President Sisi Puts His Business Face Forward
What can bring Gulf investors, selfie-taking teens, and Tony Blair to a resort town on the Red Sea? An Egypt in need of some cold, hard cash.
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — Onstage in a cavernous conference hall on Sunday, a group of grinning and squealing teenagers took selfies with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. A screen wrapped around the back of the stage, showing mock-ups of a skyline of glittering golden towers. On either side of the stage, two screens shaped like the maps of Egypt displayed Sisi’s face as he attempted to smile modestly, a slight tear in his eye as he mugged for the cameras. This was his moment, a time to rake in the cash for the “new Egypt” he has been building since he took over the country in a coup in July 2013.
After a few minutes of cheering, Sisi managed quiet the enthusiastic audience and begin his closing speech to Egypt’s Economic Development Conference. The conference was a three-day bid to secure foreign investment. Sis was never short on rhetoric: “Some people thought my country is dead,” the general-turned-president said, patting the podium. “No, Egypt is a survivor…. 7000 years ago Egypt offered civilization to the whole globe. It’s there in history books. I’m not going to say why Egypt did not stay the course, but I just wanted to say that this state is waking up now.” The speech ended the way it began, with many in the audience shouting “Long live Egypt!” and punching the air as they offered Sisi a long standing ovation.
Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt’s prime Red Sea resort town, is not known for subtlety. The conference center is a short drive from Sinai Grand casino, its fake sphinxes lit up at night with glowing gold lights, and an amusement park with an imitation Hollywood sign and 10-story-high models of dinosaurs. An Apache helicopter, armed with eight missiles to provide air cover to the black-masked Republican Guard patrolling the perimeter, circled constantly overhead.
The ambitions of the conference, titled “Egypt: The Future” were as bold and brash as the scenery. The Egyptian government, which organized the three-day event, promised the delegates a new reality, one with a more prosperous Egypt driven forward through new infrastructure projects, notably a second Suez Canal development and, most audaciously, a new capital city. The city, neatly called the “New Capital” will sit closer to Suez, beyond Cairo’s previous new city, New Cairo, and is designed to act as an administrative and business hub, linked to the old capital via a high-speed light rail. The 700-square-meter development, the size of Singapore, is allegedly scheduled to be done in just “five to seven years” and will include a new airport, an energy farms, a massive “retail area,” and 40,000 hotel rooms, according to promotional materials.
Speaker after speaker who graced the polished gleam of Sharm el-Sheikh’s conference center presented Egypt as a fertile ground for investment, a country where anything is possible, stability is the norm, and where this new wealthy future will naturally filter down to the pockets of the Egyptian people.
Indeed, “Stability” was the buzzword among the attendees. “Egypt’s security and stability is the region’s security and stability,” said Sultan Al Jaber, the United Arab Emirates’ minister of state, in a speech not long after Sisi’s opening keynote. According to the organizers, Egypt obtained $60 billion in foreign direct investment and “soft loans” at the conference, so for now the message seems to be working.
Missing from the agenda, of course, was how Sisi’s government has achieved stability after years of protests, strikes, and upheaval following the 2011 uprising. Since the July 2013 coup, Egypt has witnessed the swiftest crackdown on civil liberties in the last 60 years. Human Rights Watch, which has been prevented from operating in the country, calls the “human rights crisis, the most serious in Egypt’s modern history” in their 2015 report on the country. A fierce insurgency still rages in the Sinai Peninsula and small anti-government protests still crop up on a regular basis.
But the level of public support for Sisi remains unceasingly high. And the view from Sharm el-Sheikh was rosy. Sconaid McGeachin, the head of Middle East division of the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, which had been contracted by the Egyptian government to represent the event, explained that the task at hand was “nation branding.”
“Obviously the country has gone through difficult period and there’s a need to restore confidence,” Sconaid, sitting in the air-conditioned press tent. “This is about confidence in Egypt as a viable country to do business with, creating Brand Egypt, Egypt the future. Egypt can do very well trading on the legacy of its past, but now it needs to show where it’s going.”
