Pro-Mubarak thugs charged into Tahrir Square on horses and camels in an effort to save the embattled Egyptian dictator. It was not long ago that the regime was being propped up by a different breed of supporter: foreign investors arriving on corporate jets with billions of dollars in capital.
Long overdue attention is being paid to the foreign arms contractors that have equipped the Egyptian military with weapons funded by U.S. aid programs. Also deserving of close scrutiny are the major U.S. and European corporations that have invested heavily in Egypt, thereby shoring up the regime. Here are some of the main culprits.
BP. Formerly known as British Petroleum, BP has a long history in the Middle East in general and Egypt in particular. The company’s website makes no bones about its huge involvement in Egypt during the Mubarak regime: “BP Egypt has been a significant part of the Egyptian oil and gas industry for more than 44 years. During this time, we’ve been responsible for almost half of Egypt’s entire oil production and we are the single largest foreign investor in the country…Over the years we’ve established strong relationships with the Egyptian Government and the Ministry of Petroleum.” In July 2010 BP agreed to sell some of its Egyptian assets to Apache Corporation as part of a divestment effort to raise funds to pay for the cleanup of its massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Nestlé. Just a week before protests broke out in Cairo, this Swiss food giant announced that it would invest some $170 million to expand its existing factories and distribution centers in Egypt, adding 500 new jobs to its 3,000-person workforce. After the announcement, the country’s Ministry of Investment put out a press release quoting Nestlé’s CEO as saying that the move was based on studies “that had proven Egypt to be a promising market with security, stability and high profitability in the long term.”
Procter & Gamble. In June 2010 P&G laid the cornerstone on a huge new diaper manufacturing plant outside Cairo. The $176 million facility would nearly double the value of P&G’s operations in Egypt, which currently involve the production of products such as detergents, soaps and other personal care products.
Electrolux. The Swedish appliance company announced last October that it would spend about $475 million to buy a controlling interest in Egypt’s Olympic Group, the largest producer of household appliances in the Middle East and North Africa.
Saint-Gobain. In July 2010 the large French construction materials firm opened a $100 million glass production plant in Ain El Sokhna on Egypt’s Red Sea coast.
PepsiCo. In December 2009, International Dairy and Juice Limited, a joint venture between PepsiCo and Almarai, announced that it had acquired Egypt’s International Company for Agro-Industrial Projects (Beyti).
Deals such as these – some of which are now on hold – helped to make Egypt the second largest recipient of foreign direct investment among African nations (behind Angola). In 2008 the U.S.-based National Outsourcing Association named Egypt its “Outsourcing Destination of the Year.”
The appeal of Egypt for foreign investors is not just better access to a market of 80 million consumers. As in China, a repressive political environment has weakened the power of labor and kept down wages to the advantage of major employers, both foreign and domestic.
Egyptian workers have been attempting to build a movement that would help raise their standard of living. A series of labor protests helped pave the way for the current uprising. The group that is credited with sparking the revolt, the April 6 Movement, takes its name from the effort to support workers who launched an aborted general strike in 2008. Hundreds of workers took to the streets of Cairo last May to call for an increase in the country’s pitiful minimum wage while also calling for an end to Mubarak’s rule. And amid the current revolt, Egyptian workers formed a new independent labor federation.
Large corporations try to have it both ways. They promote the view that the expansion of “free” markets goes hand-in-hand with the growth of free societies, yet they do not hesitate to do business in the most repressive societies. And they are quick to take advantage of repression’s side effects, above all weak unions.
However the uprising in Egypt turns out, it has served to highlight the hypocrisy not only of the U.S. government but also that of big business when it comes to selective support for democracy. And like the Obama Administration, major corporations will have to scramble to avoid ending up on the wrong side of history.