One man’s currency design challenge raises questions about a sensitive topic
LE50 by Karim Sabry

When an Egyptian graphic designer took it upon himself to raise his fellow citizens’ spirits and hopes about their currency by announcing an “Egyptian Currency Design Challenge” on November 11, he had no idea that the initiative would go viral — or cause so much controversy.

Maged Sabry, 31, launched the Facebook page for his challenge with little hope about participation levels. But so far around 100 designers have submitted new designs — including a new LE500 banknote category — while the page has over 43,000 followers and growing. “I had no idea that this many Egyptians are actually interested in currency design,” he says.

While the Central Bank of Egypt has not made the identities of their graphic designers public, the current banknotes follow a specific pattern: All banknotes are bilingual, with Islamic monuments on the Arabic side and pharaonic monuments on the English side — except for the 25-piaster note, which has the state’s Eagle of Saladin symbol on the English side.

Sabry feels that the currency designs are ripe for updating, and the director of the American University in Cairo’s graphic design program, Haytham Nawar, agrees. “It doesn’t represent us. Egypt isn’t just mosques and pharaonic temples,” says Nawar, who believes the designs summarize how recent governments see our identity. “I partially agree about using those elements, but they should not only be ancient Egyptian and Islamic — we have Coptic as well as other ethnic groups like the Amazigh, the Takhnak people, the Nubians.”

Nawar also thinks banknotes shouldn’t just represent the past. “We have a contemporary culture rich in art, literature, film,” he says. “We have internationally acknowledged names, scientists. We have Nobel Prize winners. We can use all these as elements of design in our banknotes to build our identity.”

LE200 by Ahmed Yahya, featuring Hypatia of Alexandria

LE200 by Ahmed Yahya, featuring Hypatia of Alexandria

But when the competing designers on Sabry’s page challenged the current Islamic-Pharaonic pattern, a deluge of criticism poured in. “Don’t you dare think you could replace our mosques with [ancient Egyptian] deities,” wrote one critic.

In response, Sabry argues that religions exist in all countries. “What’s really unique in our culture is the pharaonic art and heritage,” he says, but adds that the challenge is open to all ideas and only excludes designs with technical and spelling errors.

Ancient Egypt is currently poorly represented in Egypt’s currency, Nawar says, as its scripts do not feature on the banknotes. He points out that scripts and languages are very important elements in any culture, and that Egyptian culture has a variety of languages in different scripts.

But the Egyptian Currency Design Challenge has also been criticized for its exclusive use of English in both presentation and design. Sabry claims that English is not only easier to design but is also understandable to potential tourists and investors. Aside from raising spirits, Sabry hoped to promote tourism and investment — he wanted the designs to have the same effect that postcards have.

Nawar has higher expectations. “Switzerland, for example, prints four languages on its banknotes, because they have four official languages,” he explains. “So we can show our diversity by using different scripts, by not eliminating ‘minorities’ — much as I hate that word.”

LE200 by Muhammed Mahrous, featuring Anwar Sadat

LE200 by Muhammed Mahrous, featuring Anwar Sadat

When asked about when a currency should redesigned, financial analyst and investor Magdy Tolba says, “Currencies are almost like readings of historical events. They don’t have a fixed expiration date, like needing to be renewed every decade or something of this sort.”

Tolba says currencies change on three occasions. First, when major political change happens — from a caliphate to a monarchy or from a monarchy to a republic, for example. Second, when production methods change due to new technologies or other shifts, as when the CBE established the country’s own printing house in 1968, ceasing to print banknotes abroad. Third, when economic factors lead to currencies no longer having meaning, as when the Sudanese pound collapsed in the late 1900s, and Sudan abolished the pound and introduced the dinar.

The National Bank of Egypt had issued notes for 10 and 25 piasters, LE1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 banknotes since 1899, a role that the CBE took over in 1969. It subsequently introduced LE20 banknotes in 1976 and the LE200 note in 2007.

Nawar says that technology has changed since the banknotes were last designed, and that up-to-date technology should be considered in the design process. “Even for security, now we have really high-level technology, and we should be considering these advancements of technology in our designs,” Nawar explains. “We just use some security elements, like ink that is able to be read by ultraviolet light, but we haven’t changed the design itself according to the technology.”

There’s no actual money in Sabry’s challenge. Once submissions start decreasing, he will stop posting pictures and instead organize submitted designs into albums with his friend Nadeem Khaled. “People will be requested to vote so there will be a winner in the end, and the prize will be something intangible but valuable: exposure on Facebook as a graphic designer,” Sabry says.

LE500 by Mirna Mikhail

LE500 by Mirna Mikhail

Twenty-three-year-old architect and graphic design enthusiast Mirna Mikhail was working on logos and invitations when she came across one of the new banknote designs on her Facebook timeline, prompting her to participate. “A currency is a rare thing to be asked to design. I think this is what made it special and awoke the interest of hundreds of designers,” Mikhail says. It pushed her out of her comfort zone to search for watermarks, dimensions, fonts and the other elements required in a banknote.

Mikhail saw the competition as a cultural challenge and wanted to bring out elements of Egyptians’ shared cultures. One of her designs incorporates Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic elements. Another seeks to combine Pharaonic culture’s past and future: She shows the Grand Egyptian Museum – currently in construction – and Tutankhamen’s mask, with the pyramids in the background.

Sabry will not be proposing the winning designs to the CBE or any other officials. “The page is there. The designs are there, and, if they find the initiative suitable considering the timing and situation, they would’ve approached themselves,” he says. “But it’s obvious that they’re not considering changing the design, especially after they talked to the press about the falsity of claims that my page’s designs are the new currency designs. It might not be the time for such a thing.”

LE20 Ahmed K Mealy, featuring the Cairo Tower

LE20 Ahmed K Mealy, featuring the Cairo Tower

Apart from the country’s ongoing foreign reserve crisis and theNovember 3 decision to float the currency, in June, the CBE brought back 25 and 50 piaster and LE1 banknotes – replaced by coins in 2011 – apparently because the cost of the metal used became higher than the currency’s actual price.

Indeed, aside from the look of the suggested new designs, many bankers became infuriated when Facebook pages shared the challenge designs and claimed they were the actual new designs for the Egyptian currency.

“This challenge could lead to a catastrophe,” says a parliamentarian who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Millions of people may fall into believing it’s true and head to the banks to exchange their paper money for new ones. This is not the time. The market is in severe damage.”

But although the CBE issued a statement on November 15 denying the false claims and Sabry wrote a post on the page on November 17 supporting that denial, stressing that his challenge is nothing but a challenge and is not supported by any official body, some bankers and experts remained angry.

Because of this, finding interviewees for this article who have investigated banknote design in their work was not easy: Some professors and graduate students were intimidated by the thought of being published – even anonymously.

Tolba says the panic could be because of a misplaced fear that the competition could pave the way for currency forgery. He explains that currency printing now incorporates security measures into banknotes, which makes them very difficult to forge.

“Banknotes are the direct communication means between citizens in everyday life,” says Nawar. “If our citizens have the potential to see the visuals in the banknotes, you’d be actually educating them about their culture very simply. They don’t have to go to museums and exhibitions. They would see the special elements of their culture everyday. That’s why choosing the elements to include in the banknotes’ designs is a very sensitive subject.”


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