15 February 2011

Egypt: Young Archaeologists Protest Hawass [UPDATED]

Ben Curtis - Associated Press
The January 25 movement is having all kinds of ripples, including inside Egypt's archaeology establishment. Yesterday 150 archaeologists, many young graduates, protested at the Supreme Council of Antiquities, demanding that Zahi Hawass resign. (Hawass was elevated to Minister of Heritage about 10 days ago, during the height of the protests.) Christopher Torchia of the Associated Press reports:
The archaeologists' protest was also deeply personal, with protesters saying Hawass was a "showman" and publicity hound with little regard for thousands of archaeology students who have been unable to find work in their field.
"He doesn't care about us," said 22-year-old Gamal el-Hanafy, who graduated from Cairo University in 2009 and carried his school certificates in a folder. "He just cares about propaganda."
The graduates said the antiquities ministry had offered them three-month contracts at 450 Egyptian pounds ($75) a month, hardly enough to survive. They noted that Egypt's tourism industry is a major foreign currency earner, and yet it was unclear how exactly the government was spending the income.
A foreign tourist spends up to 160 Egyptian pounds ($27) to visit the pyramids of Giza and descend into a tomb there, said 25-year-old Said Hamid. Multiply that, he said, by the thousands who used to visit daily until upheaval drove away foreign visitors and plunged the lucrative industry into crisis. "Where is the money?" said Hamid, a 2007 graduate who works in a travel agency but specialized in restoration of artifacts as a student.
Unlike lawyers or doctors, who have private options, archaeologists in Egypt mostly rely on the government for jobs. Protesters also complained that less-qualified people secured posts in the antiquities office through "wasta," which translates roughly as connections or influence.
$75 a month! That's an insult even in Egypt. The kids are right to be  galled, given the ticket revenues the country receives from its archaeology. In many monument-rich countries the money sucked out of tourists at heritage sites disappears into the government somewhere, with no relationship between visitor numbers and funding for research or conservation. 

Khalil Hamra - Associated Press
Even more of a problem is the number of university graduates in relation to available jobs. Egypt has a 25% rate of university attendance, the highest in the nation's history, and comparable to Europe and the United States. Although the country has a 9.4% unemployment rate, it's 25% for people under 30, who are 87% of the unemployed. The gap between expectation and reality for university grads is bad all over, but there is a special starkness in poor countries where the safety net is thinner. The social explosion spreading across the Arab world is fueled by this mass of young, educated and frustrated  people.

It's great to hear these young archaeologists speaking out (Hawass' reputation as a totalitarian media whore seems well-deserved) but never form within Egypt. Let's hope the new order makes room for better funding and career opportunities for the next generation of archaeologists and conservators.

UPDATE (February 23): Nevine Al-Aref at Al-Ahram Online reports that Hawass has met with the protesters and outlined hisplan to create more jobs in the heritage sector:
During the meeting, which Ahram Online attended, the students made it clear that their protests were only held because there had been a lack of information about how the ministry, formerly known as the Supreme Council of Antiquities, was trying to address the lack of jobs available for newly-qualified archaeologists and restorers.
Achraf El-Achmawi, a legal consultant at the ministry, said that the new appointments would be made according to a schedule starting in March.
The first phase of this plan will provide jobs for 900 archaeologists and restorers, who will be given paid training within the ministry for a period of five months. The second phase, he continued, will follow the completion of the first one and will provide the same paid training for 500 people followed by an identical third phase.

The promises sound a bit vague to me given the unstable situation, but let's hope Hawass can make it happen.

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