Look at two photographs. Above is Malouka Aldlouah, a 25-year-old transgender woman, in a cold courtroom. On January 31, a judge sentenced her and a friend, Aida, to six years in prison. Their crime was “debauchery,” homosexual conduct; police entrapped them in an apartment they shared. Below is Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, a journalist, activist, and mother. On January 24, she tried to place flowers in Tahrir Square in memory of the Egyptian revolution’s martyrs. Police shot her. She died in a comrade’s arms.
Those photographs illuminate what it’s like in Egypt today, homes and streets patrolled equally ruthlessly, private and public life endangered. A police state shaped these women’s narratives, but the pictures tell very different stories: contempt and shame weigh unequally on them. I blurred one face and not the other, and that has to do with stigma, but also with the division between life and death. Sometimes I feel the only Egyptians who can show their faces without fear these days are the dead, who have already paid for it.
On March 13-15, General Sisi’s regime will host an Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm el Sheikh. This is a massive event, Sisi’s bid to pump foreign money into an immiserated country. To the extent the government has an economic strategy, this is it. The state hypes it furiously, and its docile press slavishly whips up hope. The meeting “is a ‘once in a life time’ opportunity to rapidly enter the ’emerging’ Egyptian market” (why those air quotes?); the “success of the summit will lead to an economic boom for Egypt, as it aims to improve the standard of living for Egyptians.” They’ve invited 3500 investors, no, 6000, from 120 countries. 1000 Saudis alone are eagerly awaited. They’re begging Russia and Germany and France to send businessmen. “30 different investment projects” will be up for grabs at the meeting, worth $20 billion — no, $15 billion (that’s down suspiciously from 42 projects heralded a few weeks ago). The government’s even lowering the currency against the dollar; it will drop 12% by the time the summit opens, making Egypt an even more fabulous bargain basement, a louche low-rent laundry for loose cash.
I want to know: Who among the businessmen, and bankers, and diplomats at the Sharm summit will demand answers about Egypt’s deteriorating human rights situation?
Sisi’s government has had a hard time attracting attendees, postponing the gathering repeatedly to bushbeat for joiners; the problem is that Egypt looks less than stable as an investment opportunity. If the poolside potentates at Sharm el-Sheikh want to see instability firsthand, it’s near — too near. Two hundred miles north of Sinai’s Red Sea beaches, a vast rebellion rages. Attacks by the ISIS-affiliated “State of Sinai” (Wilayat Sina) killed 30 to 50 soldiers on January 29 alone. The rights crisis feeds the resistance. State torture and repression, Amr Khalifa argues, are “making a dark scenario an explosive one”:
an elevation of the language of guns, APC’s and unmanned drones over that of reasoned discourse with the local population. It is a problem central to the Al-Sisi regime: the world viewed in a dual prism, either black or white, and in his universe, Sinai residents are terrorists till proven otherwise.
But Sisi’s guests can look out on wider landscapes of atrocity.
- Police have slaughtered over 1500 protesters since the 2013 coup. A draconian law passed last year criminalizes all peaceful demonstrations. Democracy activists like Yara Sallam and Sanaa Seif are serving long prison sentences merely for protesting the protest law.
- Human rights activists can receive life in prison for taking funds from abroad.
- More than 25,000 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters languish in concentration camps. Hundreds who have gone before courts face the death penalty.
- Police hunt down other dissident identities, from accused atheists to alleged gay and transgender people. Well over 100 people convicted for the “habitual practice of debauchery” since October 2013 still sit in prison, targets for savage vilification in the pro-Sisi media. Police brutalize almost all those arrested on charges of homosexual conduct; most suffer anal tests at the hands of state forensic doctors, an invasive form of torture.
Why should companies care? Nobody really believes you can coax corporations into pious solicitude for human beings as such, above and beyond their status as workers, consumers, or raw materials for Soylent Green. There’s enlightened self-interest, though:
- The corporate brand — symbol of “a company’s integrity, values and, most importantly, intentions” — looks less appealing if it’s dripping blood.
- Torture and repression won’t create political stability. Mubarak spent thirty years savagely suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists; it only made them more popular, and his government less secure. How can Sisi’s persecutions succeed? He’s alienated large segments of youth and the educated; what happens when the anger at his depredations explodes?
- International firms doing business in Egypt all have LGBT employees. Many are bound by anti-discrimination policies on sexual orientation or gender identity. How can they defend their workers’ basic safety if they don’t combat state persecution?
