Protests Drive Out Egypt's Antiquities Chief

AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

Just 2 months after Zahi Hawass was removed as chief of Egypt's antiquities, his successor has submitted his resignation. Mohammad Abdel Fatah, a former Cairo University professor, told ScienceInsider today that he wants to leave his job because of "instability" in the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), which oversees the country's myriad ancient monuments as well as all archaeological work. "We are in such a difficult situation," he added.

That situation, other Egyptian and foreign archaeologists say, includes strikes and demonstrations by SCA employees who want higher pay and an improved working environment. The upheavals in recent days led Fatah to call in military police to clear demonstrators who were trying to force their way into SCA headquarters in downtown Cairo, according to some reports. Fatah told Egypt's official MENA news agency that he felt "powerless and overwhelmed," adding that his organization is "paralyzed."

His decision comes as the Egyptian government announced that tourist visits have dropped by more than one-third in this year's second quarter compared with last year. The country's ancient sites account for a substantial slice of that tourism, which is a vital sector of the economy.

It's not clear whether Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's cabinet will accept Fatah's resignation. One Egyptian source said that the two men were expected to meet soon, although Fatah declined to discuss the status of his proffered resignation.

Fatah succeeded Hawass, a charismatic and controversial figure who resigned in March. Hawass soon returned to his job, however, only to be sacked during a cabinet reshuffle in July. Fatah, a restoration specialist, was an outspoken critic of Hawass, but many SCA employees opposed his appointment because he is not a trained archaeologist.

"Being head of the SCA is an enormously difficult and challenging job," says Peter Lacovara, an Egyptologist at Emory University in Atlanta. "People clearly did not appreciate how adept Zahi Hawass was, and how much he accomplished under the most difficult of circumstances."

Would Hawass, now retired but living in Cairo, be interested in making another comeback? He says no. "I even changed my phone number so I do not have to hear anything about the SCA," Hawass said in a 23 September e-mail.