Egypt pulls TV ads warning foreigners may be spies after ‘xenophobia’ fears

Controversial Egyptian TV adverts had warned the public to be wary of foreigners who could be spies in disguise. (File photo)

Egypt’s state television has pulled advertisements which warned a talkative Egyptian public to be wary of foreigners who could be spies in disguise, after critics accused the state broadcaster of stoking “xenophobia,” an official said Saturday.

“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 news agency.

“We are a country that aspires to raise the number of foreign visitors. The ad will be revised so it does not appear as if it is incitement against foreigners,” Abderrahman added.

The decision to pull the adverts came after the Egyptian Minister of Information Ahmed Anis ordered them off the air. He also asked “media experts” to examine the commercials to decide whether or not to ban them, The Associated Press reported.

They had appeared on both state-controlled and private channels, with one commercial showing three young Egyptians in a café freely sharing their dissatisfaction over the nation’s economic and political problems with a mysterious foreigner.

As ominous music amplifies in the background, the dubious foreigner is then shown taking notes on a mobile phone, listening intently to the conversation.

Throughout the scene, a voiceover advises the viewer to watch out for those who impose on Egyptians, suggesting that the implied spy “knows what to listen out for and knows their target.”

“He won’t have to work hard to get to know you – after all, we Egyptians are generous [talkative] by default!” the voiceover says as the male “spy” sinisterly eyes the young Egyptians at the table and sits down to talk with them.

“He will try to gain your trust, as if you have known him for a long time … He’ll take free information from you,” the voiceover adds in an overtly paranoid tone, as the group discusses their discontent at Egypt’s social and economic setbacks.

A Cairene blogger, who writes as Zeinobia, said the advert appeared to evoke the case of Ilan Grapel, an Israeli-American who was detained by Egyptian authorities last year after appearing in Tahrir Square and accused of spying for Israel by “inciting sedition, spreading rumors and urging protesters toward friction with the armed forces and to commit acts of violence.”

The adverts also attracted gibes on microblogging site, Twitter.
Last week, Twitter user @erinmcunningham tweeted: “Think the TV ad about foreign spies actually says a lot about what Egyptian intelligence agencies do: listen to mundane convos at cafes.”

Meanwhile, @TheBigPharaoh posted: Tourism advocacy group: if the Mossad wanted to destroy Egypt's tourism, they wouldn't do anything better than the "spies" ad on state TV.

Who was behind the ads?

Until now, there has been no indication as to who was behind the creation of the commercials.

According to The New York Times, Shahira Amin, a former state-television journalist (who famously resigned after the 2011 uprising to protest restrictions on independent reporting), said the adverts were provided to the channels by the electoral body running Egypt’s presidential election.

“If the commission is behind the ads, the campaign could be an attempt to stifle anger by discouraging Egyptians from voicing dissatisfaction online or to foreign reporters, a week before the final round of voting, which features two candidates detested by many of the activists who made Egypt’s revolution,” wrote The New York Times’ Robert Mackey on Friday.

Meanwhile, another advertisement, which uses the same sinister narration to warn Egyptians not to share information online, on the chance it is used by foreign spies against Egypt, has led to some speculation that Egypt’s still-powerful intelligence service might have been behind the adverts.

In this case, Mackey referred to the “depiction of disgruntled young people and Internet activists as unwitting dupes of a foreign power” which would ultimately angry a post-revolutionary Egyptian audience.

(Written by Eman El-Shenawi)

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