But foreign investment promotes political openness. Right? No. The summit has become a pretext for making Egypt even less transparent. For the crony capitalists surrounding Sisi, easing investment means eviscerating public oversight. Last April, in a move touted as creating a benign climate for foreign money, puppet interim president Adly Mansour revised the Investment Law. He barred anyone from mounting legal challenges to state contracts except for the government itself and the investor. Rejected bidders and civil society lost any legal recourse. And he made this retroactive, cancelling some 20 standing lawsuits against corrupt or dubious state deals, most filed during the brief democratic spring after Mubarak’s overthrow.
Third-party lawsuits, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), were “one of the only avenues” for the public to learn about corruption. “The level of accountability that exists is being taken away, reducing what potential for oversight there is,” a researcher for the group said. The Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights condemned the new “unconstitutional law that revokes the right of a citizen to appeal and entrenches the corrupt contracts through retroactive application”:
This law allows for corrupt practices to negate the rulings of Egyptian courts which had originally uncovered corruption in a number of privatisation and land sale schemes … The law has shut the door on local courts entirely, which threatens increased corruption and criminal activity that will threaten the Egyptian economy.
Egypt’s energy industry — the government’s sale of oil and gas to foreign corporations — had long bred illegality. An EIPR report found that “poor negotiation and corruption cost Egypt US$10 billion in lost [energy] revenue between 2005 and 2011″ — more than twice the country’s annual health budget.
A culture of secrecy, and a lack of accountability and public debate created the conditions that allowed these contracts to be signed. Although state entities … were mandated to negotiate in the interests of the Egyptian people, secrecy created ample room for graft and kickbacks, and allowed well-connected businessmen to manipulate contracts for their own benefit.
Now secrecy is back, bigtime. Foreign investors rewarded Sisi for the new law by easing the country’s credit rating (a spurious move given that Egypt’s securities remained “among the least liquid in the Middle East”). But the law’s main beneficiary is Egypt’s government itself, which can carry on pocketing illegal spoils. Corporations exulting in the short-term pleasures of buying public goods without public scrutiny are now locked into the costs of kickbacks and corruption. Sisi pushed the law through by decree, without a shred of democratic process: Egypt’s democratically-elected parliament had long since been dissolved. By propping up a self-destructive system that flouts accountability and insults public opinion, corporations render their own investments unsafe.
Most Egyptian human rights activists, and most Egyptian LGBT people, want foreign investment in the economy. In that sense, they want the summit to succeed. But they want investment that will help workers, the public, the poor, not just incestuous covens of cronies. They want state resources fairly priced and sold, not handed out like gift bags of swag. They want investors to support a stable and democratic Egypt, not a dictatorship tottering like an upended pyramid. So let’s look at some of the attendees at the conference. What are they going to say about human rights?
1) WPP. One prominent summit speaker will be Sir Martin Sorrell, founder and CEO of the UK-based WPP Group. WPP, a media and public relations giant, is the world’s largest advertising firm. The name stands for Wire and Plastic Products; they started out making shopping carts. That’s fitting; Sorrell’s main skill is shopping. A former Saatchi & Saatchi executive, he bought the small, Wernham-Hogg–esque firm in the 80s purely as a platform for buying other things. He leveraged that to purchase J. Walter Thompson and Young & Rubicam and then everything else in the PR field. He is, as the Financial Times says, “advertising’s biggest dealmaker.”
Small and square-jawed, Sorrell looks as though Napoleon had stumbled onto the set of Mad Men. (He once sued a former employee for calling him the “mad dwarf.”) Like Napoleon, he has a history with Egypt.
On January 28, 2011, as the Egyptian revolution broke out, Vodafone Egypt joined the country’s other phone and Internet firms in shutting down service completely. Gagging the opposition’s voices failed, but drew thunderous international condemnation. On February 4, Sorrell published an op-ed defending Vodafone in The Times. Vodafone was only following orders, he wrote; it didn’t have the luxury of opening its communications pipelines to all opinions, the way international firms like Google and Twitter could. The latter offered too much freedom. By censoring more, they could help brother corporations. “They must understand that with incredible power comes incredible responsibility … You are responsible for the information that flows through” your networks. Sorrell didn’t disclose that Vodafone Egypt was a WPP client.
A few months later, a WPP subsidiary produced an ad for Vodafone Egypt that showed “Egyptians connecting with each other, feeling empowered, and joining the protests that led to the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime. While the video makes no claims for [Vodafone] starting the revolution, it drops broad hints as it tries to ride on its coattails, that it played some role.” The ad caused outrage among Egyptians still furious at the shutdown. Vodafone was forced to pull it.
