When former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi became the second president to be ousted in three years in July, many felt history was repeating itself. For Zahi Hawass, a flamboyant antiquities minister under former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, that feeling was particularly acute — though he was thinking of a much older precedent.
For him, the move by the army chief General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi evoked memories not just of his old boss’s ignominious exit, but the rise to power of the pharaoh Mentuhotep II, who took charge of Egypt about 4,150 years ago.
“In my opinion, Sisi is really Mentuhotep II,” Hawass said. “You need to understand what happened 4,000 years ago to understand what is happening now.”
In Hawass’ view, the upheaval Egypt has experienced since 2011 mirrors the century of chaos that preceded Mentuhotep’s accession to the Egyptian throne in 2046 BC. Mentuhotep restored order to Egypt — much as Hawass argues al-Sisi is about to do today.
“We need an elected officer — a strong man — to control the country. And in my opinion, Sisi is our only hope,” he said.
Hawass is particularly hopeful about al-Sisi’s rise, perhaps because it has come hand-in-hand with the rehabilitation of many of those who — like Hawass — were once tainted by their association with Mubarak.
Under the former president, Hawass became something of an international celebrity, starring in his own reality series and putting his name to a line of khaki trousers, but when Mubarak fell, Hawass hung on to his position for a few months, before leaving under a cloud of unproved corruption allegations — an obvious target for public anger.
Now Hawass is back on Egypt’s payroll, as an ambassador for the country’s tourism ministry. Almost unthinkable a year ago, he is even angling for a return to his old job as antiquities minister — once a permanent government is installed — and claims to have widespread backing from ministry officials.
“I can’t come back under a temporary government,” Hawass said. “But I would like to come back to finish this. Twenty-thousand people signed a petition asking me to come back. Young people come to me now crying, because they cannot excavate like in the past.”
Whether people really do come to him in tears is a moot point — while in office, his critics resented what they saw as his favoritism, and say he took too much credit for others finds. However, Egypt’s archeological lands have certainly come under extreme threat since Hawass’ time.
After police downed tools amid the breakdown of law and order that followed Mubarak’s exit, looters and rogue builders moved in on several antiquities sites across Egypt, causing substantial damage.
In one well-documented land-grab, locals seized several acres next to the Dahshur pyramids, just south of Cairo, and built an illegal cemetery — a problem mirrored in several places across the country.
“What is happening to antiquities now is a crime. There are illegal excavations everywhere all over Egypt,” said Hawass, who estimates more than 30 percent of Egypt’s ancient sites may have been damaged, an unverifiable figure nevertheless echoed by others in the field.
“People can do anything,” Hawass added.
There are plenty of archeologists sounding the alarm and proposing solutions — but for Hawass, there is naturally only one man to lead the fightback.