After Egyptian security forces dispersed the Rabea al-Adeweya sit-in calling for the reinstatement of former President Mohamed Morsi three years ago, killing hundreds in the span of a few hours, a black hand showing four fingers on a yellow background quickly spread on social media networks.
The campaign began after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the four-finger sign at a popular conference during the sit-in.
The yellow logo became characteristic of demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood, its supporters and sympathizers. Tens of thousands of protesters on the streets and university campuses have raised their hands in four-finger salutes or carried posters and banners bearing the logo. Even stationary featuring the logo was produced.
The official response was violent: Security forces arrested a high school student for possession of a ruler with the Rabea logo. The prosecution detained the student’s father for “encouraging” him. Dentistry student Sarah Khaled spent months in detention for wearing a pin of the four-finger logo. Footballer Ahmed Abdel Zaher, a member of the Egyptian national team at the time, raised his four fingers after scoring a goal in the African finals in 2013, and was subsequently banned from representing Egypt internationally. The government engaged in attempts to criminalize the use of the logo on Facebook.
The state’s battle with the symbol extended to the physical site of the sit-in. In August last year, the government decided to change its name from Rabea al-Adaweya Square to Martyr Hesham Barakat Square, in honor of the country’s public prosecutor, who was assassinated last year.
The extent of government efforts to eradicate the four-finger logo are not surprising in the context of the authority’s battle against symbols and symbolism following the January 2011 revolution. Only this time the focus shifted from graffiti artists to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood organization.
The Rabea logo was not birthed spontaneously; it was the work of a specialized team. This raises questions about the application of marketing logic to human causes and tragedies, and the extent to which one can turn a tragedy into a commodity, the marketing of which is thought to be useful for the cause in question.
Turkish designer Saliha Eren, one of two designers of the famous logo, who has never herself been to Egypt, told Mada Masr in an interview that the design was a collective effort by the team working on Haberseyret social network. “We were telling people about the Arab spring from the very start; people that were seeking justice and freedom touched us greatly,” says Eren, “But we were shocked when the Egyptian military killed civilians in August 2013. The people courageously continued to resist in Rabea Square, so we decided to make this resistance visible. We did this driven by our consciences,” she adds.
A study by the media department at the London School of Economics about branding in electoral campaigns and whether using market dynamics in designing them constitutes a new form of communication, concluded that branding can be defined as having either “symbolic value” or “psychological representation” of a product, developing an emotional bond or a number of intangible benefits by association with it.
Graphic designer and branding specialist Valerie Arif notes that the choice of the colors for the Rabea logo was particularly successful. “The yellow color was used to give a sense of alertness or warning, while the black color of the fingers was a symbol of the massacre.” She adds that the campaign was also successful in developing important easy recognition by its consumers.
Arif says working with consumer products is no different from working with political campaigns or humanitarian causes as far as branding and campaign development are concerned. “Designing a brand for a new café is no different from designing a brand for a humanitarian cause — the elements are the same.” But she emphasizes that the emotional messages brands can deliver changes the ways in which these tools are used.
“The average consumer links the use of colors and lines with the credibility that the owner of the logo deserves,” Arif says, adding, “All these branding elements are necessary, but they are not the only things; there are other elements that are required for success in the long run.”
Did the “Rabea product” achieve long-term success? Three years ago the yellow logo flooded the accounts of many on social media networks, a clear symbol of an identity that some wanted erased. The symbol was successful in bringing together various groups of people: those who lost relatives or friends in the bloody Rabea dispersal, members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood that witnessed the collapse of their historical dream in just a year, and a number of people who sympathized with the victims of the violence, without necessarily requiring shared ideological or personal views.
Amr Salama, a veterinarian in his late twenties, belongs to this latter group of people. He visited the Rabea sit-in just once with his wife to participate in Eid prayers on the last evening of Ramadan in the square. He does not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood and does not express political solidarity with them.
However, after the dispersal of the sit-in, he changed his profile picture on Facebook to the yellow symbol with the four black fingers. “On my personal Facebook account there were very few friends who were sympathetic to the victims of the massacre or who explicitly expressed their sympathy,” Salama says, explaining his decision. “This is why I decided to use it. It was my message to those who gloated over the killing of hundreds. If the yellow logo upsets you that much, well, here it is.”
Salama adds that he used the logo again as his Facebook profile picture when there was discussion around government attempts to criminalize its use. He perceives the logo as a symbolic weapon for many who are in a state of helplessness.
Alia Shabrawy, who works in the field of architecture, neither supports nor opposes the violent dispersals that took place on June 30, but she says the 4-finger symbol upset her — both during and after the sit-in — as it ignored other massacres, such as at the Cabinet towards the end of 2011, and the Port Said Stadium in early 2012. “I think my position will not change, and I don’t think the logo altered my views in any way, whether positively or negatively.”
Salama says the impact of the logo has lessened over time. Eren, who worked on the logo design, agrees. She says the world has changed much over the last three years. Although she adds, “The logo was a salute to people who seek rights and justice…I think it is still alive.”
Shabrawy notes a problem in dealing with humanitarian tragedies according to market dynamics. “I think it is not appropriate from a humanitarian point of view to deal with humane issues using this logic,” he says, adding, “Manipulating people’s problems and life realities should not follow the same logic as manipulating their dreams and desires in the world of the market and consumption. But it seems to me that people don’t differentiate much between them. This is why organizing political campaigns as if they were advertising campaigns is usually successful in the end.”
Although the notorious logo hasn’t resulted in tangible changes three years on, Salama thinks it was successful in achieving one victory that cannot be erased: “It has immortalized people’s sympathy with the victims of the Rabea massacre.”
Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla