In the immigration hall of Cairo International Airport above the booths where customs officers process travelers’ passports, visitors idling in the queues now see is a picture of a young boy with his face painted red, white and black — the colors of the Egyptian flag — next to the words: “We should teach our children to be like the Egyptian youth.”
The words are a quote from United States President Barack Obama, congratulating the Egyptian people on their revolution that ended the three-decade reign of Hosni Mubarak. The banner is an advertisement for the Egyptian mobile phone service operator Mobinil.
Today, in the afterglow of the revolution, Cairo is awash with the country’s official colors. Face painters and flag vendors crowd Tahrir Square. Empty spaces across the capital from street curbs to building walls have been turned into canvases for the colors of Egypt’s rediscovered public nationalism.
Companies — some of which had strong ties to the fallen regime — have taken note; advertisements on television and on billboards overlooking highways now commonly play off of the revolution and Egyptian nationalism. For Mobinil and Vodafone, the two principal mobile carriers in the country, such ad campaigns are somewhat hypocritical considering that the companies shut down their networks at the government’s request in the early days of the revolution. By facilitating the mobile and Internet blackouts the companies allowed the Mubarak regime to cut off Egypt from the rest of the world. For the Egyptians protesting during those bloody days, the inability to coordinate and communicate put many lives in danger.
At a time when SMS text message services were still disabled, the only messages that came through to Vodafone subscribers were those urging citizens to “confront traitors” and giving details about pro-Mubarak demonstrations. In press releases Vodafone asserts that it was forced to send out text messages and shut down the mobile network in accordance with the country’s Telecoms Act and Emergency Law.
Whatever forgiveness the mobile phone operators may have received from the public was quickly undone when a video by ad agency JWT credited themselves and Vodafone for the revolution. The short video —apparently not intended for the public — showed an award-winning commercial for Vodafone that the agency had created and released in early January, several weeks before the revolution. In it are portrayed scenes of everyday Cairo life as movie star Adel Imam narrates about “the power of 80 million” Egyptians. Following the commercial, text added by JWT appears saying, with no lack of subtle self-aggrandizement, “We did not send people to the streets. We did not start the revolution. We only reminded Egyptians how powerful they are.”
Egypt’s telecom companies are not alone in their rebranding efforts. After infuriating protesters in Tahrir Square by urging them to disband and go home, Egyptian pop star Tamer Hosni is now releasing tracks about the martyrs of the revolution. Magdy Rasekh, the father-in-law of Alaa Mubarak, one of the former president’s sons, stepped down as chairman of the board of real estate giant Six of October Development and Investment Company (SODIC) just as the company unveiled an ad campaign focusing more on its contributions to the country’s economy than to the luxury villas and cities for the rich that it is building outside of Cairo.
Under Mubarak, connections to the regime were the means to get ahead and be successful. Corruption enriched those who became part of the system. A few business magnates — perhaps most notably steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz —have taken the fall for such connections, but many companies that made their money this way remain. For these people, rebranding is simply good business.
With Egypt’s post-revolution economy stagnant and the country’s tourism industry dried up for at least the time being, somebody is going to have to keep the economy afloat. For many of those who protested in Tahrir Square, the revolution was as much against the corrupt system that made the rich richer and poor poorer as it was about Mubarak’s dictatorial regime and human rights abuses. Unfortunately for them, it is likely to be many of the same people who prospered under Mubarak who will provide Egypt’s economy with integral capital in its time of need, likely maintaining the old ways of cronyism and corruption, only now behind a facade of populist branding.
JOSH WOOD is a contributor to The International Herald Tribune and Esquire Magazine