Last week, Egyptian President, Abdelfattah El Sisi, met with French President, Emmanuel Macron, in Paris to discuss security and extremism. During a joint press conference, Sisi deflected on a question about human rights in Egypt. “We are not in Europe, with its intellectual, cultural, civilization and human advancement,” he said. “We’re in a different region.”
His statements provoked outrage among many Egyptians on social media. These kinds of statements from Sisi are not new, however. In 2014, he said that Egypt did not yet have the “political will” to become a democracy. Historically, Egyptian leaders have often repeated this orientalist notion that Egyptians are somehow not “civilized” and politically incapable of living in a democracy. This discourse is consistently disseminated by the country’s mass media, which is particularly focused on scapegoating working-class Egyptians. TV dramas, political talk shows, and advertisements reinforce the notion that average, working class Egyptians are uncivilized and need an authoritarian leader, in order to ensure stability in the country.
Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this messaging is a TV commercial that aired during Ramadan in 2015. The advertisement featured real estate in an upscale, gated community on the outskirts of Cairo. As a woman walks out of her apartment building, she encounters impolite neighbors who gossip and throw garbage on the stairwell, as well as a cafe patron who shoves a chair into her path. As her anger builds, the woman turns into the American comic book character, the Hulk, and unleashes her rage on the people. At the heart of the advertisement is the message that living in a gated community is the only way to avoid dealing with unruly, lower class Egyptians.
Another more recent and slightly less obvious example is an advertisement for the upcoming World Youth Forum, set to take place in Sharm El Sheikh between November 4-10. In the commercial, the narrator asks youth around the world, who have ideas that “can change the world,” “develop a country,” or “help a child,” to present their ideas to world leaders at the forum. Notably, the advertisement is in English. Very few, if any, of the youth featured in the advertisement appear to be Egyptian. Even though the forum is being hosted in Egypt by an Egyptian organization, the advertisement suggests that Egyptians are not in a position to “change the world” or “develop a country,” perhaps because they themselves are the ones who supposedly need help.
By adopting an orientalist and classist lens, these advertisements reinforce the discourse that average Egyptians are uncivilized and can only be tamed by authoritarian government. Images of citizens not picking up their garbage, or rudely pushing people out of their way, subtly reinforce the notion that Egyptians cannot govern themselves. This false perception legitimizes statements made by Sisi, and other Egyptian rulers in the past, that Egypt is fundamentally different from other “advanced” societies.