Sharma el-Sheikh rumbles with grand promises of the international elite

Resounding message of economic development conference is modernity – but violence, oppression and malnutrion are still rampant in Egypt.


On the shores of the Red Sea, something is rumbling. It’s not the helicopter gunships orbiting the skies or the Special Forces combat troops – their faces obscured behind thick balaclavas and dark goggles – that patrol the sun-kissed streets. The rumble is emanating from inside Sharm el-Sheikh’s international congress centre, where business titans and heads of state are slapping backs and breaking bread, leaving a trail of Danish pastry crumbs in their wake.

It’s the rumble that accompanies the corporate makeover of a nation, and there are many – in Egypt and beyond its borders – hoping that it will prove loud enough to drown out this country’s rival soundtracks of protest, resistance and dissent. These days the corridors of counter-revolution are busier than ever, and it is international elites who are making most of the noise.

The Egyptian Economic Development Conference, which attracted more than 1,700 investors, government officials and consultancy experts – plus Tony Blair – to the southern Sinai this past weekend, was billed as a national coming-out party: the moment when this ancient country would finally move beyond its moody adolescent years of revolutionary upheaval and join the grown-up world of western modernity, where markets are sovereign, demonstrations are meaningless and acts of state violence are deemed unsuitable topics for conversation in polite society.

Ibrahim Mahlab, Egyptian prime minister, second from left, among delegates at the Egypt Economic Development Conference at Sharm El-Sheikh.
Ibrahim Mahlab, Egyptian prime minister, second from left, among delegates at the Egypt Economic Development Conference at Sharm El-Sheikh. Photograph: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA

“The images that have been coming out of this part of the world have been, by the nature of media, unrepresentative of what’s happening on the ground,” explained Ahmed Heikal, the CEO and founder of Qalaa Holdings, one of the largest private investment companies in the Middle East. “We want to convey the normal, more representative part of the story, which is that Egypt is open for business.”

There is nothing remotely representative about a palatial conference held entirely inside a bubble, beyond which an armed insurgency is raging in northern Sinai, an average of four bombs a week areexploding in Cairo, and a third of young children nationally are afflicted bymalnutrition. But it is true that, under President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Egypt is very much open for business. New investment and bankruptcy laws will grant blanket immunity to investors and public officials when handling state funds, loosen restrictions on public assets being handed to the private sector free of charge, and enable foreign companies to abandon privatised projects virtually without penalty if they so choose. Entire infrastructure classes are being lined up for takeover by public-private partnerships; meanwhile corporate and top-end personal income taxes are being cut, and workers’ ability to strike restricted.

The narrative at the conference has been that this is all so very new. From the plenary hall stage to the bustling bilateral meeting rooms, the sponsored lunch tables to the specially commissioned ‘Marketplace’ smartphone app – for ‘leaders and game-changers’ can arrange to come together for ‘brain dates’, a sort of neoliberal Tinder – there is an all-pervasive aura of buoyant razzmatazz, as if nobody can quite believe how fresh and positive Sisi’s Egypt feels.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund arrives for the Egyptian Economic Development conference.
Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund arrives for the Egyptian Economic Development conference. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty

Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, was among the first to pay homage to the reform-minded credentials of a man responsible for what Human Rights Watch (whose website was blocked on the conference WiFi network) has labelled one of the largest state massacres of demonstrators in modern history; John Kerry, the US secretary of state, Philip Hammond, the UK foreign secretary, and Blair all followed suit as the weekend progressed.

But memories are short. A foreign-investment led, GDP-growth orientated economic model was the hallmark of Mubarak’s dictatorship and received glowing approval from the IMF. The outcome was epic corruption, eye-watering riches for a crony capitalist class at the top and immiseration for everyone else; Bread, Freedom, Social Justice was the revolution’s slogan, though none of Egypt’s post-Mubarak regimes – from the junta that took power immediately after the January 2011 uprising, to the short-lived, aggressively free-market government of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, to the new military autocracy – have bothered to take the latter demand seriously. The Brotherhood declared last week that Egypt is not for sale, forgetting that exactly the same multinational corporations currently signing deals in Sharm el-Sheikh were fawned over and flogged to by Morsi as well. At Egypt’s economic summit, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In reality, the conference is about the Egyptian military showcasing a business-as-usual vision for the future, one in which Gulf and western capital works in partnership with senior generals to carve up and commodify the country, and where Egypt’s identity – contested so dramatically in the streets over recent years – is curated solely and safely from the top. But Sisi could not pull off such a feat on his own. Enter an interconnected grid of international consultancies and high-level public relations agencies that specialise in subtly repositioning a nation’s image.

