Never Say No to Panda: Is Egypt’s Brand of Ultranationalist Authoritarianism Sustainable?

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 17.41.13As incredible as it may seem, the ostensible beginnings of the Arab Spring are the best part of four years in the past; while many elements of this phenomenon are still somewhat opaque, there is little doubt that life in Egypt – the Arab world’s most populous country – is degenerating into an eerie parody of decades gone by. A recent open-editorial NYT piece by the Al Shorouk journalist Sara Khorshid (Egypt’s New Police State, 16th November 2014) confirms that something as innocent as a conversation with a foreigner in a café can set a person on the course to being denounced and detained.

Khorshid and her sister were chatting with Alain Gresh – editor of the venerable Le Monde Diplomatique periodical – in a Cairo dining establishment on 11th November 2014 when their exchanges were interrupted by someone claiming that they were ‘ruining Egypt’; on leaving the eatery, the trio were stopped by a security officer who informed them of some of their own autobiographical information in a similar manner to a stalker-type character in a cheap 1990s American psychological thriller. Their ordeal continued until their eventual release two hours later, following a couple of telephone calls from M. Gresh to the French Embassy and the top man at the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate; that this episode took place in one of Cairo’s more genteel neighbourhoods is a stark illustration of the prevailing climate in the country.

But assuming that Khorshid is correct in describing today’s Egypt as reminiscent of the very worst of Nasser’s hyper-nationalist, paranoid police state, the question on everybody’s lips should be: is this sustainable? Authoritarian politics can work – after a fashion – in today’s über-connected societies, but the financial incentives have to be present within the system. As many of Egypt’s neighbours – as well as states like Russia and China – are swiftly discovering, it is hard work for authoritarian ruling classes (and those in democracies) to stay one step ahead of the populace, even assuming rapid economic growth; in its absence, wrapping one’s compatriots in an increasingly tattered flag is barely a strategy. (Former) General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi would do well to prioritise spreading the benefits of his country’s notoriously unevenly-distributed wealth lest he risks resembling the star of Egypt’s famous Panda cheese commercials: a take-no-prisoners bear who responds to any insinuation of ‘disloyalty’ with brute and inapposite force.

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Twenty-First Century Dilemmas: Lifting of E-Cigarette Advertising Ban Poses CSR Questions for Wider Economy

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Trawling through the television listings is one of the last places we at Mediolana were expecting to find a compelling item about corporate social responsibility (‘CSR’), but this week turned out to be an historic one for UK TV advertising: a commercial depicting someone smoking was broadcast, nearly fifty years since the last such placement. As might be expected in 2014, this was not owing to the sudden abrogation of the relevant European directive on tobacco publicity, but merely the purchasing of airtime to plug the VIP brand of electronic cigarettes (‘e-cigarettes’): as of October 2014, e-cigarette television advertisements have been permitted under UK law, albeit with certain provisos.

Naturally, this development has engendered controversy. Some have posited that electronic cigarettes are little more than a proxy for tobacco products; others have argued that it is counterproductive for governments to prohibit the advertising of e-cigarettes, which seem to be used as a smoking cessation aid as much as anything else.

However, this debate – while valuable – serves to highlight what is – at least for this company – a much bigger issue: how many categories of products and services today would really pass a basic CSR test, and should it be legal to push them on commercial television? For decades, the automobile industry has used seductive shots of everything from empty country roads to supermodels to sell something – the petrol-powered car – that is detrimental to human health and which contributes alarmingly to global pollution levels. Alcohol corporations get to advertise their carcinogenic wares on UK television with the kind of feeble health notices that can only be the product of self-regulation; in fact, the default position in this and many other jurisdictions is to permit all kinds of highly deleterious stuff to be embedded in the public consciousness through relentless media promotion without so much as a second thought.

Over a century after the advent of modern advertising, far too many companies and societies are failing to ask themselves the basic question: what are our products and services for? There is a world beyond basic commercial imperatives that has barely been explored in the present model of disposable consumption – a model which is content to dwell on the minutiae while obscuring the bigger, vital picture.

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