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Egypt's Tourism Hashtag Hijacked To Show A Repressive State

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Tourism has long been a huge part of Egypt's economy. And that is a problem as tourists are being driven away by a string of violent events there. Just weeks ago, a Russian passenger jet carrying tourists crashed in the Sinai. Russia blames a terrorist bomb. That followed another attack - Egyptian airstrikes aimed at militants mistakenly struck and killed Mexican tourists. Now Egypt's tourism minister has started a social media campaign to show a much more charming version of Egypt. With a campaign hashtag, #ThisIsEgypt, it has itself been hijacked by opponents of the government. NPR's Leila Fadel joined us from Cairo.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: So the tourism minister Hisham Zaazou announced it last week. Egypt's spending about $66 million on advertising and global marketing to bring tourists back because this country needs them for their economy. So he announced this hashtag, and he played this video to launch it.

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FADEL: It shows really beautiful scenes of Egypt's landscape - the sea, the temples - people having fun in a really beautiful place. And the narrator asks people to go take pictures of Egypt, post them with the hashtag #ThisIsEgypt and show the world the Egypt that they see.

MONTAGNE: Which, obviously, people did, but also there are other postings. Tell us about those.

FADEL: So in some ways, it's really backfiring. There are those that are posting about beautiful Egypt, and then there's a lot of people who are choosing to use it to show a repressive state. One of those people is Wael Eskander. And he's an Egyptian activist that I spoke to.

WAEL ESKANDER: It deceives people by showing an Egypt that does not really exist. I just quickly thought about all the people in jail unjustly and what was happening to them. This is an Egypt of injustice, not an Egypt of beauty.

FADEL: So he's saying that really, it's whitewashing a country that jails journalists and critics of the state. One of those photojournalists, Mahmoud Abu Zeid, has been in jail for more than 850 days. And then there are thousands upon thousands of political prisoners who are jailed for things as simple as wearing a critical T-shirt. And then there's also a lot of reports of heavy abuse inside the prison system with the police here in Egypt.

MONTAGNE: This repression clearly is there. But Egypt recently elected a parliament. Is that going to change things?

FADEL: That's right. Now a parliament has been elected. And it's supposed to meet at the end of the month. And it was held by the government as the last step to put Egypt back on the path to democracy. But this election was held in an atmosphere where dissent really isn't tolerated; where there is no real opposition that exists in the political sphere. And turnout was really low. And so many Egyptians don't know if this will really change things.

MONTAGNE: So it sounds like this campaign to sell Egypt to the world has really taken on a political form that was not expected or intended by the government.

FADEL: That's right. So Egypt was hoping to have people be attracted to the beautiful places you can visit here. But people are saying, you need to fix the product first. You need to fix the problems in this country, and then it will be easier to sell Egypt to the world.

MONTAGNE: Leila, thanks very much.

FADEL: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Leila Fadel, speaking to us from Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.