound event for Mankind – the entire world was spellbound by it – even with a new freedom will exist for Egyptology, when Zahi Hawass, surrounded by allegations of extra-ordinary nepotism and corruption, eventually had to resign too.
by Philip Coppens
On February 10, 2011, the eyes of the world were on President Mubarak. Earlier that day, US President Obama had been briefed by the CIA that Mubarak was going to announce he would step down as Egyptian president with immediate effect. Instead, Mubarak appeared on Egyptian television and defied the wishes of his people, who for seventeen days had been shouting he should “get out”.
On July 22, 2009, American-Egyptian journalist Aladdin Elaasar had published “The Last Pharaoh: Mubarak and the Uncertain Future of Egypt in the Obama Age” in which he predicted precisely the scenario that began on January 25, 2011. Mubarak had become president on October 14, 1981, following the assassination of President Anwar El Sadat. With elections scheduled in September 2011, it was assumed – before the protests – that the octogenarian would pass the torch to his son Gamal, so that he could continue the Mubarak Dynasty. When during the riots Mubarak said he would not run for re-election, the people knew this had a zero guarantee that his son would not do so either – and rig the election to that outcome. Indeed, the only thing that the protesters knew, was that only if Mubarak was gone, would they be guaranteed he had gone.
For the past thirty years, Mubarak had shown that Egypt was ruled by a Pharaoh, in the worst sense of that word: someone who felt he was appointed by divine right, and not responsible to anyone. Who ruled as a dictator. Who had amassed a family fortune of roughly seventy billion dollars. And who was now passing the torch down to his son, who would continue the dynasty for maybe several more decades.
According to Elaasar, Mubarak actually believed that he was the reincarnation of Ramses II. One of the most famous pharaohs of all, Ramses may have ruled for a total of 66 years, and is said to have lived to be 99 years old. Mubarak was halfway, but still had the third-longest reign since Ramses II. In August 2006, he spent millions restoring and relocating a colossal statue of Ramses II from Cairo’s Ramses’ Square to the Egyptian Museum. Many observers saw the move as a hint of his personal interest in this ancient Egyptian ruler.
On February 11, 2011, the man that had defied the nation’s wishes and said he would not step down until the September elections, fled Cairo and had his vice-president declare that the military was now in charge of the transition. An era had ended, and the Mubarak Dynasty that had reigned and especially exploited Egypt for three decades were ousted from power. Alaadin Elaasar had predicted precisely what would happen in Egypt: he warned that change in Egypt’s regime would have profound effects on the region and on US interests in the Middle East. Bush’s claim “to bring democracy to the Middle East” might indeed have come true, but not by any US part played in it, but by true democratic tools like mass protests. Once Mubarak had fallen, street protests occurred in Iran, Libya and several other Arab countries. On paper, of course, Egypt was a democracy. Mubarak had been re-elected on four occasions: in 1987, 1993, 1999 and 2005. However, in the first three referendums, no-one could run against the president. In 2005, there were multiple candidates, but the result was also considered to be rigged, according to civil rights organizations that monitored the election. The day after the election, Ayman Nour, the presidential candidate for the El-Ghad Party, demanded a repeat of the election. Nour was arrested – on charges of forgery – and sentenced to five years of hard labour.
Mubarak did not create this situation as such, but he definitely made it worse. The trouble with Egypt started way back in 1967, when Emergency Laws were declared. It remained under Emergency Rule since then, except for an 18-month break, which was ended with the assassination of Sadat. The Emergency Laws were a legal ploy that allowed Mubarak to extend police powers, suspend constitutional law and legalise censorship – all of which he practiced to maintain his position of absolute power: street protests were forbidden, political parties had to be “approved”. In the end, Egypt had as many as 30,000 political prisoners, all of whom were imprisoned for any period of time and without the right to trial. No wonder therefore that Mubarak was ranked 20th on Parade Magazine’s 2009 World’s Worst Dictators list, while Egypt was 111th out of 177 countries on the Human Development Index and 133rd out of 168 countries when it comes to freedom of the press. Under Mubarak, Egypt’s people knew 37 percent unemployment, at least forty percent living under the poverty line in an economy that largely relied on tourism. At a time when excavations at the foot of the Great Pyramid were uncovering the homes of those who built those monuments thousands of years ago, and archaeologists were highlighting how well-cared for these workers were, those uncovering these homes in the early 21st century, were just one step above slavery. Egypt really is a large open air museum and hence archaeology and visiting archaeological sites is a key position of power. For years, Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s leading Egyptologist, has ruled supremely and was even considered by Time Magazine to be one of the world’s 100 most influential people. In Egypt, he is often considered to be the second most influential person after Mubarak. In Egypt, archaeology is politics.
