Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 April 2011
Issue No. 1044
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The king's new clothes

The minister of state for antiquities affairs, Zahi Hawass, is fending off more attacks, and they are getting personal, reports Nevine El-Aref

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There has been much speculation this week about the position of the head of the antiquities and archaeology department in the current caretaker government. The focus has shifted from break- ins at archaeology storerooms or museums and the return of any of the artefacts looted in the aftermath of Egypt's January revolution; this time the furore centres on the sector's central direction and particularly its leader, Zahi Hawass.

Hawass, the minister of state for antiquities affairs, claims that a ferocious campaign has been mounted against his authority. He says he now finds himself trapped up in two battles: one concerning an old court case that could have resulted in a prison term. Although he claims the prison threat has now been lifted, Hawass is embroiled in fresh outrage provoked by photographs of a model for the new Zahi Hawass clothing line supposedly posing in front of the Tutankhamun collection in the Egyptian Museum with the golden boy king's famous chair.

The two issues were highlighted early this week. On Sunday, the Criminal Court sentenced Hawass to one year's imprisonment, fined him LE1,000 and ordered that he be released from his ministerial duties for refusing to implement a ruling issued last year by an administrative court. The ruling was over a dispute between the former Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and a businessman concerning the rental of the Egyptian Museum bookstore.

"The whole case began in May 2010 when the SCA, now the Ministry of State for Antiquities Affairs [MSAA], opened a bidding process to rent out the new bookstore of the Egyptian Museum," Mohamed Ramadan, supervisor of the minister's office, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Ramadan said that an SCA committee had invited applicants, based on their professional CVs and working history with the SCA, to tender a small bid to choose the best organisation or person to rent and manage the bookstore. However Farid Attia, a small businessman who rented the former bookstore at the museum, was excluded from the bidding process.

Ramadan said Attia was excluded because of the unprofessional way he conducted the business. According to his history with the SCA, Ramadan claimed, Attia was "a trouble-maker". He claimed that Attia always paid the rent very late, to the extent that he would sometimes be penalised for the delay. Ramadan described how Attia was "always manoeuvring" to avoid paying the annual 10 per cent increase in rent stipulated in his three-year lease. "Naturally, the MSAA did not invite him in the bidding process," Ramadan added.

Attia refutes these arguments, and says he has documents and papers regarding every claim he has made. "If I were a trouble-maker, as Mr Ramadan claims, I wouldn't have won against the SCA all the court cases." he told the Weekly. Attia accused the former SCA of treating Egyptian law as its "private property". "They react as if they are a state within the state, and we are not allowed to ask for our rights."

Attia said although he had sometimes paid the rent few days late during the economic crisis of 2008/2009, and on one occasion was three weeks late, his documents proved that he paid interest on late payments.

Ramadan claimed that when Attia found himself excluded from the bidding process, he filed a lawsuit against the SCA before the Administrative Court in May 2010. On 15 June the same year the court issued its ruling that forced the SCA to open the offer to include Attia among the competitors. While the case was making its way through the court, an Egyptian public sector organisation, the Egypt Sound and Light Company, was chosen to rent and run the bookstore. Ramadan claims that SCA representatives did not have time to present evidence that the bidding was closed. The court therefore ruled that the bidding should stop.

However, Ramadan continued, the ruling came too late. The SCA did not implement the court ruling, which led Attia to file a criminal lawsuit against the SCA. In November 2010 the Criminal Court cleared Hawass, and the SCA and the Sound and Light Company went through with the new tenancy.

Attia told the Weekly that he had paid a full month's rent for December 2010, the month the book shop closed, and he was still waiting for the SCA to return half as agreed. Meanwhile, he filed another lawsuit in another criminal court, which on Sunday announced its ruling against Hawass with a sentence of one year in prison, a penalty fine of LE1,000, and a ruling that Hawass was to be released from his governmental duties.

"It was really a totally unexpected ruling and an unclear decision," Ramadan told the Weekly. "We are in the right and I don't know why such a decision was taken by the court."

Hawass said that the sentence was not against him personally, but against his former position as the secretary-general of the SCA. He said the MSAA's legal department would appeal against the ruling, and also clarified that the lawsuit concerned the rental of the bookstore and not a land dispute, as had been suggested in the media.

"On the following day, the National Council of Egypt's Administrative Court issued a decree accepting a proposal to halt the recent court ruling against me in my former role as secretary- general of the SCA," Hawass said. This decree specified that Hawass would not serve a prison term, and stated that he would remain in his position until the Court of Appeals announced its ruling.

Attia denies Hawass's claim that the court's ruling has been rescinded, and in any case he plans to fight on. "I want to assure everyone that I am not going to give my rights away, and that I shall continue the legal battle against Zahi Hawass," he told the Weekly on Tuesday. "This is not a fair game. The goal is to take the shop as cheaply as possible, and this is exactly what they did."

Late on Monday, Hawass was forced to defend himself against another allegation. This time he was accused by members of the media and by bloggers of abusing his current position as minister of state for antiquities affairs and using the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square and its ancient collection to promote an American clothing line marketed under his name.

Several newspapers and magazines claimed the model of the clothing line used Tutankhamun's chair and bench, which are on display at the museum, in the photo shoot. The idea of using delicate ancient artefacts to promote a clothing line has blown up a storm in the professional archaeology community.

Hawass says all the accusations are unfounded and are based on false information. The photographs used in the promotion campaign were taken on 7 October 2010 at the Tutankhamun exhibition in New York, and not at the Egyptian Museum as claimed. Hawass says moreover that none of the objects from the authentic collection was used, but only replicas, while the genuine pieces appeared only in the background.

James Weber, the American photographer who took the photographs, told Danny Ramadan on the "Art in Revolution" blog that no authentic objects were touched in the process and that the chair and the bench were replicas. "We never would have sat a model down on a 3,000-year- old artefact," Weber told the blog. He added that all the artefacts, including the chairs in question, were protected under glass.

Weber added that there was also some Photoshop involvement in some of the images. One photograph shows the model's foot on what looks like a wall decorated with hieroglyph, but this was mixed later. According to Weber, Hawass was not present at the shoot in New York.

Weber said his staff abided by the security precaution of the exhibition, and that if he had broken the rules or had the protective glass been jarred or moved in any way it would have triggered the alarm system.

Hawass said Tutankhamun's chair was a unique object and in any case was prohibited from being taken abroad.

When he announced his new clothing line a few days ago, Hawass said it represented "his adventure in archaeology".

He told the Weekly that he was saddened by the rumours. He said he was approached by Lora Flaugh, CEO of Art Zulu, a New York clothing company, about starting a clothing line. "I felt honoured by this suggestion, because I don't think a company would invest the time and money to do this unless they thought it would be a success," he said.

Hawass accepted Flaugh's business proposal on condition that the profits would be donated to the Children's Cancer Hospital in Cairo. He also told Flaugh about the replica of his hat that he sells to benefit the Cairo Children's Museum.

Hawass said Sherif Abul-Naga, director of the hospital, had asked him to help support the hospital. He had notified Abul-Naga about the venture and was happy he could finally do something to help raise funds.

"I am glad that the sales from these business ventures are going to benefit the children of Egypt," he said. "Unfortunately, stories and rumours have been going around about this project, and it makes me sad that people are willing to believe them. I hope the critics of the clothing line will understand that the intention is for the good of the children," Hawass said.

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