Public service ads warn Egyptians to be wary of foreigners
CAIRO — Activists and human rights advocates have criticized Egypt's military-led government over a series of new television ads suggesting that foreigners are spies out to destroy the country.
One of the public service announcements plays sinister background music while an English-speaking young man walks into a cafe and strikes up a conversation with Egyptians, who proceed to complain about the nation’s problems.
In the ad, one of the Egyptians mentions a conspiracy against the army while the foreigner taps out a text message to an unknown third party. The announcer warns viewers in an ominous voice not to offer information that could be used by spies to undermine the country’s stability.
Activists said the ads were calculated to deter journalists and human rights groups from investigating abuses by the state, specifically the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, which has been repeatedly accused by protesters of civil rights violations. About 12,000 Egyptians have been tried in military tribunals in the last year.
Egypt’s Ministry of Information, housed in fortress-like building guarded by soldiers and tanks, controls state radio and television, which are popular among poor and working-class Egyptians.
“Nothing like this ever airs without the approval from the office of the minister,” said Shahira Amin, a prominent Egyptian journalist and former state television employee. “This ad can raise the level of xenophobia in Egypt.”
The Agence France-Presse news agency reported late Saturday that the ads would be pulled.
Americans were put on trial this year with other employees of nongovernment organizations after being accused of illegally acquiring foreign funds to spark unrest in the country. The organizations included the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, which have been operating in Egypt for years.
“They are trying to kill two birds with one stone,” Amin said of the interim government. “The security forces have previously arrested foreign journalists covering [protests in] Tahrir Square; now they are saying, 'Let the people deal with them so we don’t have to.' ”
Since the military assumed power last year after the popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, it has publicly blamed “foreign hands and skewed” news coverage for Egypt’s unrest in an effort to divert criticism from persistent discontent and economic turmoil.
Egyptian blogger and activist Zeinobia compared the ads, which also appear on private TV, to World War II propaganda against the enemy.
“I fear that this ad is an introduction for a campaign against human rights activists and journalists from abroad,” wrote Zeinobia. She said the government wanted to prevent journalists from covering a possible crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood or on activists opposed to Ahmed Shafik, a Mubarak loyalist running for president.
During Egypt’s transition to democracy, numerous attacks on journalists as well as foreigners have been reported across the country, which relies heavily on tourism. Many journalists said they were attacked just for being foreigners.
“Last year I was beaten and held at knifepoint for being a foreigner, so this year's perhaps less xenophobic, not more,” Gregg Carlstrom, a reporter, said on his Twitter account.
“Xenophobia might be the wrong word. I was asked a few times earlier this week to prove I'm a [journalist], which just seems paranoid,” he said. “I think endangering foreign correspondents might actually be one of the desired outcomes.”
Photo: Protesters gather in central Cairo's Tahrir Square on June 8, 2012, to demonstrate against presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq. Credit: Mohammed Abedmohammed / AFP/Getty Images