CAIRO (AP) — Egyptians are using the social media hashtag of an international youth conference organized by the government to slam its poor human rights record and crackdown on free speech.
Billed as the "World Youth Forum" under the patronage of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the event is scheduled for Nov. 4-10 in the Red Sea city of Sharm el-Sheikh. On its web site, organizers had encouraged people to use the hashtag #WeNeedToTalk for posts from early October onward. But as with previous government attempts to harness social media, the move seems to have backfired.
By Tuesday, Twitter was alight with criticism and the hashtag reached Egypt's top trending topic, with users posting images of Egyptian police beating and chasing down youths during el-Sissi's rule alongside portraits of young jailed activists. One mentioned a student jailed for three years for posting a doctored image of el-Sissi wearing Mickey Mouse ears.
"#WeNeedToTalk about the disappeared ... about torture ... about corruption ... about millions spent on arms in a country with no health care," one user posted.
Egypt has waged an unprecedented crackdown on dissent under el-Sissi, a former general who came to power after overthrowing his elected but divisive Islamist predecessor in 2013. What began as wholesale lockups of Muslim Brotherhood members was later extended to prominent secular activists and others who criticized the government's policies. Thousands have been imprisoned, with some rights advocates putting the number as high as 60,000.
Activists and organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented enforced disappearances, widespread torture and a recent arrest campaign targeting people authorities believe are gay. The authorities have blocked hundreds of independent news and critical websites.
El-Sissi denies that Egypt tortures or has any political prisoners, and maintains that human rights are only one among several pressing issues his government is addressing, such as improving the economy and providing stability. He has also said Egypt is at a lower stage of development than advanced countries and thus must approach the topic differently. He reiterated both positions at a recent joint press conference with the French president.
"It is the most offensive thing he could choose to represent him and his government," Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East policy, wrote of the hashtag. "We have been trying to talk for the past several years and, yet, the government insists on beating, exiling, imprisoning and torturing anyone who talks in a way the government dislikes."
The campaign to promote the event has gone beyond the internet, with several slick television ads and giant billboards appearing in Cairo, including one near Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 Arab Spring protests that forced longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power.
Spots aired on public and private channels offer "a message of peace from Egypt to the world." One scene shows hundreds climbing one of Egypt's famed pyramids, which is an illegal activity. The website says guests will be encouraged to "express their views and recommend initiatives to decision makers and influential figures... to create real change in the world we live in."
The program is driven by a core group of young Egyptians involved in a government-run leadership program initiated by el-Sissi, which plans to share its lessons on the role of the state in creating future leaders. The group, mostly composed of recent graduates, normally avoids public attention except in highly controlled environments.
In a meeting hosted at the Foreign Ministry earlier this month, the group urged foreign embassies to organize youth delegations and offered to pay for transport and accommodation.
The Foreign Ministry invited world leaders but demanded near-immediate confirmation. The short notice prevented many from attending, a diplomat said on condition of anonymity for fear of angering authorities.
"Rather than spending money hosting an international conference pretending to be committed to dialogue with youth, the government could actually free youth political prisoners," said Kaldas. "When the government is ready to talk with youth, there's no shortage of brave and brilliant young people here ready to do so," he added.
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