Making deals takes not just money but friends, powerful ones. (“WPP’s fastest growing client segment is still governmental,” Sorrell declared in a lecture on “nation branding,” where he praised China and Singapore as “so effective in managing their global brands.”) Friendly WPP’s Egypt business has thus been, though small, burgeoning — a “growth market,” it says. Naturally Sorrell hopes to foster his friendship with Sisi by supporting his summit.
Sorrell is also a friend to Tony Blair, who got him his knighthood, and that’s a further link to Egypt. Since July 2014, Blair has been advising Sisi on “economic reforms,” in a task force put together by the Egyptian regime’s main patrons, the United Arab Emirates. Drumming up support for the summit has been part of Blair’s mandate. Blair makes no money out of Egypt, his spokesperson claims, but that’s a technicality. The UAE are the paymasters in this intricate arrangement, and Blair already gets millions of pounds in consulting fees from that country’s sovereign wealth fund.
As one former close personal associate of Blair’s puts it, “a bargain has been struck” that “combines both an existential battle against Islamism and mouth-watering business opportunities in return for the kind of persuasive advocacy he provided George Bush over Iraq.”
Meanwhile, Blair’s onetime counsellor Peter Mandelson is also a friend of Martin Sorrell: WPP provided the starting money for Mandelson’s international consulting firm. “From WPP’s point of view the Mandelson connection gives it a degree of access to people in high places although some of Peter’s friends tend to be Russian oligarchs and financiers occupying the more exotic shores of capitalism.” Egypt is such a shore; Mandelson landed there long ago. He echoed Sorrell during the eighteen days of Egypt’s revolution, stepping up to defend Mubarak’s family kleptocracy. On February 1, 2011, Mandelson wrote to the Financial Times, claiming Gamal Mubarak “has been the leading voice in favour of change within the government and the ruling party,” and demanding a “peaceful transition” that would leave Gamal in place. Four years later Gamal is free, and his counterrevolutionary friends are back in charge. Mandelson’s powers of “access” can click in.
In other words, human rights don’t have much to do with WPP’s record in Egypt. But this sits uneasily with the firm’s Code of Business Conduct. That document declares, “We will consider the potential for clients or work to damage the Group’s reputation prior to taking them on. This includes reputational damage from association with clients that participate in activities that contribute to the abuse of human rights.” It has clauses dealing with LGBT people: not just protections against discrimination, but a promise to
give appropriate consideration to the impact of our work on minority segments of the population, whether that minority be by race, religion, national origin, colour, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age or disability.
How will WPP defend its LGBT employees in Sisi’s Egypt from arrest? How do its promises fit with uncritical support for a regime that jails and tortures anyone accused of being gay or transgender?
Sorrell has a rep as a global thinker, possibly overblown. In mid-2008, as economies crumbled like damp sandcastles, he opined, “I am still not sure there will be a recession in the US and I definitely don’t think worldwide.” The next year WPP’s revenues fell 16%, and the firm took it out on the 14,000 employees it laid off. So much for prognostication. But if people look up to him for wisdom, let him put it to good use. Let him speak up about Sisi’s abuses against LGBT Egyptians and others. It’s his responsibility.
2) British Petroleum. Another featured summit speaker is Bob Dudley, chief executive of BP.
Egypt is big business for BP. The corporation is the country’s largest oil and gas producer, in partnership with the state-run Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation; it’s responsible for 15% of the nation’s oil production. It gets there by having cordial relations with the state, which sells off oil and gas concessions to foreign corporations. In 2008 and 2010, for instance, BP bagged control of exploration in large blocks of the Mediterranean Sea.
It got two more blocks for onshore and offshore gas exploration (3 and 8 on the map) in a 2013 round of bidding:
With all these concessions, you might think BP could actually provide Egypt with energy. You’d be wrong. Shortages and blackouts have spread. Meanwhile, BP’s contracts favor the corporation heavily, at the expense of Egypt’s state and people. With one of its offshore blocks, for instance, “BP managed to negotiate a vast share of the concession profits, above the 50-50 ratio customary to most petroleum agreements, citing the complexities and depth of extraction in that particular patch of the Mediterranean Sea.”
“I’ve analyzed oil and gas contracts from Uganda, Kazakhstan and Congo, and I’ve never seen a country ripped off this badly,” said one researcher. “The Egyptian people are paying for elite corruption with blackouts, black-market fuel and a collapsing economy.” The new investment law will make it almost impossible for Egyptians to contest such concessions — giving BP one more reason for gratitude to Sisi.
