Flags, custard and CSRs: entrepreneurship in the Egyptian revolution

Mohamed El Hebeishy, Thursday 21 Apr 2011

It might not be about business, but even a revolution can promote entrepreneurship and create job opportunities

Street vendors in Tahrir Square – Photo by Mohamed El Hebeishy
Street vendors in Tahrir Square – Photo by Mohamed El Hebeishy

Revolution is not only an event, it is a state of mind that grabs, aspires, and possibly changes the society. Witnessing the Egyptian Revolution, some of us grew more interested in politics, allocated part of their time for community service, or just reflected artistically by painting graffiti, composing poetry, or writing notes on social networks. Others, however, took a more business-oriented approach and decided to commercialize on the revolution.

Walking down Tahrir Square on one of those downplayed Fridays, where atmosphere is more carnival than hardcore protesting, I was actually surprised with the amount of street vendors. Browsing what they were selling, revolutionary souvenirs varied from Proud-to-be-Egyptian type of t-shirts and the nation’s flag in every conceivable size, to the fast selling JAN-25 sticker and the much-argued martyrs card.  

Flags are more of a seasonal product that often witness business peaks whenever a football match is being played in town; however, since the revolution broke out, and more precisely after the former president relinquished power on Feb. 11th, the flag business has been booming. Patriotic themed t-shirts are not doing bad at all. They come in different designs; from straightforward “I Love Egypt” to more creative #Jan25. The revolution souvenir hit, however, is the JAN-25 sticker. The design mimics the new car plates, and it often comes in two colours, blue and orange, with JAN – 25 filling in for the plate’s alphanumeric. Last but certainly not least, is the controversial martyrs card. While some condemns it as inappropriate, if not degrading, to have photos of martyrs printed on a small card that you put around your neck or hang from your car’s mirror, others perceive it as a way of showing support to the revolution and respect to those who paid dearly for it success. “I couldn’t join the demonstrations; my parents were too scared [for my personal safety]. By buying this one-pound card, I felt, somehow, relieved” says Mohamed El Sayed, a 20-year old freshman.

Whether we agree with El Sayed or not, the martyrs card at the end of the day is a product that wouldn’t have come to existence if it wasn’t for the revolution. However, other products in the market don’t follow suit. Continuing with my stroll in the square and right before I reached Qasr El Nil Bridge, a hawker calling grabbed my undivided attention. He was calling for the “revolution custard”.  Dismayed, I actually decided to give it a try; perhaps after devouring the “revolution custard” I may turn into a super revolutionary. To my disappointment, “revolutionary custard” turned out to be a bad tasting dessert not worth the money, and certainly the name. 

Capitalizing on the revolution, from a commercial standpoint, has not been limited to Tahrir Square hawkers selling dessert and souvenirs. Those hotshot marketers in fancy offices couldn’t let the chance go unnoticed. “At the beginning marketing managers were hot on revolution-inspired slogans, so they went on and fired off uplifting mottos like build your country, God protects Egypt, and make tomorrow a better day. Then, some of them soon retracted and started thinking deeper; it is the time for a different marketing concept, it is the time for CSR” comments Hany El Shenawy client service director in one of Egypt’s prominent advertising agencies.

CSR stands for corporate social responsibility and in the realm of marketing it is the integration of social and environmental concerns into both the company’s operation and its interaction with various stakeholders. Before Jan 25th, not much of marketing budgets was allocated to CSR, may be an orphanage here or a hospital there, but after the revolution, things started changing dramatically.

One of post-revolution CSR success stories is the literacy campaign led by mobile operator Vodafone. The idea is straightforward: to completely eradicate illiteracy in Egypt by the year 2017. A challenge if you want my opinion. “The beauty of this idea is that it has no return on either Vodafone’s products or its services, but rather the brand equity. This is what I call true CSR” adds El Shenawy.

Vodafone is certainly not the only big name with a success CSR story; Kharafi’s EMAK International Academy joins the podium. They are offering 5,000 free-of-charge training opportunities in an attempt to better qualify the youth and increase their chances of finding a decent job.

Unfortunately not all attempted CSR campaigns managed to fit the criteria of a successful one. A leading multinational had recently launched a cleaning campaign, where they provide tools as well as promoters to encourage and aid people in cleaning up their neighbourhoods. Indeed it is a good idea; however, it certainly lacks originality. Many neighbours, in more than one Egyptian city, get together and clean up their neighbourhood anyway. Extending the scope of an already existing initiative can always be deemed beneficial; nevertheless, wouldn’t it have been more beneficial to the society if the big company, with all its financial and logistical muscles, had taken the initiative to the next level; perhaps in sponsoring a recycling centre?   

The commercial side of the revolution has spread far, wide, and deep that is has actually touched revolutionary figures themselves—keep an open eye for Wael Ghoneim’s upcoming book “Revolution 2.0”


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