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Zahi Hawass is the New Minister for Antiquities
After Dr Hawass’ resignation at the beginning of March there was a ballot to elect a new minister. Prof. Alaa Shaheen, the Dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University appears to have won this ballot of antiquities’ workers, however, for some unspecified reason there seems to have been some objection to this vote, and the interim Egyptian Government failed to appoint Prof. Shaheen to the post of Minister of Antiquities.

Due to these shortcomings of the interim government, on the 22nd March Egyptian archaeologists threatened to organise a strike and sit-in on the following Sunday if a Minister of Antiquities was not immediately appointed to take charge of archaeology-related affairs. The threat came in light of the repeated thefts and lootings of Egyptian artefacts and relics. The archaeologists sent a letter to Prime Minister Essam Sharaf in which they demanded the appointment of either a minister or a head of an independent body affiliated to the Council of Ministers. In the letter, Dr Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, the Director of the Central Administration for Antiquities in Alexandria and Lower Egypt warned of the seriousness of the situation, saying that it “has resulted in the total paralysis in the decision-making process needed for the continuance of archaeological work.” Abdel Maksoud went on to say that the current lack of any responsible official has hindered the work of the permanent committees of Egyptian antiquities, explained that the monthly meeting of the permanent committees for ancient Egyptian and Islamic monuments are at a halt. These committees usually make all the required procedures to stop encroachment on archaeological sites as well as approving the new excavation requests submitted by Egyptian and foreign expeditions. The administration board is on hiatus as well as the committee of exhibitions abroad. Now, explained Abdel Maksoud, the antiquities department cannot issue any ministerial decision for the return of any archaeological exhibition abroad or its transportation to another country. There isn’t even an official escort.

On 30th March the Prime Minister Essam Sharaf re-appointed Dr Zahi Hawass as the Minister of Antiquities. ECHO would like to offer their congratulations and support to Dr Zahi Hawass on his appointment. Five days after his meeting with the Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf he was officially reappointed to the post of Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities. In a 30-minute meeting held between Hawass and Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces as well as officially swearing Hawass in to office the two discussed security measures necessary to safeguard Egypt’s antiquities and efforts to be exerted to restore Egypt’s looted artefacts in collaboration with the world community and UNESCO.

Although miracles are unlikely to happen over night, it is hoped that Hawass’ appointment will usher in a new era for the antiquities department, one that sees a restructuring and modernising of the whole department. This is a golden opportunity to make the department run more efficiently, right the wrongs of the old department, and ensure that the appointments to the new ministry are made on merit with due transparency of process in this era of greater social, political and economic freedom. However, disturbing reports are still surfacing that groups of Egyptologists meeting to discuss hoped for reforms in the new MoA have received calls from superiors to stop these meetings. Dr Hawass has asked the Egyptian legal authorities to look into accusations of any wrong doing that he and the department have been accused of.

The new ministry could encourage missions to run archaeological training courses, particularly advanced training courses in bioarchaeology, geophysical surveying, and archaeological analysis and writing, the latter being particularly valuable in the publication of site reports. More immediate concerns for Dr Hawass are the stemming of the looting of archaeological sites and magazines by increasing site security. "The antiquities guards and security forces at sites are unarmed and this makes them easy targets for armed looters," declared Hawass, who added, "the Egyptian police force does not have the capacity to protect every single site, monument and museum in Egypt". Indeed, hundreds of archaeological sites all over Egypt remain inadequately protected. Objects have frequently turned up at international auction houses which have been withdrawn from sale, confiscated, and steps taken to return them to Egypt. As ECHO has been reporting over the last decade, this is not a new phenomenon, but has increased since the January 25th revolution.

The emphasis should not be on catching looters after the fact, but on preventing theft in the first place. To this end it is imperative that new security systems are introduced across Egypt, these could include CCTV, panic buttons linked to police stations, and greater implementation of community archaeology. One of the most important measures in the protection of Egypt’s cultural heritage is the creation of Sites and Monuments Records, a complete register of all Egypt’s cultural property. Hawass said the ministry will immediately start an ambitious program to renovate Egyptian antiquities, and has pledged to protect Egypt's antiquities against looting. He urged the Egyptian people to assist him in this mission. Hawass is also planning on making a list that will include descriptions and photographs of all of the objects missing from the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, the objects taken from the storage magazines at Giza, Saqqara, Tell el Fara’in, and Qantara East, and the blocks taken from tombs in Giza, Saqqara, Abusir, Ismailia and other sites such as Abydos. Hawass hopes this list will be helpful in identifying and locating the objects if they have been taken out of Egypt. Another of Dr Hawass’ immediate concerns is to repel the 500 plus encroachments on archaeological sites that have been found within the past few weeks, as well as the resumption of projects that were put on hold due to the revolution. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf will open several important archaeological projects soon in both the capital and other governorates.