Next to booths that offered delegates piles of sugared almonds, expensive chocolates, and brochures touting investment opportunities, some delegates took a broader view. “There are no human rights problems in Egypt,” said Rami Antaki, the Egypt and Middle East director for Pierson Capital, an international private equity firm. He threw back his head and laughed. “No but really — there are these problems everywhere in the world. Every week we see news that a black person has been shot on the streets of the United States. Do they not have a problem with human rights?”
Carlos Borde of Advanced Technology Development, an energy company with headquarters in Switzerland, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates, summed up the attitude of investors: “People in the world don’t care who’s in charge, whether it’s a democracy, an autocratic regime, or a socialist dictatorship,” he said. “They care about knowing that tomorrow I’m going to be better off than I was today — any government that can deliver that will have to support than the people.”
And how best to support the people? Apparently by transforming Egypt into the next Dubai. Near the entrance to the conference center stood a glittering model of the “New Capital” next to booths from Egypt’s Commercial International Bank, trying to attract investors to take advantage of Egypt’s new “one stop shop” investment law, designed to remove some of the hurdles for foreign companies. Delegates feasted on a luxurious buffet lunch provided by Qalaa Holdings, an Egyptian investment capital firm. Visitors snacked on sugary pastries as they made deals in quiet rooms to the side of the main conference floor. Journalists were shut out from plenary sessions during the conference, and barred from entering the conference center during the first day’s events.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair seemed to agree that making people richer can be a substitute for democracy during what was billed as a “keynote conversation.” Blair’s presence at the event seemed designed to lend legitimacy to Sisi’s style of governance — something he has been more than happy to do in the past. “Democracy is important, but democracy is not on its own sufficient. You also need efficacy,” he said. In a comment that seemed like an intentional snub at the 2011 revolutionary movement, Blair added: “Leaders have to lead, and this is one thing I think is really important, that a street protest is not a policy, and a trend on Twitter is not a government.” The audience applauded rapturously.
Delegates from members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were out in force, lending support to Egypt’s new money-means-freedom approach. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE each pledged $4 billion to Egypt’s Central Bank during the opening session. A troop of men in crisp, ironed thobes were permanently clustered next to a poster so large it took up one wall of the main room, explaining a joint UAE-Egyptian schools project, the logo for which showed the Egyptian and UAE flags blending into one. Conference organizers estimated that the UAE sent the most delegates to the conference: 141. Saudi Arabia sent 57 and Kuwait sent 42. (The United States sent 44, while China sent 45. Britain only sent 20 delegates.)
The Gulf’s influence on the conference was unsurprising, given that the entire thing was the brainchild of the recently deceased Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been unabashed supporters of Egypt’s military — and proved it by opening their wallets, granting Egypt billions of dollars in donations after Sisi seized power. The UAE, France, and Egypt signed a memorandum of understanding during the conference, stating an intent to “cooperate” in their energy, infrastructure, and transportation industries.
The influence of the Gulf countries could be one reason why talk of human rights had to be left outside the conference center. Sebastien Henin, head of asset management at the National Investor, a UAE-based investment firm, said, “Human rights are not on the agenda. It’s just not at all on the agenda.” He continued: “All these new investments are spearheaded by GCC countries, who have a political and economic agenda, not human rights. That’s why Western countries aren’t here until now.”
Back in the main conference hall, Sisi’s closing speech was regularly punctuated by audience members shouting his name. He replied: “No, no. It’s Egypt and nobody else.”
The president announced that Egypt will hold a similar economic development conference every year at the same venue. “Egypt: the Future 2016” looks to provide a milestone by which to judge the country’s economic progress over the next year — if not political development.
“Time is crucial, we need to move fast,” said Sisi, speaking of the many economic projects his government has assured voters will be accomplished in a short time. “The march of Egypt towards the future will continue with firm steps,” he said If this is indeed what’s next for Egypt, there is no doubt that the glossy presentations, glittering models, and the large sums of cash promise a more prosperous future. Or at least a surreally different one.
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