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Egypt's anti-spy TV ad continues to stir controversy

The origin of controversial TV ad warning Egyptians against foreign infiltrators - still being aired by more than one channel - remains unclear

Nada El-Kouny , Tuesday 12 Jun 2012
Views: 1658
Views: 1658

A foreign-looking man walks into a coffee shop and joins three young Egyptian patrons. One of the latter mentions a reported conspiracy against the army that she overheard on the metro. A close-up shot then shows the foreigner texting what he has heard to a third party. The forty-second video ends with the message: "Every word has a price; A word can save a nation." 

This is a scene from a controversial advertisement aired on Egyptian state television on Thursday evening cautioning Egyptians against relaying sensitive information to foreigners, suggesting that the latter could be foreign spies hungry for information.     

Having aired on a number of private satellite channels, including El-Hayat TV, it was taken off the air Saturday evening following a wave of criticism from different quarters. On Tuesday, however, it was reported that the ad was still appearing on more than one channel.

"The ad was removed on Friday night because we were concerned that it was being misunderstood,” Ali Abderrahman, president of public channels Nile Drama and Nile Cinema, told AFP on Sunday. 

The 17 months since Egypt's Tahrir Square uprising have seen mounting fears of espionage and foreign infiltration in Egypt. The latest television ad stands out as the strongest example to date of what many observers see as incitement to xenophobia.

Notably, it remains unclear until now which state agency is responsible for the controversial advertisement.    

According to Dalia Hassouna, a member of the Movement for Independent Egyptian Media, the ad can be attributed to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)'s department for morale affairs.

Movement member Taghreed Dessouki, who works for the state-run Nile Life channel, said: "It's clear there were direct orders [to air the ad] from state authorities. What's strange is that it was also broadcast on private channels, such as El-Hayat channel."

Mohamed Khedr, owner of the privately-owned Dream TV channel, told Ahram Online that he had no information as to the origin of the advertisement, stating that his channel had not aired the video or received it from any state authority. Other private TV channels, by contrast, did reportedly receive the video and were requested to air it.   

Tourism Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour told Ahram Online that he had personally asked Information Minister Ahmed Anis to stop airing the advertisement on Thursday. Abdel-Nour described the ad as "deeply offensive."

Abdel-Nour went on to state that he did not know why the advertisement had been produced at this time, or who was behind it, but expressed the belief that it had "largely backfired in the face" of whoever had produced it.

Many observers wonder why an advertisement promoting xenophobia would be produced, especially when tourism represents one of the largest sectors of Egypt's economy. According to official 2011 figures, revenue from the sector stood at $9.5 billion, representing approximately 10 per cent of the country's GDP.  

Tour guide Maissa Mostafa believes the effect that the ad will have on tourism could possibly be similar to that following the 1997 massacre in Luxor, which resulted in the killing of 69 tourists, which was blamed on Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya. "Similarly, this time, a direct message is being sent to foreigners that they are unwelcome in Egypt," she said.

Mostafa believes the main objective of the advertisement is to smear the image of Egyptian revolutionaries. She pointed to the banner behind the activists portrayed in the video that reads: "Bread, freedom, social dignity" – a defining slogan of Egypt's 25 January Revolution.

Mostafa also believes the ad is directed at foreign journalists in the country, so that "no one will be able to bear witness to the crises we will face following the elections." She believes that a "much larger crackdown will take place against revolutionaries and reporters following the elections, regardless of whether the latter are foreign or Egyptian."

Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, will face Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi in a hotly-contested presidential runoff vote on 16 and 17 June.

"This is exactly what took place with the 'Battle of the Camel,' following attacks on protesters by regime-hired thugs on 2 February 2011, when foreigners – especially foreign journalists – were terrorised," Mostafa asserted.

Rasha Abdulla, Associate Professor and former Chair of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo, believes the issue poses a more important question.

"This is a serious matter that touches upon who has the power and the access to disseminate such advertisements," she said. "The authority behind these advertisements should not remain confidential."

Abdullah added: "That's why we should advocate for a Freedom of Information Law, whereby citizens have the right to demand an answer as to who produced such a video and spread this message."

The independence of state-owned media has been one of the chief demands of Egypt's revolution, with many activists inside and outside these organisations accusing the former regime of having used state-owned press, radio and television to serve its own agenda.

According to the Movement for Independent Media, this tendency has not changed under the ruling SCAF, with "higher authorities" continuing to interfere in the policies of state media institutions.  

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