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Is politics actually the oldest profession?

23 November 2022 at 4:53 pm
Neil Pharaoh
Some lessons from ancient Egypt need to be remembered if you are to ensure your not-for-profit dominion can stand the test of time, writes Neil Pharaoh.

Neil Pharaoh | 23 November 2022 at 4:53 pm


Is politics actually the oldest profession?
23 November 2022 at 4:53 pm

Some lessons from ancient Egypt need to be remembered if you are to ensure your not-for-profit dominion can stand the test of time, writes Neil Pharaoh.

I have been fortunate enough to have spent the past two weeks in Egypt and while the majority of my time was spent in Sharm el Sheikh for the United Nations COP27 climate change summit, I was fortunate enough to have a few days where I explored Egypt. 

In doing so, I think I learned more about politics, campaigning and advocacy than I would have had I stayed in Australia.

Firstly, it seem conflict between political classes has existed since at least a few thousand BC. Secondly, planning permission and ground breaking ceremonies have been intertwined with politics for just as long, and finally soon after politics started, we clearly started political propaganda. The question to ponder is how these apply today, and how you can leverage them to make advocacy gains, policy and legislative change. 

Firstly we have always had a conflict of ideas, and tension between political classes. 

Image 1 (credit: N Pharaoh)

Image 1 is the tomb of a king who lived around 1400 BC. During his reign there was a major drought in Egypt, and he could not afford to feed the labourers working on his tomb – so quite simply they left his tomb unfinished.  Despite the threat of the wrath of the (around 300) gods, and everything in between, without food the workers wouldn’t work – in essence, the tomb tells the story of the first ever labour strike. Now here we are, 3,000 odd years later, and we still have this as a topical issue at present, with the industrial relations bill working its way through in Parliament. Both sides today have their “gods” who they worship, whether free market liberalism, collectivism, or anything in between. And there is an umpire to adjudicate – in this case the Fair Work Commission, as opposed to the Anubis (Egyptian God) who in the afterlife would weigh your heart against the feather of Maat (goddess of truth and justice – and the preamble to todays “scales of justice”).  Today however we have the rules of using the scale, which are dictated by Parliament – whether the rules governing the Fair Work commission, or any other political issue.

Too often we get frustrated at the outcome (indigenous incarceration, children going to adult prisons) yet often forget that the scales are ruled by Parliament. Thinking bigger picture is what enabled the pharaohs’ (not of my surname) to rule for over 3000 years. Each king (or queen) would add to templates showing how they would be recognised by the gods, so all the temples in Egypt are built from the inside out. How does your story layer upon the stories before it, who came before you to adjust the scales, and what your role is in tilting the balance. Having a bigger picture, longer timeframes, and understanding who rules the scale are rarely thought of when constructing campaigns. 

Image 2 (Neil Pharaoh)

Secondly, we have been cutting ribbons with politicians for thousands of years. In Image 2 we see the king, asking permission from the god of planning to build a template, Image 3 is the “ribbon cutting” of the temple – recorded forever in the stone of the temple. In order to secure legitimacy from the people to take land and build temples, even the all divine kings needed to show they sought planning permission AND made a big song and dance when the temple opened.

 Think of all the ribbon cutting in your time, some have a nice plaque, others fade into insignificance – how is it that the political rulers of ancient times knew that things like ribbon cutting ceremonies were so critical, yet today, we often forgot how important they are to ensure legitimacy, to justify a project, to seek buy in and engagement.

Image 3 (Credit: N Pharaoh)

These political frames need to be given as much thought and attention as we did in Egyptian times. How will your “planning permission” be remembered – did you invite the MP or Senator along? Will the ribbon cutting disappear with the sands of time, or have you recorded photographs and sent to all those involved? Little things, but hey if the Egyptian kings knew about them millennia ago, why aren’t you doing it today?

Finally, understand the power of the story, the media, and the story tellers. Image 4 is one of the first ever recorded political propaganda stories. It shows the Egyptian king (shown as a lion) eating the arms of his enemies.  The enemies, with their faces missing, and also missing an arm, are piled underneath him. What is the message the king wanted to share on this very public piece of art? I will protect you from your enemies, and your enemies will become meaningless (faceless).  The irony of all this is this particular king didn’t win all of his battles, and was facing battles from all these tribes from the Mediterranean and Africa at the time (those with a close attention to detail will see different shapes in the faces trying to articulate this).

Image 4 (Credit: N Pharaoh)

Propaganda and politics has gone hand in hand for millennia also.  The relevance of this today is we need to be more critical, and circumspect when it comes to political announcements and commitments. In the past few years I have seen recycled commitments re announced at all levels of government, facts become alternate facts, science and enquiry be dismissed (think climate change and conservative parties in Australia). How we respond, engage and understand the power of propaganda becomes more and more important to ensure evidence-based outcomes, good public policy and everything in between.  One trick which has continued since Egyptian times is that if you keep the media (or in ancient times, storytellers) busy, they never have time to look below the surface of what you said.  

So while we jokingly think the oldest profession is that of courtesans and libertines, perhaps politics existed long before – and soon following was the propaganda, ribbon cutting and battle of the classes that we still have today?  Either way, some lessons from ancient Egypt need to be remembered if you are to ensure your not-for-profit dominion can stand the test of time.

Neil Pharaoh  |  @ProBonoNews

Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy.


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