Xenophobia hits Egypt again, citizens wary of 'spies'

Foreigners singled out as part of strategy to use media to increase fears of “other,” “deflect society away from government’s atrocities.”

Egyptians 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptians 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Mona Youssef was in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 18 days of Egypt’s tumultuous uprising, braving the government forces and the mobs as she played her part in the revolution. But there was one thing she would not do: walk down the streets with anyone who looked like a foreigner. It was just too dangerous, she says.
“One time during the protests, an American guy was coming and looked very worried,” says Youssef, 33. “He kept talking on his phone and some people came and asked him what he was doing there. He told them that he was afraid to go through the square and at the same time scared of going back to his hotel because ‘strangers’ kept coming and knocking on his door.”
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Now, six months on from the 18 days of protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the worries are again creeping in for foreigners. They have been starting to report more and more tense questioning by Egyptian security officials.
“There are days when the state security is going into people’s homes,” Youssef tells The Media Line. “One of my friends, an Italian woman, had her computer searched and when they found articles she wrote, they asked her to erase them.”
Other foreign journalists and expatriates have also reported being harassed by police. One American man recalls to The Media Line of walking in downtown Cairo in late July and being stopped by police who demanded to see his passport. When he didn’t have his ID, police took him to the local police station for questioning, where he enjoyed a night with Egypt’s security personnel.
Despite these testimonials, many Egyptians question foreigners who have complained of their treatment. One such Egyptian, a 28-year-old unemployed man calling himself “Ahmed” tells The Media Line “all foreigners should leave the country.”
“Foreigners here are trying to take our revolution and they are going back to America and Israel and giving them information. So I think the police have a right to question any foreigner, including you,” he says. “Foreigners are making this country bad and they have other reasons to be here that they aren’t telling us. I guarantee you this.”
While “Ahmed” may be an outlier in Egyptian society, the current trend of anti-Westerner sentiment is growing, but it isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. Throughout the past three decades, when the former government of Hosni Mubarak felt the tension among the population, anti-Americanism was often sought.
One of the mediums most often employed was in the state-owned newspapers. They fell to reporting of US intervention in Egyptian politics and society. This, says Omar Rifai, a former journalist with the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper, was part of the “strategy of the government” to increase fears of the “other” and to “deflect society away from the government’s atrocities.”
He argues that in recent months, “the military has begun to use the media to these ends and it is heightening the undercurrents of anti-Americanism and ideas against foreigners that have long been part of Egyptian thinking, so it is hard to break free from this.”
Not helping the situation is the country’s ruling military junta, which has been reported to be stirring xenophobia among the population. Following the crackdown on protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on August 1, rumors began circulating that the military police had asked people to “hand over foreign citizens” because they were “spies.”
Even the US government has raised issues with the rising xenophobia and anti-Americanism in the Egypt.
"Let me say with regard to this kind of anti-Americanism that's creeping into the Egyptian public discourse, we are concerned," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters last Wednesday. "We've expressed these concerns to the Egyptian government. We think this kind of representation of the United States is not only inaccurate, it's unfair."