CAIRO: Egypt’s antiquities chief Zahi Hawass defended himself on Wednesday from a wave of criticism over looting at the Egyptian Museum during the revolution last month and accusations of corruption in his ministry.
Hawass initially played down reports of theft from the museum, home to priceless treasures from Pharaonic Egypt, after security forces clashed on Jan. 28 with millions of Egyptians who eventually succeeded in ousting president Hosni Mubarak.
Promoted to the level of minister of state during Mubarak’s reshuffle after the uprising had gathered pace, Hawass told Reuters on Feb. 9 that no artifacts had been stolen.
But this week Hawass, head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), admitted eight valuable pieces from the era of Pharaohs Tutankhamun and Akhenaten were stolen, raising questions about why he had said otherwise. Experts have suggested the thieves knew exactly what they were looking for.
"When I came to the museum I found everyone outside wanting to protect it. I said to myself the Egyptian Museum is fine, the masterpieces are still there. It was later that we realized eight pieces were stolen," Hawass told reporters on the building’s steps in central Cairo.
"I found out during this revolution that pro- and anti- government people agreed on one thing — to protect the museum. The museum could have faced a disaster," he said, adding the museum and other tourist sites could reopen on Saturday. "We hope the tourists will come back to Egypt."
Tourist receipts are one of Egypt’s key revenue earners and Hawass, who often appears to style himself as an Indiana Jones figure in his hat and safari fatigues, has become central to the sales pitch for many around the world.
Declining to put a value on the items taken, Hawass described a complex operation involving scaling walls, breaking the ceiling glass and sliding down to the floor with ropes.
"These thieves were not professionals. If you actually saw who stole the antiquities — they are faceless, they have no heart, [they are] stupid," he said.
Three items have been recovered, but those still missing include parts of a statue of King Tutankhamun and a statue of the Pharaoh Akhenaten’s wife Nefertiti.
"They have to investigate more and know who is behind this. It has to be somebody from the inside. I haven’t heard of investigations. Who are these people? Why are they not coming before the Egyptian people?" he added.
Dozens of archaeologists, graduate hires and temporary employees have staged loud protests outside Hawass’ office this week over low wages, working conditions and the leadership style of Hawass, who is a familiar face on American television.
Demonstrators said wages of less than LE 500 ($85) a month, were unjustifiable given the lucrative tours of Egyptian treasures Hawass has promoted around world capitals.
Hawass vowed to hire more people if he could.
"I will give anyone who comes to me his rights because I am always with the downtrodden. If I’m still in my job in July, then all temporary employees will be hired," he said, before inviting media to view the famed golden mask of Tutankhamun.