The El-Oruba motorway, from central Cairo to the airport, is lined with giant billboards advertising everything from Coca-Cola to estate agents and tourist attractions: the Sphinx, Tutankhamun, mummies. And images of President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi against a backdrop of the pyramids.
Sissi is the leading promoter of Egypt’s ancient heritage. On 3 April 2021 he staged a spectacular ‘Pharaohs’ Golden Parade’. with 22 mummies driven through the streets of Cairo from the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square to their new home at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in the Fustat district. The event was broadcast on over 400 foreign TV channels; billboards were put up to hide the poverty of the informal housing along the route, and local people told to stay indoors so as not make the place look untidy.
The stakes were high. Tourism, which generates a tenth of Egypt’s GDP and is its main source of foreign exchange, fell considerably after the 2011 revolution and terrorist attacks on tourist spots. Even so, without the Covid-19 pandemic, the country would be back on its feet by now: the 2018-19 season brought in $12.6bn, as much as any year pre-2011.
To boost the recovery, central Cairo and Luxor have been renovated, new towns and huge museums built, and spectacular events held. Symbols of Ancient Egypt take pride of place: hand in hand with the quest to modernise is pride in the country’s heritage. The goal now is to attract new investors as well as tourists, and to restore a public image tarnished by the political unrest of the last ten years, and especially by Sissi’s presidency, during which repression, arbitrary arrests and other human rights violations have become ever more common.
Powerful cultural assets
If any field has adapted well to Sissi’s authoritarianism, it is Egyptology. It is the perfect diplomatic tool for rehabilitating the regime on the international stage: mummies and obelisks are to Egypt what jazz is (…)
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(1) ‘Pharaohs’ Golden Parade’, www. egymonuments.gov.eg/.
(3) Galila el Kadi and Alain Bonnamy, Architecture for the Dead: Cairo’s Medieval Necropolis, American University in Cairo Press, 2007.
(5) ‘Macron gave Sisi France’s highest award on Paris visit: official’, France 24, 10 December 2020.
(6) See egypt-papers.disclose.ngo/en/chapter/operation-sirli/.