In the turmoil of the protests, Mubarak first reformed his government, which had repercussions on Egypt’s Antiquities. First, he removed Farouk Hosni from his post as Minister of Culture. Hosni was one of the most hated politicians in Egypt, who could go nowhere without several bodyguards. On February 22, Hosni was forbidden to travel, pending a serious investigation into potential criminal activity. Zahi Hawass, as leader of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), who had reported into Hosni, was given the new position of Minister of Antiquities.
As is evident when he appears on television shows like “Chasing Mummies”, Hawass is anything but democratic and firmly a child of Mubarak’s dictatorial regime. Even after Mubarak had resigned, Hawass repeatedly said Mubarak was “a good man”. When the people of Egypt rebelled, he announced that “My heart is broken and my blood is boiling. I feel that everything I have done in the last nine years has been destroyed in one day.”
Hawass also said how he believed that “the Sphinx is keeping watch; he has witnessed the bad days and the good days of Egyptian history. He is not only the guardian of Egypt, but of the whole world.” During the crisis, Hawass had gone to Gizeh and “felt in my heart that he was sad. I looked carefully into his eyes, and imagined that I saw tears. The Sphinx is sad because of what has happened; Egypt will lose billions and billions of dollars, and for Egypt to recuperate this money it will take at least three years. Today in Tahrir Square there are about 3,000 young people, and I hope they will go home today, so that life in Egypt can go back to normal.” For years, Hawass screamed that Egyptian artefacts in various European and American museums – chiefly the Rosetta Stone in London and Nefertiti’s bust in Berlin – should be returned to Egypt. In late January 2011, no-one seemed to have pointed out that it was now proven that Egypt is not necessarily the safest place to safeguard its own antiquities, however. Before going into any detail, one of the big problems of Egypt’s Museum of Antiquities is its geographic position: it sits next to the political headquarters of Mubarak’s party and for several days, it was feared that if protesters were to raid that building and put it on fire, there might be serious damage to the museum next door.
On the evening of Friday January 28, the Egyptian Museum was not well-guarded, while about a thousand people began to jump over the wall on the eastern side of the museum, into the courtyard. Ten men somehow got into the building, with the goal not to loot the museum, but the Museum gift shop, which had beautiful jewelry on sale and which the burglars took. It seems that from there, the burglars ran through the museum, smashing some glass of some display cases, and breaking seventy objects – most visibly a statue of King Tutankhamen standing on a panther – which they might have thought was made from gold. Television reports that went around the world reported some objects were stolen and apparently two royal mummies had been decapitated, but they turned out to be two skulls that were being used to test the CT scanner. Less covered by the media was a break-in at a storage facility at Qantara, in the Sinai, where hundreds of objects in six boxes were stolen, 393 objects of which were quickly recovered within a few weeks.
Everywhere, Hawass denied objects had been stolen from the Museum, adding “I am a man of honor, and I would never hide anything from you.” But immediately after Mubarak’s removal, Hawass announced (or confessed?) that 17 important objects had been stolen from the Egyptian Museum after all! These included some statues from the Tutankhamun collection, as well as from the Amarna period, and objects connected to Yuya – collections which were initially reported as having suffered damage, but which was then denied by Hawass, only to announce they were stolen.
The same scenario occurred in Saqqara, where Hawass admitted that several locks on tombs had been broken, but nothing had been stolen. “Archaeology” magazine reported nevertheless that “several archaeologists with contacts at Saqqara, who requested anonymity, [stated] that storage facilities were robbed, something the Supreme Council of Antiquities has denied.” There was a 36 hour gap before the army took control over the site and closed it down for the public. Fact of the matter is that Egyptian archaeology was – and remains – a dictatorship under Hawass. In Robert Temple’s “Egyptian Dawn”, he relates the story how Temple had been given permission to study certain archaeological sites. He learned that Hawass was not pleased with this, and the final permit was drastically changed, echoing Hawass’ wishes. Interestingly, however, the original permit had come from Egypt’s archaeological circles, while the changed permit had come through the police and security services, almost suggesting Hawass has more sway in the political arena than in the scientific circles.
After Mubarak stepped down, protests continued, including two demonstrations at the office Hawass by 200 unemployed archaeologists. During the first protest, a television crew of Sky News was with Hawass when his assistant came in to tell him that they were trying to climb in. The reporter stated how “Hawass phoned the army to ask for protection and then the Interior Ministry. He told the army commander the mob had been organised by the Muslim Brotherhood.” In truth, they were complaining about nepotism and corruption inside the SCA. Wafaa El Saddik, the former head of the Egyptian Museum, proclaimed that “everybody knows that there is corruption at SCA.”
