Egyptian activists condemned American actress Helen Hunt on Tuesday for her participation in a government-organized youth conference they say is whitewashing authorities' appalling human rights record and suppression of free speech.
The open letter by Mona Seif and other well-known human rights advocates gained nearly 300 signatures by Tuesday afternoon. They included Mohamed Zaree, who last month won the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, and Aida Seif el-Dawla, whose Nadeem Center treats victims of torture and trauma and was shuttered by the government earlier this year.
The letter follows a flurry of online criticism against this week's "World Youth Forum," hosted under the patronage of general-turned-President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, 62, in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Hunt, 54, was a keynote speaker at the opening ceremony.
The event's official Twitter hashtag #WeNeedToTalk has become a battleground for opposing viewpoints, with critics overwhelming the thread with images of Egyptian police beating and chasing down youths during el-Sissi's rule alongside portraits of young jailed activists.
"This isn't just any forum that you chose to endorse," the letter to Hunt read. "This is a youth forum with the slogan 'We Need To Talk' called for by a dictator who cannot stand any form of opposition or real criticism. He jails journalists for doing their jobs, youth for expressing their opinions, writers for writing fiction that violates 'public morality,' gays for coming out, supporters of LGBTQ for daring to support diversity, and he has blocked more than 400 different websites and media platforms."
Egypt has waged an unprecedented crackdown on dissent under el-Sissi, a former general who led the military overthrow of his elected but divisive Islamist predecessor in 2013. 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.
The forum, which lasts until Nov. 10, has been broadcast nearly all day long on state and private television since its opening ceremony Sunday night. It has been widely promoted with slick television ads in Egypt, where several major Western PR firms advise and work for the government. A giant billboard hovers over Cairo's Tahrir Square, epicenter of the youth-led 2011 uprising.
Hunt, an Academy Award-winning actress who now directs films, delivered a speech Sunday in which she criticized the U.S. justice system for its high incarceration rates and voiced support for the online anti-sexual harassment movement #MeToo.
That, however, did not deflect criticism from Seif and other Egyptian feminists.
"Unbelievable Hypocrisy! @Helenhunt speaks of "Women Rights" in a PR circus for a general who justified forced virginity tests," Seif tweeted, referring to the military's "virginity tests" conducted on a group of women protesters detained in 2011. El-Sissi, who was the chief of military intelligence at the time, was quoted then as saying the tests were necessary to head off possible allegations that the women were sexually assaulted by soldiers.
Others accused Hunt, the most famous Western celebrity at the event, of selling out to el-Sissi, pointing out a string of websites that advertise her as a for-hire speaker with fees between $50,000 to $1 million. Hunt did not respond to a social media request to discuss her efforts in Egypt.
El-Sissi delivered his opening address to the Youth Forum shortly after Hunt, and since then has spoken at length to the major televised panels each day, mainly emphasizing the country's war on terrorism.