Sign Up

Egypt: Al Sisi’s Truman Show

Like the Pharaohs of old, Egypt’s President gives his people trophies – but doesn’t address their basic needs.

August 23, 2015

Like the Pharaohs of old, Egypt’s President gives his people trophies – but doesn't address their basic needs.

As part of the PR campaign to highlight the just completed expansion of the Suez Canal, New Yorkers were surprised to see billboards in Times Square heralding “Egypt’s Gift to the World.”

The apparent purpose of the advertising campaign is to claim that Egypt will boost the world economy, although there are significant doubts among experts about whether the project makes economic sense.

Evidently, Egypt’s strong-man President, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, does not only want Egyptians to live his fantasy life and in his fantasy world. More ambitious yet, he would also like to have the entire world share this dreamland with us Egyptians.

The recent billboarding action in New York begs some obvious questions. None is more relevant than this one: Is it reasonable for a developing country that

  • relies heavily on international donations (mostly from its Arab Gulf donors)
  • has an external debt of $40 billion and
  • with 25% of its population living under the poverty line

to be offering the world a “gift” (even one that is not really substantiated) – and “worth” $13 billion?

In the wonderful 1998 movie, The Truman Show, Jim Carey played the part of Truman Burbank, a man who is trapped in a constructed reality TV show.

Truman had a decent job and a happy life that many would envy, but at a certain moment in his comfortable life, he became suspicious of his fabricated life and set out to discover the truth.

Truman’s eagerness to travel and explore a new life beyond his surroundings stimulated him to overcome his fear of water and to cross the artificial sea in search of something real.

The Truman parallel

Although the vast majority of Egyptians certainly do not lead the decent life that Jim Carey enjoyed in the movie, there is indeed one parallel — they are happily living the Truman life!

How could that be? Contemporary Egyptians’ personalities have been shaped by their own self-esteem and especially the pride they take in the achievements of ancient Egypt.

In a society that is otherwise very segregated economically, this cultural trait shared by educated and illiterate Egyptians alike. Most of us accept to live a fantasy life and are eager to impress the world with new achievements.

Calling our country “The Mother of the World” is the best compliment you could offer any Egyptian – even though we realize that there are other claimants to that title. In fact, we love that compliment – if it is made – because we know of the other claimants.

Harsh as everyday life may be for many Egyptians for sheer economic reasons (and unpleasant for those who have the money, but dislike the prolonged dictatorship periods), our rulers make the most out of our illusionary lives.

Does propaganda work?

To take advantage of this condition, they are simply promoting fantasy projects that capitalize on our internal pride.

Does the make-belief approach work? That obviously depends on specific circumstances, such as the cultural setting and the extent of citizens’ readiness to believe in fantasy narratives.

However, the trouble for our rulers is that, even when the propaganda works, it does so only temporarily. Its effect certainly never lasts.

At some point, to cite the imagery of Jim Carey’s process of liberation in the Truman Show, we too overcome our fear of water and cross the artificial sea.

As a result, rulers who want to use this tool face a real challenge: They need to keep their citizens hopeful — by continually engaging them in one false project after another. Otherwise, they fail to revive their sense of hope.

You can’t fool the investors!

But if the New York ad campaign is any sign, Al-Sisi has really overshot his target. He must realize that, however well he has managed to “spin” some Egyptians into believing his “magic,” he has embarked on a “mission impossible.”

After all, he is apparently attempting to engage the entire world in a fantasy story. Even to the extent that he wants to argue that international investors need to be charmed – and that Egypt needs to raise its visibility in international markets, the effort won’t fly.

Investors, at the tail end of the emerging markets’ boom cycle, are far more sober-minded than in years past, when they could indeed be charmed into engaging on rather vain and unspecified commercial hopes and claims.

International investors will realize soon enough that they are being hyped. It does not take much research to find out that, over the past decades – and without any propaganda, in New York City or elsewhere – a number of expansions took place in the Suez Canal.

They were even longer, wider and deeper than the recent one. Meanwhile, the President cannot point to a single study that economically validates the new waterway that cost us Egyptians $8.2 billion (plus roughly another five billion dollars to serve the certificate deposit interest).

Al-Sisi’s Pharoh-like behavior

Even though we live in the 21st century, there was something positively Pharaoh-like about it all. As the Egyptian ruler was busy with his historical achievement that primarily feeds his own pride, millions of Egyptians were suffering daily from various humanitarian crises.

These crises are caused by the lack of shelter, jobs, clean water, health coverage and many others basic needs.

To add insult to injury, two weeks before the Suez Canal inauguration ceremony (estimated to have cost as much as another $30 million), 42 Egyptians drowned – while attempting to cross the Nile River on one of our outdated and poorly managed ferryboats.

Imagine we no longer lived in our Truman Show-like Pharaoh Show. Allocating the cost of the ceremony alone to buying new ferryboats would save hundreds of lives every year. That’s would a true leader would do.

Rather than redirect this investment towards improving the lives of poor and illiterate Egyptians who make up the vast majority of our population, we have left them as easy prey for political Islamists.

These Islamists are keen – and very skilled – to redirect these people’s legitimate frustrations and fill them with hatred. This can easily result in terrorist acts – abroad.

Unfortunately, this may indeed be the real gift that “The Mother of the World” can “offer to the World.”


Al-Sisi has overshot his target. He is attempting to engage the entire world in a fantasy story.

Should a developing country that relies on donations be offering the world a “gift” worth $13 billion?

A vast majority of Egyptians are happily living the Truman life!

Our rulers in Egypt promote fantasy projects that capitalize on our internal pride.