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Egypt's state TV has withdrawn an ad urging citizens to be wary of foreigners who could be spies in disguise, after critics accused the state broadcaster of stoking xenophobia, an official told AFP 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.
The 40-second video shows a young man strolling into a cafe to chat with a group of young Egyptians, as a voiceover says: "He will infiltrate your heart as if you've known him all your life."
One woman in the group says: "In the metro I heard them plotting against the military," while a young man complains about "rising prices" and a "transport crisis" in Egypt.
The disembodied voice then warns that the stranger is getting "important information free of charge."
The visitor is seen listening closely to the Egyptians, nodding his head and saying "Really?" in English, before using his mobile to start texting an unknown party.
The ad fades out with a final warning from the unidentified voice: "You don't know who he is or what he's hiding. Watch what you say. Every word has a price. One word can save a nation."
The TV spot triggered a torrent of condemnation on social networking sites, with users slamming it as "ridiculous" and an attempt to stoke xenophobia in a countrythat heavily relies on revenues from tourism.
Twitter users mocked the ad, particularly the bit in which the "spy" says the word "really?" in English.
They said that spies don’t need to go to cafes to get valuable information since all the crises facing the country are obvious. One Twitter user said "any idiot will know that there is a crisis in fuel if he sees the queues in front of gas stations.”
Some critics also charged that the ad was a veiled threat against foreign journalists in Egypt, who are often accused of tarnishing its reputation.
During the 18-day uprising that began on 25 January last year, loyal to longtime leader Hosni Mubarak and facing its biggest political challenge in three decades, state media tried to discredit the protestors in Tahrir Square by saying they were receiving foreign funds. It was normal at the time to see talk shows on state run channels, and even private ones, warning people against foreigners.
Scores of foreign students, journalists, tourists and Egyptians mistaken for foreigners were attacked on the basis that they were spies during that time.
Following Mubarak's ouster, the military rulers used the same tactics, accusing the activists of the April 6 Youth Movement of being spies and blaming the crackdown on protesters on foreign infiltrators
The run-off vote for the presidency, slated for June 16-17, will pit Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, against the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy. Some Twitter users said that the ad might be sponsored by the intelligence and the secret national security agencies to spread fear among the Egyptians, a strategy that would serve Shafiq.
Abderrahman admitted that the ad appeared hostile to foreigners in Egypt and said that it will be reworked.
"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," he said.
He insisted that the main purpose of the television ad was to raise awareness in Egypt that no one "should not give information about the country to someone they don't know."
"We welcome everyone in Egypt but some people want to harm us" and enter the country under false pretexts, including being in NGOs, to "gather information," he added.On June 2011, Egypt arrested Ilan Grapel, a US immigrant to Israel, on suspicion of spying. He was later released in exchange for 25 Egyptians who had been imprisoned in Israel.
Earlier this year, Egypt triggered international outrage when it brought a case against democracy activists, among them 27 foreigners, accusing them of operating unlicensed NGOs.