A massive red carpet that was laid over public roads for Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s motorcade during a trip to open a social housing project in a Cairo suburb has triggered ridicule and criticism, especially after Sisi’s call for economic austerity.
Egypt under Sisi has never been short of controversies, but the red carpet story is different and is a testimonial about not just Sisi, but of Egypt and of Egypt’s observers.
“Auntie, can I borrow your rug?” Sisi’s red carpet story reminded me about an odd request that I witnessed years ago, when a relative asked to borrow one of our carpets. The young woman had started working at a posh company and invited her boss and others to her home for dinner. Her home, however, in her view lacked a nice rug. To my surprise, my mother agreed.
The young woman described how our rug would add “joy” to her home, and how she wanted to organize the dinner in a “proper manner.” Sound familiar? Indeed. After Sisi’s carpet controversy, the military provided a rare public response to the furor over the carpet. Brig. Gen. Ehab el-Ahwagy explained on several talk shows Sunday night that the carpet was not purchased by el-Sisi’s administration and had been used for more than three years on similar occasions: “It gives a kind of joy and assurance to the Egyptian citizen that our people and our land and our armed forces are always capable of organizing anything in a proper manner,” el-Ahwagy told prominent TV talk show host Amr Adeeb.
The obsession with external image and “proper manner” is common in Egypt, and has been portrayed in many classic Egyptian movies. For example, in the film Umm Al-Arousa or “The Mother of the Bride,” the family borrows several household items from various neighbors, including teacups and dinner plates, before the first visit of her daughter’s groom. Again, this is done because in this way of thinking, the house has to look “proper” before strangers are allowed to enter.
Historically, however, the Egyptian leadership did not need such fake beatification. In pre-1952 Egypt, the Royal Family was rich and elegant, unlike the vast majority of Egyptians. While many Egyptians were illiterate, living in poor huts in rural villages, the Royal Palaces were spectacularly beautiful in a breathtaking manner. The gradual decline of Egypt afterwards, especially after the 1967 defeat has created a different psyche inside its leadership. The desire for fake beatification has started to creep in, especially during Sadat’s era. Cheap and cheerful red carpets have started to emerge whenever the president has opened any national projects. Egypt ____ a country that has always been proud of its old glory, feels the need to project an image of a prestige, at least of some sort.
Reports say that Sisi’s red carpet was four kilometers in length. That is not short, but it is definitely not as expensive as costs that the Daily Mail provided ___ without much evidence____ of an over-estimated value of £140, 000. That is simply ludicrous. In actuality, this type of red carpet would be manufactured in Egyptian army factories at a fraction of the above estimate.
So why has Sisi’s red carpet created such uproar?
The red carpet is a product of the mindset of certain generations in Egypt’s army and their outdated approach to public relations. It was not necessarily due to Sisi and his autocratic presidency. The real problem, however, is neither in the carpet, nor in its cost, but in the man who has used it. The red carpet saga has exposed how Egypt’s Sisi is under intense scrutiny, and how his enemies hate him with a vengeance. Even if Sisi abandons his motorcade and red carpets, and instead uses public buses, his enemies will find something else to cement the perception that he is a North Korean dictator on the Nile.
Indeed, there are good reasons behind such deep hatred. Egypt is facing an unprecedented wave of unjust arrests, harsh prison sentences, abuses, and rouge police behaviors. The Egyptian president needs to take notice and diffuse this collective anger against him, which if allowed to continue may lash out at him, with dangerous ramifications for the country. Moreover, the Egyptian army should understand that carpets would not cover up Egypt’s mounting problems.
Nonetheless, Sisi’s opponents also must take notice and should resist the temptation to hype trivial matters, otherwise they will feed Sisi’s supporters’ paranoia and sense of victimhood. Fake beatification has existed in Egypt well before Sisi and will probably continue after him. The same red carpet might be rolled out again the day after Sisi is gone, but this would probably be met with less fury and scrutiny.