Egyptian Xenophobia

An ad campaign warning Egyptians about foreigners has instead warned foreigners about Egyptians.

The Egyptian government has pulled advertisements running on state television and private broadcasts that warn its citizenry against speaking to foreigners. They just might be spies!

“From the beginning, he knows why he is here and sets up his goal,” an ominous voice warns of a visitor to an Egyptian café in one spot. “He won’t have to spend much time getting to know the people in the place.” The curious visitor speaks in a sort of pidgin Arabic, smiles deviously, and professes (falsely, the ad implies) love for Egyptians. The piece cautions, “He will sneak into your heart as if you were old friends.” The Egyptians he meets air grievances regarding the economy and share a rumor about the military. “Every word comes with a price,” the commercial concludes. “A word can save a nation.”

And a commercial can hurt one. A spot aimed at warning Egyptians about foreigners has instead warned foreigners about Egyptians—or at least their government. An old bit of communications wisdom implores: know your audience. In the age of YouTube, your audience is often the world. The subliminal state-message conveyed by the TV spot is: the Egyptian state doesn’t like non-Egyptians. Keep out.

Westerners don’t require a public service announcement warning them about Egypt. CBS correspondent Lara Logan, who could pass for the sister of the sinister gentleman in the advertisement, endured a sexual assault during the Tahrir Square uprising. The 43 democracy activists, including 16 Americans, facing trial for receiving foreign funds without state permission have been ordered to return to court on July 4. And from the blind sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman to 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta, Egyptians have helped orchestrate the murders of thousands of foreigners in terrorist attacks. If terrorism were an Olympic sport, Egypt would medal.

The great irony of the official campaign of xenophobia is that Egypt, more so than even France or Italy, depends on visitors to propel its economy. The outsiders inside Egypt generally aren’t Mossad or CIA agents but wealthy Westerners eager to unleash excess money. Traditionally, these free-handed folks have been a boon for the local economy. Roughly twelve percent of employed Egyptians work in tourism-related fields. One wonders how a country that exports terrorism can continue to import travelers and their cash—let alone U.S. aid generosity. The pyramids, Mount Sinai, and the long-gone Library at Alexandria represent the achievements of three great civilizations. But civilized people increasingly stay away from Egypt.

That is ultimately bad for tourists and for Egyptians. The Mediterranean location overflowing with all that history should be more of a magnet for travelers. The glory of Egypt’s distant past gives way to the gruesomeness of its recent past. The 1997 Luxor Massacre, in which terrorists murdered sixty-two mostly foreign visitors to the famous site, combined with 9/11 and a sputtering global economy to reorient tourists to more welcoming destinations. The place at the center of so much history is not so central to tourist itineraries—at least not anymore.

The aborted advertising campaign is an exercise in projection. Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and 1998 African embassy bombings suspect-at-large Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah are among the Egyptians abroad to be avoided wherever encountered. Bad guests often assume that everyone shares their manners.

Nearly a year-and-a-half after comparing the Arab Spring to the fall of the Iron Curtain, Western observers see in Egypt’s new government something more closely resembling the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe than the free governments that replaced them. Among the kitsch items tourists liberate from shops in liberated Eastern Europe are a replica set of Soviet-era posters calling on citizens to keep quiet. The Cyrillic script, like the Arabic dialogue on the Egyptian adverts, is unnecessary to convey the point. The images depict a man whispering in a two-faced foreigner’s ear, an overeager worker babbling on a pay phone as a man in dark glasses eavesdrops, a mother reading her soldier-son’s letter aloud, and a uniformed man telling a story as a spy lurks in the bushes. One poster simply features a stern woman with lips pursed behind and index finger. The images seem more befitting of a library than a country.

Egypt’s state propagandists may want to heed their own advice. Don’t broadcast your national insecurity complex to the world.

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