Jack Shenker writes: In footage recorded by news cameras, you can see David Cameron – flanked by a large security team – threading his way through the flag sellers and nut vendors and the amiable mayhem of Tahrir Square. It is February 2011, ten days after the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Locals drift over to see what the fuss is about, and many call out to welcome the British prime minister. At one point a boy, his face painted in revolutionary style with the colours of the Egyptian flag, runs up to Cameron and smiles. “Are you happy now?” Cameron asks, in English. The child looks blank. Cameron nods with satisfaction and holds out his hand. “Put it there,” he grins.
The imagery of Cameron traipsing around an urban landscape that still bore the scars of revolutionary struggle was designed to convey a particular message: after decades of providing steadfast support to one of the Middle East’s most entrenched autocrats, Britain was supposedly ready to embrace a new type of politics. “I’ve just been meeting with leaders of the democracy movement, really brave people who did extraordinary things in Tahrir Square,” Cameron told the BBC. “We want Egypt to have a strong and successful future, we want the aspirations of the Egyptian people – for democracy, for freedom, for openness, the things we take for granted – we want them to have those things.”
Almost half a decade later, Cameron is finally about to return Egypt’s hospitality, and once again news cameras will be on hand to capture the moment. This time round, though, the images will be very different.
Next week Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is scheduled to accept an invitation to Downing Street: red carpets will be unfurled, gifts exchanged and powerful hands shaken. His photoshoot with Cameron will be a celebration not of new politics, but of more conventional forms of power – the kinds that remain safely locked up inside the executive, the army and institutional elites. The buzzwords at the official banquet will be “stability” and “security”. Of freedom, or openness, or the Egyptian streets that Cameron was so keen to walk down – the streets in which power, not so long ago, came to reside – little mention will be made. [Continue reading…]