Egypt’s government has pulled TV public service announcements that warned against talking to foreigners because they might be spies after critics charged the spots fueled xenophobia and aimed to tarnish those behind last year’s uprising.
The two spots ran on state and private television stations for a few days before Minister of Information Ahmed Anis ordered them off the air, a media official said Sunday.
One opens with a blond-haired young man scanning a cafe while a narrator says:
“From the beginning, he knows why he is here and sets up his goal. He won’t have to spend much time getting to know the people in the place.” The foreigner then spots three young Egyptians and heads over to them, saying in broken Arabic: “I love you so much.” The narrator says: “Our generosity has no limits,” as one of the Egyptians stands up, shakes hands and invites the foreigner to sit with them.
It goes on to show the visitor smiling slyly and narrowing his eyes while listening intently to the Egyptians complaining about the economy and talking about overhearing a plot against the ruling military council in the subway. The narrator warns Egyptians not to share with outsiders their woes about the economy or political situation.
Both spots close with: “Every word comes with a price. A word can save a nation.”
Claims of a “meddling foreign hand” found resonance among many Egyptians during and after the uprising. While the revolt was driven by youthful activists who relied heavily on social networking sites.
But some among the wider public have mixed feelings about foreigners and suspect the United States, Israel and others are scheming against their nation and Islam, the faith of most Egyptians. At the same time, they worry about losing the country’s main source of income, tourism.
It is not clear which state agency ordered production of the TV announcements. But some pointed the finger at Egypt’s security agencies, including intelligence and military intelligence, which have a long-standing xenophobic culture. The agencies have remained largely intact after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in the uprising, which left power in the hands of a military council led by Mubarak’s defense minister of 20 years.
Ahmed Maher, co-founder of April 6, one of the youth groups that steered the uprising, described the spots as “deceptive to spread fear of conspiracies and tarnish the image of the revolutionaries by indicating that dealing with foreign journalists leads to leaking dangerous information about Egypt.”
Last year, Maher’s group was accused by the military rulers of having a “foreign agenda” and of receiving funding and training from abroad, claims that suggest plotting against the country with foreign help.
Maher demanded parliament summon Minister of Information Anis, a former army general, over what he called the “sneaky” messages. Anis, according to the media official, asked “media experts” to examine the content and decide whether to ban the announcements. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The ruling military and state media have stoked anti-American sentiment before during the transition to democratic rule, accusing Americans of backing the uprising even as Egypt continued to receive more than $1 billion dollars in annual aid from the United States.
Last July, a state-run magazine cover depicted new U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson holding a burning wad of dollars to the wick of a bomb wrapped in an American flag. The headline read: “The ambassador from hell who lit a fire in Tahrir.” Cairo’s Tahrir Square was the birthplace of the anti-Mubarak uprising.
That was the beginning of a wider crackdown on U.S.-funded democracy groups, whose employees have been formally charged with using illegal foreign funding to foment unrest in Egypt. Troops stormed offices of a number of such groups, including four American nonprofit groups.
In all, 43 pro-democracy workers were referred to trial but under heavy U.S. pressure, six Americans were allowed to leave the country. One of them was Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
They are still being tried in absentia along with some Egyptian employees.
During the uprising, foreigners – especially journalists – were targeted, beaten up by citizens or snatched by plainclothes security agents. State TV at the time aired alleged phone conversations with witnesses who said protesters were paid in euros and infiltrated by foreigners.
“Nothing has changed and the … campaign has been one of the state intelligence tricks” to turn the public against the revolution, said Bothiana Kamel, a TV presenter and activist. She recounted incidents during uprising when she said people would attack her, calling her “khawaga” or “foreigner.”
She said that when she attends conferences in the United States, she is accused by Egyptian media as an “American agent.”
Since the ruling generals took power in February 2011, there have been several instances of bands of self-styled spy-catchers arresting and turning over foreigners to authorities, accusing them of “subversive” activities such as photographing streets or bridges or talking with protesters at Tahrir Square.
The military arrested Israeli-U.S. citizen Ilan Grapel on suspicion of spying, expelled an Iranian diplomat, also for alleged spying, and repeatedly warned Egyptians about the “foreign hands” seeking to undermine their country.
While activists have taken to Twitter and Facebook to voice their anger at the announcements, many have also joked about what they saw as a crude campaign.
“I met a spy today, dressed like a taxi driver. He kept asking me where he should take me, and I never told him, of course! But I was late for work,” one quipped on Twitter.