There’s Nothing Cheesier Than Egyptian Military Propaganda
Egypt’s autocratic regime likes kitsch
It wasn’t exactly a surprise when Egypt’s top general announced he was running for president on March 26. Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi has been Egypt’s ruling strongman since last July’s popular uprising—and military coup—against former Pres. Mohammed Morsi.
In the meantime, Sisi has developed a canny public image machine promoting everything from kitschy pop music videos to billboards and sweets.
The Sisi mania is despite—or perhaps aided by—a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. On March 24, an Egyptian court sentenced 524 people to death in “the harshest mass conviction in modern Egyptian history,” described the New York Times.
The military’s Department of Morale Affairs has also spent the past few months promoting cheery stories about the military’s role in post-coup Egypt.
It’s celebrated a new bridge—built by the army—in congested Cairo and the invention of a quack device for curing HIV. The department also regularly circulates positive Sisi stories in the media through regular meetings with TV station managers.
At the same time, Sisi remains popular and is widely considered a shoe-in to win Egypt’s July 17 presidential election. But it’s very unlikely anyone with a chance of beating him at the polls—if such a candidate even existed—would be allowed to.
Sisi even shows up in pop music videos.
In one video, singer Hassan Abu Saif and personal trainer Bosy Moukhtar Bosey sing that “all the Egyptians love” the general. There are images of anti-Morsi demonstrations intermixed with military parades, parachutists and tank fire.
“We pray that our common president will be Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi,” Bosey says.
If there’s one word to describe all of this, it’s kitsch. What is kitsch? The term usually means a tacky and self-congratulatory form of popular art. Examples include tourist souvenirs, Disney cartoons and Dale Earhardt Sr. commemorative plates.
It’s funny, but also corny and overly-emotional. It’s meant to be.
“Kitsch tends to mimic the effects produced by real sensory experiences, presenting highly charged imagery, language, or music that triggers and automatic, and therefore unreflective, emotional reaction,” Whitney Rugg of the University of Chicago wrote.
Egypt’s military kitsch is a jarring combination of the popular and the authoritarian—used to promote a general responsible for the deaths of thousands of people.
But the mix of kitsch and military authoritarianism is not as strange as it might appear. It’s a classic combination.
For one, it makes the general into an everyman. He has enormous power, but his face on a cake makes him relateable enough without appearing threatening—at least on the surface. The style serves as a sedative.
“The kitsch vision favors the aesthetic criteria of a submissive mass, joyously receptive in its quest for harmony and sentimentality,” historian Saul Friedländer noted in his study of Nazi kitsch.
Friedländer would go on to note that this quest implied an undercurrent of menace. With Sisi, there’s menace when his face is photoshopped alongside images of roaring lions and bloody war paintings—while riding a suitably ridiculous child’s rocking horse.