Egypt’s pro-democracy revolt may have been buried on the wrong side of the Great Chinese Firewall – the Beijing authorities filtered out news of the uprising from online searches and censored comments about it on web forums – but that hasn’t stopped China’s vast manufacturing industry from making a fast buck out of regime change in Cairo.
Only a few weeks after former president Hosni Mubarak was toppled following mass demonstrations and violent street battles launched by government security forces and pro-Mubarak thugs, roads which were once littered with rocks and molotov cocktails are now teeming with market stalls offering every conceivable type of plastic protest kitsch. Bandanas jostle with car licence plates, martyrs’ calendars are on sale next to “freedom pendants” and t-shirts, and flags – Egyptian, Libyan, and beyond, all made in China – are for sale by the bucket-load on every city corner. The revolution has been well and truly merchandised.
But although street traders are doing well out of the surge in nationalistic pride, not everyone is so happy about the instant commercialisation of such a hard-fought struggle for freedom. Mubarak may be gone, but the remnants of his regime remain very much in place – including in the prime minister’s office, where Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak-era cabinet member, continues to hang on to his job despite widespread protests against him.
The ruling military council that is overseeing Egypt’s “democratic transition” recently had to issue a ham-fisted apology after military police attacked peaceful demonstrators with tasers and batons outside parliament; meanwhile, strikes and sit-ins by workers seeking better wages and the removal of corrupt Mubarak acolytes from their organisations continue up and down the country. Amid all the ongoing turmoil lies a widespread belief that the revolution is far from being over – and hence tacky trinkets celebrating its success are a tad premature.
“Enough of the carnival in Tahrir,” said Egyptian journalist and protester Ayman Farag last week, as the country’s new tourism minister announced plans to invite “celebrity guests” – including Oprah Winfrey – to make appearances in the capital’s iconic central square. “This is a revolution not a football match. I’ll buy your key chain when the whole regime goes.”
Yet the biggest offenders when it comes to jumping on the profit-making revolution bandwagon aren’t lowly key-chain sellers, but rather Egypt’s biggest corporations who have shelled out huge sums on giant billboard adverts extolling the triumphs of youthful demonstrators. Chief among them are Egypt’s communications giants such as TE Data, Etisalat and Vodafone Egypt, who – if you were to look only at their marketing slogans – you might think had been sponsoring this anti-government uprising from the start. Awkwardly though, most Egyptians have longer memories than that – and can recall how in the early days of the revolution these same companies acquiesced to the regime’s demands to shut down all communications networks in an effort to isolate protesters, and even sent out pro-dictatorship text messages to their customers labelled with company branding. The firms insist they had no choice in the matter, but may find that rebuilding their credibility in post-Mubarak Egypt takes more than a patriotic poster. Meanwhile, the fight for genuine regime change continues – with or without the T-shirt.
Jack Shenker is Monocle’s Cairo correspondent