Branding Egypt in an Age of the War on Terror

It seems that the Egyptian Tourist Authority has revamped their old "Nothing Compares: Let the Egyptian sun light up life's richest moments" promotional campaign for the new "Egypt: Where it all begins." So they used a new phrase, new fonts and new images but I found them both equally generic and soulless. I find it absolutely incredible that with over 6000 years of history, culture and traditions to draw from, I felt instead that I am watching an advertisement for a Caribbean island or a party town like Ibiza.

I also found it intriguing that all these ads and promotional materials, in addition to most of the organized tours to Egypt, focus primarily on Pharaonic Egypt or ancient Egypt. It would almost seem that after the demise of the Pharaohs and Cleopatra in Ptolemaic era, Egyptian cultural, social and economic development froze in time. Egypt was for centuries the center of learning, scientific discovery and art and architectural development long after all the pharaohs were buried in their ornate tombs - but one would never know that by looking at these promotional materials designed to attract tourists and investment.

Having studied the architecture of Egypt in graduate school, I found myself somewhat frustrated when the guide books I had purchased on Egypt, along with the tour I was on with my dad in November 2008, barely focused any time and space on the great buildings of the Islamic empires. At the time, I didn't give it much thought and merely chocked it up to the type of tour we had selected and the chosen focus of the guide books I had bought. But a talk I attended a couple months ago at the International Studies Association Conference in New Orleans, made me question whether this was a mere oversight or something more intentional.

The talk was given by Elisa Wynne-Hughes, a graduate student at the University of Bristol in England. She argued that guide books on Egypt and the Egyptian Tourism Board purposely prioritize these ancient Pharaonic sites when describing and branding the country. They encourage tourists to discover Egypt like the colonialists did so many years ago. The Pyramids, the Sphinx, Luxor and so forth all fit in neatly, she presented, into an accepted historical time line of the origins of Western civilization - and so in an age of the War on Terror - this familiarity would make tourists, they assume, more at ease and comfortable, and less focused on issues of terrorism in one of the largest Islamic countries in the Middle East. The images of Islam - the architecture, the culture, even the local people - can be viewed as more threatening to the foreign, western eye and therefore are kept to a minimum. Perhaps that is also why the majority of models in the new print ads are primarily blonds with blue eyes.

When I was visiting Egypt, I did notice that all these Pharaonic sites were mobbed mostly by foreign tourists all led by carefully orchestrated tour groups - much like the one I was on. I noticed barely a handful of local Egyptians. In my ignorance, I concluded that local Egyptians were perhaps less interested, or having ready access to this incredible sites, had already visited these locations. What I did not realize, until I read Wynne-Hughes' paper is that local, poorer Egyptians are forcibly kept from these tourist sites. The Egyptian government is concerned that their mere presence could be misconstrued and intimidating to tourists given the global stereotype of the poor, uneducated, radicalized Muslim.

Ultimately, I wonder where the line is drawn between hiding your history, culture and identity to make your country more 'palatable,' less foreign and frightening, and more attractive to tourists and investments. I get that Egypt is heavily dependent on the money tourism brings in; but isn't that one of the criticisms of globalization - that everything and every place starts to look less distinct, more generic, more the same? Aren't more and more tourists and travellers now in search of that unique, atypical experience?

For me one of the main highlights of my trip were the Egyptians we did get to meet. Never a big fan of tours, I insisted we stay back a couple days in Cairo after the tour was over so that we could wander the streets of Cairo on our own and see for ourselves a tiny bit of the city unfiltered and uncensored. We barely scratched the surface. Contemporary Cairo is thriving and thrilling. There is so much activity and energy. It is both energizing and exhausting at the same time - much like New York City. Yes, it is poor and dirty, but it is also rich with new artistic and cultural developments. It is not Ibiza and it is more than beaches and desert safaris. The Pharaonic and Ptolemaic art and architecture are extraordinary beyond measure but so is the art and architecture from the Ayubbid and Mamluk dynasties. Could it be that the Egyptian Tourism Board is selling Egypt short or perhaps they are underestimating their tourists?


  1. Great, informative post. Thanks.

    When surfing the net I came across this Egypt travel guide which might be of interest to anyone planning traveling to Egypt. Very useful and informative
    EgyptTourInfo.com - Egypt Tours, Egypt Vacations, Egypt Travel & Nile Cruises

    Hope you find it useful too :-)

  2. The link that Amar has included in his comment completely reinforces the argument in my post. Thanks for that.

  3. very good..
    i like your posting.. thanks