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Bringing Back the Fear in Egypt

June 14, 2012

Subjected to ridicule at home and abroad, Egyptian state TV has removed a series of ads designed to warn Egyptians from talking to foreigners, especially (gasp) journalists.

They are all spies, you know. Or they might be spies (except me). And average Egyptian civilians might share secret information with them like…er…gas prices are too high, and the economy is in a shambles. Or that anti-SCAF protests are planned. After all, no one will know these things unless one of Egypt’s 80 million citizens gives away such state secrets.

Under the ridicule were concerns about the intent of the ads. Was the intent to sow fear in order to aid the candidacy of law-and-order regime candidate Ahmed Shafiq?

Were these ads were intended to limit journalists’ mobility and ease of access prior to a possible sweeping crackdown and violation of rights they don’t want people to see?

Whatever else their intent, they are a clear continuation–albeit in a new form–of the old regime’s state television xenophobic narratives.

One of the most significant aspects of the Egyptian revolution, described by hundreds of participants and commentators, was the loss of fear that enabled Egyptians try to seize control of their destinies and fight back against the police forces and hired thugs who sought to send them back to their homes (e.g. Khashan 2012, Salamev and Pearson 2012).

Part of this fear was fear of the government forces themselves, police who could arrest, torture and even murder with relative impunity.

But this was in turn rooted in a deeper fear, one that promoted the Egyptian nation as a society at risk, besieged at once from dangerous elements within (i.e. rogue Islamists) and without (foreign hands that want to destroy Egypt–scarier when unnamed but implied to be Iran, Israel or the U.S. depending on your political stance).

Much of this latter fear was also dismissed by the Tahrir uprisings. Instead of chaos and infighting, those engaged in the protests against Hosni Mubarak found themselves working together in ways that cut across social distinctions that had divided them previously.

An enormous amount of effort has been expended to bring back fear of internal and external enemies. This set of television ads, whose provenance is unclear but seems to be the Interior Ministry, is merely the latest.

And while their specific content may be ridiculous, they index for many Egyptians real events, like the arrest of Ilan Grapel or the rise of Faiza Aboul Naga.

Ilan Grapel was a US-Israeli joint citizen arrested in June 2011 for “inciting sedition, spreading rumors and urging protesters toward friction with the armed forces and to commit acts of violence.” A student at Emory doing an internship abroad with a charity in Egypt, he’d done his Israeli mandatory military service and had naively posted a picture of himself in his paratrooper uniform on Facebook, as well as pictures of himself in Tahrir holding signs in Arabic against the regime.

It’s hard to imagine a case more suited to fear-mongering: US-Israeli citizen, with Israeli military experience, who knows Arabic, working for a NGO with international funding, befriending Egyptians in Tahrir Square. Clearly he was up to something not in Egypt’s best interest.

And since she oversaw the crackdown on foreign NGOs late last year, Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Aboul Naga has risen to become one of Egypt’s most popular politicians. Raiding the offices of charities and forcing all international charitable funding go through her office, she has increased her own power since the fall of the president who appointed her, and persuaded many Egyptians that she is protecting them from foreign efforts to sabotage the gains of the 2011 revolution.

And there is no question that it is working. Looking at on-line debates and the comments left on the web pages of newspaper stories, one can see that there are scoffers and true believers, but also many in the middle who say (in effect), “yes, of course these ads are ridiculous, but some  foreigners masquerading as journalists might really be spies, after all, and maybe some of the things going wrong in this country are their fault…”

If most Egyptians reject the ridiculous conspiracy theories of Tawfiq Okasha and Afaf Shuweeb, who claim most protesters are not real Egyptians but paid foreign agents of Middle Eastern background flown in from a training center in London, many are nonetheless clearly swayed by the possibility that some Egyptian protesters may be paid or duped by foreign agents into damaging the country rather than helping it.

Xenophobic suspicion and confrontations between Egyptians and foreigners are reported in local newspapers to be at an all-time high. And as with most societies, when xenophobia becomes patriotism, it is the regime promising law and order at any cost that benefits.


Beach. Alistair. 2012. Egypt’s on-air warning: Don’t talk to foreigners–they’re all spies. The Independent, June 9.

Galey, Patrick. 2012. Beware foreign spies, Egypt warns, in ridiculous but dangerous ads. The Guardian, June 12.

Khashan, Hilal. 2012. The Eclipse of Arab Authoritarianism and the Challenge of Popular Sovereignty. Third World Quarterly 33(5): 919-930.

Salamey, Imad and Frederic S Pearson. 2012. The Collapse of Middle Eastern Authoritarianism: breaking the barriers of fear and power. Third World Quarterly 33(5): 931-948.

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