King Sisi I

The extravagant display of pomp and ceremony in Tahrir square on April 3 has clearly pleased many Egyptians, who were impressed by the level of organization and precision their state is not known for.  

But how pleased were they with the political significance of what was on display is hard to tell. And since there has not been — and never will be — polls investigating what the average Egyptian feels about it,  one has to rely on social media to get a sense of how the event went down among Egyptians.   

Natrually, the  parade made it to global news. Things pharaonic always do, a reflection of the world’s continued fascination with the ancient culture.

But that was not really the news. The news was that the Egyptian state has invested so much energy and money to celebrate ancient Egyptian culture. A first,  as far as a I can recall.

Egypt has a glorious and fascinating past. No one needs reminding of that. It’s a fact that is almost every school child is taught all over the world, perhaps more so than in Egypt itself — a country that officially describes itself as “Arab Republic of Egypt”, rather than simply the Republic of Egypt.  And what a strange thing to do to the name of a nation that is almost a brand that needs no qualification. And it goes without saying that even the official Arabic name for Egypt, misr,  is of course not Egyptian. In fact, the English “Egypt” is closer to the ancient  “kemt” which was one of the original names.  

Along with the rise of the ideologies of pan-Arabism and Islamism  in the past century (which  still dominate the political vocabulary in Egypt today) the Egyptians have almost forgotten who they really are.

Personally,   I would be delighted if such an event — bombastically named the Golden Pharaohs’  Parade [in Arabic it was the Royal Mummies Parade] — can reawaken greater awareness of the Egyptian identity — as distinct from Islamic or Arab. 

The prominent role played by so many talented women in the show— anchors/dancers/musicians/singers –  will be construed as  a powerful message to the country’s conservative constituencies,  both in society and the religious establishment . Egyptian women are at the forefront, members of society of whom Egypt should be proud of and not to be tucked away in the kitchen or under a black shroud. 

But that’s not the whole story. 

Tourism was not the sole purpose of the extravagant display the Egyptian state put on April 3 to celebrate the transfer of some twenty royal mummies from the old Egyptian museum in Tahrir square to a newly built compound, The National Egyptian Museum of Civilisation,  away from the congested centre of Cairo.  

The official objective of the spectacular parade was to promote tourism. But this time it was of a completely different order, because it was organised around a real event on Egyptian territory —  not some clichéd montage of the Giza pyramids with belly dancers in the desert before palm trees designed for the pages of foreign media or television screens.  Most crucially,  it involved no one less than the head of the state himself.  In fact,  President El-Sisi was at the centre of it. More on that later. 

Like all performances, it is inherently polysemic and is bound to generate a plethora of meanings. My own reading included of course.

The show , which included a hymn in ancient Egyptian — another first–   touched a raw nerve with Islamists and other religious conservatives. My identity is Arab and Islamic and I will never give that up, tweeted one famous and controversial cleric.

The political overtones did not go amiss.  Zealous supporters of the president seized the moment to declare him “King Sisi the First”, and created a hashtag (photo below) with that name. Predictably, it attracted some scathing sarcasm on Twitter.  

Indeed,  the choreography of the show seemed to suggest as much.  

The key sequence came at the moment the convoy arrived at the gates of the new museum just in time to be received by the president, and only him, who, prior to that moment,  was filmed walking briskly alone in the empty corridors of the new museum with dazzling columns on both sides to the tunes of choral music heading for the gates to greet the royal mummies.   The subliminal message of the entire sequence could not have escaped many : it looked like a ritual of personal consecration or a metaphorical coronation.

The message was not lost on critics of President El-Sisi. Investigative journalist, Hossam Bahgat, noted on his Facebook page that President El-Sisi,  shortly after his election in 2014, was quoted as saying that he was confident he would succeed in the job, because “God couldn’t have chosen someone to put him in this position to ruin Egypt”. 

“His highness has no plans to leave, unless he who handpicked him ordains it” Mr Bahgat adds.

Clearly, the man believes he is handpicked by the Gods to lead Egypt.  It couldn’t get more Pharaonic than that.

Others highlighted the discrepancy between the level of organization and precision, the lavish spending, and the lack of all that when it comes to public services – health, transport and education.  

Also quoting from the President’s previous comments, historian Khaled Fahmy,  highlighted the huge gap between the lavish spending on the extravagant party and statements by the president asserting that the state has no resources to upgrade public services – the railways that kill tens of people every now and then, the not fit-for purpose public health service, he argued, comparing Egypt’s dismal record of COVID vaccination to other countries in the region.    

“Yesterday’s celebration exposed the priorities of the state. Our state is rich and has the wherewithal and is well organized and competent. But only in some issues, but others not. It’s competent when the matter is related to its own security … It can spend millions on a legendary celebration that has no clear purpose or pressing priority.”

Professor Fahmy’s implication is damning: projects for personal glorification and aggrandizement are the priority.

It’s perhaps profoundly ironic that Tahrir sq that has entered Egyptian history and consciousness as the site of the dramatic 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak,  the moment Egyptian youths rose up demanding accountability from their rulers and a say in the way their country is run, and an end to centuries of despotism —  what’s also known in Egypt as the Pharaonic tradition —  could be used to consecrate the very same tradition and to anoint El-Sisi as a new pharaoh. 

(See previous post on a related topic : )

Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.

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