There are other reasons. The activist group Platform London told this story in mid-2013:
We recently visited a small Egyptian town that fought off plans by giant BP to build a gas terminal on its land as part of an $11 billion project. Idku lies just east of Alexandria, where the Nile Delta meets the Mediterranean. We met a number of local activists, farmers and fisherfolk, who explained that Idku’s land and water has for years suffered from pollution by both nearby sewage canals and the existing BG/Rashpetco’s LNG [liquid natural gas] export plant. …
BP, having drilled for oil in the deep waters of the North Alexandria block, wanted to build yet another new gas plant on Idku’s beach. … But the community was tired of their sea being polluted by large corporations.
Empowered by the Egyptian revolution, Idku’s citizens rebelled. They launched months of street protests and social media campaigns, among them “a symbolic funeral procession and a sit-in occupation at BP’s proposed construction site in late 2011.” In 2013 BP gave in and suspended the project.
“Idku: An Egyptian town beat the odds and stopped BP.” Video produced by Egypt’s Mosireen Collective.
London Platform described all this only nine days before the coup that carried Sisi to power. Within months, the new regime passed a draconian new protest law making demonstrations impossible. By mid-2014, with the way cleared, BP announced expanded work at its existing gas plant in Idku. Bob Dudley visited Cairo to promise new investment in Egyptian gas production. Details stayed secret, but the state simultaneously agreed to pay higher prices for its own energy resources extracted by foreign concession-holders: “to fulfil a pledge to provide more attractive terms to foreign firms.” As for the investment money, Platform wrote, “the oil and gas industry is incredibly capital-intensive; the billions will go to foreign oil service companies and imported equipment and technology. Few jobs will be created, and most will be temporary – the benefits for the Egyptian people are debatable.”
BP, then, has done pretty well off the Sisi government’s repressive measures. Yet the firm claims to attend to human rights issues. BP’s own Code of Conduct says: “We seek to conduct our business in a manner that respects the human rights and dignity of people. Each of us can play a role in the elimination of human rights abuses such as child labour, human trafficking and forced labour.” There’s even an action point: “Report any human rights abuse in our operations or in those of our business partners.” True, the document seems short of binding: “Our Code reflects a principles-based approach, where rules are not stated explicitly.” You may also notice that it is available in eight languages including Azerbaijani, but not in Arabic.
Sexual orientation is of high concern to BP, at least in some languages. There’s a history behind this. Its longtime chief, Lord John Browne, resigned under a cloud in 2007 after perjuring himself to deny a same-sex lover. Browne has since transformed himself into a gay-rights martyr. In fact, as was widely noted at the time, his exit owed at least as much to the safety and environmental disasters that plagued his tenure, all traceable to his merger-fueled mania for cost-cutting. One of his legacies, though — in addition to the despoiled Louisiana coast, a catastrophe for which his successor took the fall — is a non-discrimination policy protecting LGBT employees.
“Our goal is to create an environment of inclusion and acceptance,” BP’s Code of Conduct says. (Their website illustrates that laudable ambition with this frightening picture, showing a brown woman with crazed eyes who has apparently fought her way in front of a sad white man.) “We seek to treat all employees equally, irrespective of gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.” Achieving this in Egypt might require speaking up to the government about something other than concessionary profits. Then there’s this gem:
BP encourages and supports a number of business resource groups (BRGs). BRGs are employee-networks, set up by employees for employees. The groups come together voluntarily with the goal of enhancing the success of BP’s D&I objectives by helping to foster, develop and retain diverse talent in BP.
Among these is a “BP Pride group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees.” Creating such a group in Egypt would earn you nine years in prison, by my estimates (three for practicing “debauchery,” three for inciting others to “debauchery,” and three for publicizing an invitation to “debauchery”). Will BP complain?
Lord Browne, one critic says, nearly destroyed BP with “the conflict between how he actually managed the company and the public principles he claimed were the essence of BP’s corporate character.” The corporation can’t afford another conflict when Sisi starts arresting its staff. If BP cares about human rights and its LGBT employees, it should speak out at Sharm.
Both these core supporters of Sisi’s summit are British-based firms. Six weeks from now they’ll be center stage in Sharm el-Sheikh. They don’t need to flatter power to get their profits, which are secure; they do need to show whether their principles are just glossy print and verbiage. Get started.