The Economist, Suez and Sisi's cynical PR campaign

The Economist, Suez and Sisi's cynical PR campaign
Comment: The Economist's 'special edition' presenting 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.
5 min read
13 Aug, 2015
Suez expansion cost $8 Billion while experts say world economy doesn't need it (Getty)

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 cover further enables Sisi to stand on the world stage as the leader of a legitimate regime

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.

Let's talk about Rabaa, not Suez

For all the loaded imagery on The Economist's Suez cover, perhaps that which leaves the most bitter aftertaste is the word "August", written in bold letters close to the smiling picture of Sisi and the declaration that his Suez expansion was a "gift to the world".

It was, after all, in August two years ago, that the current rose to power, initially under interim President Adly Mansour, in a move that cannot be historically or morally separated from the massacre in Rabaa al-Adewiya.

Human Rights Watch, in its 2014 report All According to Plan, estimates that between 800 and 1000 people were killed in a "planned" mass killing during the clearance of Rabaa al-Adewiya square and elsewhere in Cairo, as the army tightened its grip on the country.

     [Rabaa] square itself has now been re-named, as if to further erase the memory and deny the crime that took place there

And yet, two years on, not only has there been no justice for those who were killed in August 2013, but any attempts to discuss the events have been stifled by Sisi's regime: Human Rights Watch's staff were denied entry to Egypt last year to present their report on the mass killings, and the square itself has now been re-named, as if to further erase the memory and deny the crime that took place there.

Such an erasing occurs in a climate where people from across the political and ideological spectrum are imprisoned for their beliefs, and the use of military trials for civilians - a violation of the right to fair trial - continues at levels unprecedented even during Mubarak's authoritarian rule.

This is the "new Egypt", one in which those who struggled against authoritarianism for "bread, freedom, and justice" in 2011 are either imprisoned or - at best - marginalised. And while clampdowns on Egyptian media continue, these are the realities The Economist should be reporting on, rather than producing obsequious front pages presenting Sisi's Egypt as a "gift to the world".

Heather McRobie is a journalist and an editor at
openDemocracy. She is completing a PhD on the 2011 Egyptian revolution, and is soon to begin a post-doctoral position at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, New Statesman, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.

Her book on freedom of literary expression and hate speech in literature,
Literary Freedom, was published in 2013. Follow her on Twitter: @heathermcrobie 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.