Peter Der Manuelian, Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology at Harvard, is a brilliant archaeologist as well as a very nice fellow (I met him recently at a lecture I was giving for University of Chicago alumni at his stomping grounds). But the scholarly rigor that characterizes his academic research is sadly lacking in the opinion piece he published recently in Newsweek, Protecting Egypt's Heritage Post-Revolution - Newsweek. Here's how Der Manuelian describes what has happened this year:
In the space of a few short weeks, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) broke away from the Ministry of Culture to become its own ministry; then Mubarak was toppled, the police disappeared, and some sites, including the famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo, were looted. Hawass stepped down to protest the looting; the SCA temporarily lost its independent ministry status; and the new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, could not choose a successor to fill the power vacuum. This created an unfortunate window of opportunity at some sites for armed criminals to overpower the unarmed guards and break into antiquities-storage magazines.
This timeline is both inaccurate and incomplete. The Museum was looted before Mubarak was toppled, not after, and looting of sites and storerooms also began before Mubarak stepped down -- began because the police disappeared, almost certainly on orders from Mubarak. Hawass did step down to protest the looting, but before the museum was attacked he seems to have done little or nothing to secure it, despite the pitched battle that took place in front of it just days before the break-in, and in the weeks following he repeatedly gave out information that was misleading in ways designed to downplay what had gone wrong at the museum as well as what was going wrong on sites and at storehouses. Speaking of the antiquites-storage magazines, Der Manuelian has the timeline wrong here as well. The window of opportunity Der Manuelian talks about did not open because Hawass' resignation created a power vacuum: storage magazines were being attacked before Hawass resigned as well as afterward.
Why this slipshod approach to the facts? The answer is clear from the fulsome praise Der Manuelian heaps upon Hawass' performance at the helm of the SCA and from his contention that "few others could fill the post at this delicate time." I am not sure that I agree on that point, though I share Der Manuelian's view that Hawass has done great good work over the years for Egypt's cultural heritage and for archaeology in general (including, by the way, co-editing a volume in 2010 with Der Manuelian), and it is easy to see why foreign archaeologists might be not just wary of criticizing someone so powerful but truly and honestly in favor of keeping him in charge because he makes it easier to undertake digs there.
But all the good Hawass has done cannot be a reason for sweeping under the rug the facts about his performance during the crisis. He must be held responsible for not having thought carefully enough or developed contingency plans in advance to deal with the eventuality of a breakdown in the normal policing functions of the state. The lessons of Iraq, where the toppling of the state left a security vacuum in which the museum and then Iraq's sites were massively plundered, were clear, but ignored. After the clashes began in Tahrir Square, he should have ordered the Cairo Museum completely locked down, and some of the 30,000-plus employees under Hawass' authority should have been dragooned, or at least asked to volunteer, to stand guard together at the museum, at sites and at storehouses, as was done with workers at the Baghdad Museum just before the 2003 invasion.
One might add that foreign archaeologists and museums engaged in excavations in Egypt also should have been thinking before the fact about the need to secure sites and storehouses in the event of political unrest that was as predictable in general terms as an earthquake; Hawass' failure to have done so is of a piece with general disinterest on the part of both archaeologists and collecting institutions in the unsexy, unintellectual, and sometimes brutal task of securing sites, museums, and storehouses against looters.