x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Egypt's state media foments anti-foreigner paranoia

Foreigners blamed as Egyptians are fed reports focusing on 'outside hand' in country's outbreak of civil unrest.

An injured foreign photographer receives treatment on February 3 at a makeshift hospital set up in a mosque in Tahrir Square, Cairo.
An injured foreign photographer receives treatment on February 3 at a makeshift hospital set up in a mosque in Tahrir Square, Cairo.

CAIRO // A simple question about the accuracy of a state television station playing in the background draws a chorus of charged responses from customers at a popular coffee shop near downtown.

They are divided on politics but united on one issue: dangerous foreigners have infiltrated Egypt.

Hossam al Din Ibrahim, 34, says state TV is not giving the full picture of the demonstrations, but is telling the truth about foreigners masquerading as journalists and working to destabilise the country.

"Of course all television channels are influenced by politics and social concerns," says Mr Ibrahim, who wishes that the political protests would end.

"But there is no doubt that there are foreigners here trying to undermine Egypt."

Mohammed, 21, a waiter at the Umm Kulthum coffee shop, chimes in with a story about a foreigner he saw buying 900 bean sandwiches at a nearby store to deliver to protesters in Tahrir Square.

"What reason does he have to do that?" he says before expressing a commonly held belief that foreigners are the key financial force behind the anti-government protesters. State-owned television stations, the only media reporting stories about foreign involvement in the political unrest, are "the only ones that tell the truth", Mohammed says.

Outside the coffee shop, a merchant with a small stand of drinks and sweets does not look up from the television on his table tuned to the state-owned Nile News.

"I don't speak to foreigners," he says, declining to give his name.

Across Egypt, anti-foreigner sentiment is on the rise. Foreign journalists have been attacked, long-term expatriates intimidated and and Egypt's reputation as a cosmopolitan, welcoming tourist destination tainted.

A list-serve popular with expatriates relayed more than a dozen stories of foreigners who were arrested or had their apartments searched by security forces. Many more said they saw friends assaulted on the street.

In Suez on Monday, customers at a coffee shop asked a pair of reporters from The National if they were Israeli spies. At protests in Tahrir Square on Sunday, anti-government demonstrators manning a security checkpoint scrutinised press credentials, wondering aloud if a National reporter was an infiltrator from Hamas.

State-owned media have published dozens of stories suggesting that foreign media, spies and some foreign leaders are seeking to divide the Egyptian people. A number of Egyptian media experts and foreign leaders say the state media have reverted to an era when government media fabricated stories and manipulated the people's emotions to support the regime.

After days of broadcasts that questioned the protesters' motivations, they have started to take aim at the state media. In Tahrir Square on Sunday, demonstrators chanted for the arrest of Anas el Feki, the minister of information who is in charge of state media. A state news anchor, Soha el Nakash, resigned last week after accusing the state media of a "lack of ethical standards" in covering the protests.

Perhaps most significantly, Al Ahram, the flagship government-owned paper, came out in support of what it called a "revolution" against the current political regime in a front-page leader on Tuesday.

The opinion piece came after the paper carried a number of stories detailing the arrests of foreigners and alleged spy rings.

In a story it published on Sunday, Al Ahram reported government officials were promising to protect foreign journalists, but then in the same story cited an unnamed security source warning of foreign infiltrators from Israel, Palestine and Lebanon.

But while Al Ahram has begun to change its position, state television remains fully supportive of the regime.

Nile News, a popular channel, on Monday quoted an unnammed security source accusing foreign diplomats of bringing weapons into the country in their baggage.

Headlines flashing on Egyptian Satellite Channel urged foreign journalists to "report the real truth about Egypt" and focused a story on talks between the government and the opposition on the fact that both sides "denounce the foreign intervention that is destabilising Egypt".

Hackers on Friday infiltrated the website of Al Jazeera, the Doha-based news channel that is now banned by the Egyptian government, and replaced the channel's banner with the fake slogan "Together for the collapse of Egypt".

Egyptian Satellite Channel showed screen shots from the website and kept replaying them, even after Al Jazeera said on Friday afternoon that the banner was not its own.

On Monday, news that the shots were fake had still not gotten through to Mohammed, the waiter, who concluded that the banner was damning evidence of a foreign media conspiracy against Egypt.

"Al Jazeera is the worst. They want to destroy us," he says. "Did you know that they boasted about that very fact on their own website?"

* With additional reporting by Hugh Naylor in Suez