The event was produced by Richard Attias & Associates (RAA), a strategic consulting firm run by the man behind the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. RAA shares its London headquarters with Global Counsel, the lobbying firm run by former Labour minister Peter Mandelson – who publicly defendedGamal Mubarak, son of the president, when the revolution first began. Mandelson is also on the board of Lazard, the financial consultancy outfit advising Sisi’s government on economic policy. RAA and Global Counsel are both affiliates ofWPP, the world’s largest advertising company, Its CEO, Sir Martin Sorrell, was a keynote speaker at the conference. Blair, revealed by the Guardian last year to beadvising President Sisi as part of an Emirates-funded consultancy programme, was another star turn on the stage.

Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, speaks at the economic conference in Sharm el-Sheikh.
Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, speaks at the economic conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP

“I think for the first time … in my memory you have a leadership in Egypt that understands the modern world, is prepared to take the measures that are relevant to the modern world, and wants Egypt connected to the modern world in the right way,” Blair told the conference, to rapturous applause.

Figures like Blair, Sorrell and Attias are central to Sisi as he attempts to establish global legitimacy. The regime’s two-pronged message – that Egypt is on the frontline of the ‘war on terror’ and would be overrun by extremists without Sisi’s oppressive rule, and simultaneously that Egypt is a secure magnet for tourism and foreign investment – appears inherently contradictory, but the perception managers are hard at work in an effort to smooth out the kinks. “Conferences likes this change the image,” Sorrell told the Guardian. “It changes the atmosphere, it changes the perception, and given what’s happened to Egypt in the past four years, obviously the brand has changed and there’s a necessity to reposition it.”

Critics argue that ‘repositioning’ is PR-speak for the ‘whitewashing’ of human rights abuses; under Sisi’s presidency many thousands of political prisoners are behind bars, protest is effectively outlawed, and torture by the security forces is rampant – 90 detainees were killed in custody last year, and one particular police station, in Cairo’s Matareya district, has become so notorious that locals call it ‘the grave of the living’. In January a young mother and poet, Shaimaa el-Sabagh, wasshot dead by government forces as she approached Tahrir Square to lay a wreath of flowers in memory of those killed in the revolution.

“Frankly speaking, I’m not at all competent on that,” said Richard Attias, when asked by the Guardian about such incidents. “I think you should ask the local authorities … It is not by excluding a country from the global community that you will help them solve their internal deep issues.”

For Blair, the trade-off between democracy and stability does not appear to be a difficult one. “Look, I’m absolutely in favour of democracy and I think that, in the end, all countries as they develop will go to a situation in which the citizens elect the government,” he reassured the conference. “But I also think you’ve got to be realistic sometimes about the path of development, and that sometimes you will have a country [with] not what we would call 100% western-style democracy but[that], on the other hand, is going in a direction of development that’s really important.”

Egypt’s direction of development is vitally important, though who will benefit from it remains an open question. For all the buzzwords at the conference regarding shared benefits and economic inclusion, Sisi has so far adopted a wearilyfamiliar austerity playbook; although foreign investment could potentially be harnessed for the good of Egypt’s 90 million-strong population, as long as the state and its economy continues to be under the iron grip of military generals who brook no opposition and corruption continues to run rampant, it is hard to see how Sisi’s open-for-business Egypt will turn out any different from Mubarak’s.

Many Egyptians have been genuinely excited by the grand promises – billions of dollars of investment, a dramatic fall in unemployment, a brand-new capital city – made at the conference and covered prominently by the domestic media; it is hard, too, to see how unrest will be contained if yet another repressive political elite fails them once again.

“If you have a bad product – and this applies to politics too – you can only convince the electorate or get someone to buy something once,” said Sorrell, “You won’t fool people twice.” In reality, the VIPs and branding consultants who have flocked to the Red Sea in recent days are confident that the opposite is true, and that the rumble of the conference will quieten any doubters. That confidence may be misplaced. Beyond the walls of the Sharm el-Sheikh international congress centre, Egyptians have made a habit out of producing rumbles of their own.