Monday, July 18, 2011

MOU with Greece and Zahi Hawass kicked like a bad habit

This week is mad money for events concerning the illicit antiquities trade. First, there was that major bust in the U.S. (go team). Now, Hillary Clinton has signed an MOU with Greece (yay!) and everyone is in a tizzy after Zahi Hawass was fired as Egyptian antiquities minister (ack).

First, the good news: this week, Hillary Clinton signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Greece to reduce incentive for pillaging Greece's archaeological heritage and the sale of its artifacts in the U.S. Essentially, this means that the Department of Homeland Security will publish a list in the Federal Register of the types of archaeological materials that require documentation to be brought into the country. Every country has the option to request import restrictions in the U.S.; their requests are reviewed by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, who generally accept requests from countries who promote the development and sustainment of safeguarding cultural heritage. Once the bi-lateral agreement has been set up, it lasts only five or so years, after which the request must be renewed. Which is, frankly, really dumb, because five years is an incredibly short amount of time. Regardless, this MOU with Greece is fantastic news!

Second, Zahi Hawass was fired by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf in a massive cabinet shuffle that flushed the Egyptian ministry of its last ties to Mubarak. As of this writing, there has been no statement on Hawass's firing on his personal website. For those of you baby scholars who are just getting into this stuff, Zahi Hawass has garnered a lot of mixed reactions in his time as minister of antiquities. He is best known for his brash nitpicking over Egyptian antiquities in other countries and his repeated calls for the return of Egypt's best known artifacts from European countries, particularly the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin. His media blitzing and brashness has both raised awareness of the illicit antiquities trade and hugely annoyed the academic community. Most articles you'll see on him this week will begrudgingly admit that he has done wonders for the tourist trade in Egypt, but go on to point out that many see him as a media-driven character that has less interest in preserving and maintaining Egypt's archaeological sites than in branding himself. After the riots during the revolution that led to the break-in to the Egyptian museum and the severe increase in looting at many of Egypt's major historical sites, Hawass received a lot of criticism for his poor handling of the disaster. His firing has been a long time coming.

Personally, just talking about Hawass makes me tired because the dude is so obnoxious and so hard to suss out. In my undergraduate opinion, the success of this decision could swing either way. Ultimately, I think what Egypt needs right now is an antiquities minister who is unarguably focused on Egypt, who will be a strong, economically aware leader, and who will not embarrass the country by throwing little media fits to get attention and attract tourists. Hawass's bold, nontraditional ways may have been effective in peacetime, but it is obvious that the man cannot operate in a war zone. Egypt needs a leader that is very aware of the strengths and weaknesses of its archaeological sites and institutions, and who will make their care in an unstable political environment a priority over his or her own international reputation. Whether or not this kind of person will be able to step up to the job is the big question right now.

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