But the big bombshell came on February 17, on the Egyptian AlWAFD TV. The headline was that Hawass was implicated – with Suzanne Mubarak and Farouq Hosni – of illegally selling antiquities. Some commentators argued that this was nothing new and that similar allegations had been made before. But this report was unlike any allegation before. It comes from the Director of the Archaeological Sites in Egypt within the Ministry of Culture, Dr Noureddine Abdel Samad. He has amassed 1600 documents which date back to 2004 and document that 38 golden artefacts disappeared from the Egyptian Museum, while several hundred pieces disappeared from warehouses elsewhere in Egypt. Their total value is more than 1.5 billion dollars. Abdel Samad states they were stolen with the full knowledge and agreement of both Hawass and Hosni.
When the complaint was lodged, Hawass made the reports disappear and fired the policemen in charge of the dossier. For seven years, the file remains “open”, but with no police officer investigating it. Abdel Samad also alleged that Suzanne Mubarak and Hawass received millions of dollars to give false results about DNA expertises on certain royal mummies, as well as the dating of the pyramids. The doctor in charge of the study of the royal mummies at Kasr el Aini apparently resigned in disgust when he discovered this plot. Dr. Abdal Samad handed the papers over to the relevant authorities, in the hope that with Mubarak ousted, the police will take action.
Abdal Samad is not alone. Hawass has been under fire from several organisations, including the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), who in 2009 alleged that Hawass pushed aside Ahmed Saleh for stating views that differed from the SCA Secretary-General’s, which led to dozens of investigations. Saleh had proposed a new approach on how to deal with “some Egyptian antiquities, especially the mummy of King Tut.”
How did Hawass react? He denied it all. “Of course, as even these people themselves know, none of these accusations has any basis in reality. […] 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.”
On February 21, Hawass met with a group of young archaeologists, telling them that new appointments would be made from March 2011 onwards. The first phase of this plan would provide jobs for 900 archaeologists and restorers, with 1000 more jobs in the next two phases.
The key question thus became whether Hawass will continue his dictatorial regime. “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,” said Alex Joffe, a US archaeologist.
In the end, that turned out to be impossible. On March 3, Essam Sharaf was appointed as Egypt’s new Prime Minister and it was clear that this man would not indulge Hawass as a Minister; hours later, Hawass “resigned”. Hawass always relied on a strong American backing, but it was clear that Hawass had lied maybe once too often or that in the new Egypt, that simply is not all that important, or maybe “too Mubarak”. One positive note of Mubarak’s regime was the rebuilding of the Alexandrian Library, which opened in 2002. It was this Library that had once contained the knowledge of Ancient Egypt, before it was brutally destroyed in a series of raids. At its founding, Alexandria was a social project, in which the Greek rulers asked Greeks, Egyptians and Jews to live together. Peace reigned for some centuries, but then Alexandria became like any other city, showing signs of religious intolerance if not hatred, and the destruction of the Library was the icon of the New Age of Religious Intolerance, which continues to this day. But the hope for a new world was that young men were holding arms in front of the Library, to make sure that it would not get damaged – intentionally or accidentally.
The story of 2012 is all about “change” and it is my outspoken belief that 2012 is about the world having become a global village and the fact that everyone, but especially politicians, need to catch up to this new reality. What happened in Egypt and is spreading in the Middle East, is a child of this New Age. On June 6, 2010, a young Egyptian computer programmer Kahled Saeed was arrested in Alexandria, beaten by the police to death. He was – alas – one of many, but his case was the proverbial drop. His story was taken up on the Internet, the cause of ad hoc protests, which eventually culminated in the protests of January 25.
But the big lesson of Egypt is that the people do have power. On February 11, twenty million people were protesting in Egypt. It was simply impossible for Mubarak to ignore the fact that a quarter of the country was actively on the streets, telling him to “get out”. After Mubarak’s demise, the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said”, which had played an important role in the initial uprising, wrote “Thanks to all those who died for us to live in freedom. […] We are all Egyptians. You are all Egyptians. We are all Khaled Said.”
And so another piece of history has been written in Egypt. Is it a coincidence that it happened on 2/11, 2011? Both 11:11 and the number 22 are seen as highly important numbers, seen as gateways into new worlds. The last great change in Egypt happened in 1952, when the Egyptians rebelled and caused the collapse of the monarchy. It was in 1952 that in both France and the United States, two groups of private citizens began to channel what was known as “The Nine”. The Nine were the Nine Principles, aspects of the Egyptian Creator God Atum. In Ancient Egypt, the Pharaonic rule was said to be harmonious – in accordance with the gods – if the Pharaoh liaised properly with these nine aspects of Atum. If the Pharaoh failed to do so, it was the people’s right to oust him from power. That is what happened in February 2011, when a Pharaoh and his vizier fell. This article appeared in Atlantis Rising, Issue 87 (May – June 2011).