A visitor looks at a large statue of the 18th dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaten at Egypt's new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization during its official reopening on April 4, 2021, a day after the Pharaohs' Golden Parade ceremony. The NMEC had opened its doors to limited exhibits from 2017. Photo: AFP / Mahmoud Khaled

Egypt moved 22 pharaonic mummies, four of them ancient queens, on ornate golden trucks from the old Cairo Museum across the city to a new, gleaming giant one.

The cortege included the mummified pharaonic remains of six Ramses, four Thutmoses, three Amenhoteps and Hatshepsut, one of the few women to rule ancient Egypt.

There on hand to greet them all was president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who like the pharaohs of old, will likely rule Egypt his whole life.

The event, named the Golden Parade, was designed to celebrate the partial opening of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, which will be the world’s largest when completed.

The museum will house 50,000 artifacts, top among them the entire collection of artifacts from King Tutankhamun’s tomb, unearthed in 1922. Its glass triangular roof is meant to echo the famous Cheops pyramids 1.5 kilometers away.

But there was more to the pageant than the gala inauguration of a billion-dollar project. There was the desire to boost the morale of a country spiraling downward into deeper poverty and an as effort to tie Egyptian identity to an ancient, glorious past, avoiding the pitfalls of contentious religious and ethnic conflict of the present.

And, as is often the habit in the Middle East, the aim was also to glorify a dictatorial ruler.

The parade route wound around Tahrir Square and contained a hint of cruel irony and forgetfulness. The large roundabout was the epicenter of the mass protests that led to the 2011 overthrow of the late president Hosni Mubarak. But there’s a new pharaoh in town.

Not only have the long-gone tents and massive crowds been replaced by an ancient obelisk, but the square is off-limits to demonstrators of any sort, especially any that would protest Sisi’s rule.

Sisi took power in 2013 after overthrowing Muhammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Morsi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and his Islamist sectarian tendencies outraged millions of tolerant Egyptians. 

Protests erupted. Sisi, then defense minister, stepped in, overthrew Morsi and then killed more than 650 of his supporters who had staged a dissenting sit-in.

In 2014, Sisi had himself elected with 97% of the vote. A constitutional change lets him rule until 2034, a full 20 years in power – if it stops there, which no one believes will happen.

During the parade, Sisi sat center stage among ministers in a museum hall to watch proceedings on a big screen. 

Seated on a blue leather chair, he seemed to be posing in imitation of monumental Ramses II stone statues in Egypt’s far south: a stiff posture, unchanging expression and hands always on his lap.

And in the style of Ramses II, Sisi presents himself as a master builder. Not only is he completing the museum, first broached as a project in 2002, but he has constructed a new branch of the Suez Canal and built a new suspension bridge across the Nile.

He is putting up a nuclear power plant on the Mediterranean Sea, laying out new suburbs near Cairo airport and erecting a whole new administrative district called New Cairo on 28,300 hectares southeast of the capital.

Such projects emphasize Sisi’s power as much as the presumed well-being they provide Egypt. When the Suez Canal addition was inaugurated in 2015, the opening ceremony featured F-16 jet and military helicopter flyovers.

The new bridge across the Nile, inaugurated in 2019, is the world’s longest; state media said it will be “the talk of the world.” There’s also a plan to build a 385-meter tower, Africa’s tallest, in New Cairo.

If this sounds a little like the late Saddam Hussein, there are indeed parallels. 

Saddam reconstructed and modernized much of Baghdad, built broad superhighways, constructed monuments to contemporary and past glories and even refurbished the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, where he affixed his own name to a restored Ishtar Gate.

During the years leading up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Saddam built a series of palaces for himself as well as grandiose mosques.

Sisi has not seen fit to build himself a new palace. But he did construct two large religious buildings in New Cairo: one, a Coptic church that can hold 8,000 worshipers; the other, a mosque with a capacity of 16,000 faithful.

These two projects were meant to symbolize Egyptian tolerance – and Sisi’s, unless you disagree with him. Besides thousands of Islamists, he has thrown plenty of liberal democrats in jail.

Sisi’s devotion to the pharaonic past is not dissimilar to Saddam’s admiration for Mesopotamia’s Babylonic glory. Saddam wanted to frame Iraq’s identity by Hammurabi the law-giver and Nebuchadnezzar, builder of magnificence.

Egypt’s ancient history is also a place where all Egyptians can find themselves covered in prestige: Ramses, King Tut (if only briefly pharaoh) and the beautiful Nefertiti, who may also have ruled briefly; not to mention Egypt’s supreme engineering prowess. 

As Sisi put it in a tweet: “This majestic scene is new evidence of the greatness of [the Egyptian] people, the guardian of this unique civilization that roots back into the depth of history.”

As Sisi put it in a tweet: “This majestic scene is new evidence of the greatness of [the Egyptian] people, the guardian of this unique civilization that roots back into the depth of history.”

Perhaps this appeal to pride could work – if only Sisi did not regard himself also as a pharaoh, able and willing to crush all rivals.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.