« The Economist, Suez and Sisi’s cynical PR campaign » (Al-Araby, 13 août)
The Economist’s ’special edition’ pressing the Suez Canal expansion as Egypt’s “gift to the world” cannot cover up the violence upon which Sisi’s rule operates, writes Heather McRobie.
Amid much official fanfare and widespread cynicism from a variety of independent voices, Egypt unveiled its expansion of the Suez Canal last week, with President Sisi giving a speech that aligned the endeavour - and, implicitly, his regime - with the “gifts” that Egypt has offered the world over the past 7,000 years.
Leaving aside the debate of whether the canal expansion was really the large-scale project Egypt most urgently needed to undertake at this time, Sisi certainly harnessed the event to present a Pharonic-like spectacle that tried to conceptually entwine Egypt’s past and future glories with the phony glory of his regime.
#EgyptRejoices - does it really?
Many found the overblown symbolism embarrassing at best, and distasteful at worst — considering the vast infrastructure problems, poverty and unemployment rates that Egypt continues to face.
The celebratory hashtag for the event, #EgyptRejoices, triggered a counter-campaign highlighting the pressing issues of unemployment, poverty, illiteracy and sexual harassment.
It was therefore surprising to many Egypt-watchers to see an edition of The Economist circulating on social media, with a front cover that positioned the Suez Canal — reworked as the Pharonic Key of Life — next to a smiling image of Sisi, headlined “Egypt’s gift to the world”.
The Egyptian government later denied that it had paid for the cover, but a flimsy disclaimer at the bottom of the cover that “no endorsement is implied” by The Economist did little to wash away the bad taste at witnessing Sisi’s PR spectacle in action.
It is worth noting that The Economist has previously published articles critical of Sisi’s polity - from the detention and suppression of journalists to the targeting of Egyptian NGOs. But giving its front page to an advertorial that positions Sisi’s regime as both legitimate and “business friendly” — to use Sisi’s language at the Sharm el Sheikh international business conference last year — sent a much stronger message.
The Economist’s decision to print this special edition cover further enables Sisi to stand on the world stage as the leader of a legitimate regime, and encourages other countries to form economic and political alliances with “the man who restored order to the country”.
Having said that, it is particularly ironic that a magazine with as much international clout as The Economist would allow Sisi to use it for his own rehabilitative PR campaign, given that one of the sections of society most targeted by the Egyptian government has been the one The Economist belongs to: journalists and media outlets.
In the face of a growing online backlash at The Economist’s role in Sisi’s New Suez spectacle, defenders argued that the cover was not produced for sale, and wouldn’t be gracing global newsstands, but was rather produced solely for distribution at the Suez expansion opening ceremony.
Such a defence, however, contains within it a very revealing aspect of the psyche of Sisi’s establishment: the Pharonic vanity of commissioning a front cover of a globally respected newspaper solely as adornment to a grand ceremony.