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While Egypt is undergoing a people-powered revolution, at least three companies have recently found themselves in tough spots—all somewhat related to the conflict and all for very different reasons.
First, an American health food salesman, who imported non-drug, hemp-based oil for salad dressing, was put in jail on drug charges, facing a possible death sentence by hanging. Meanwhile, Vodafone had been usurped by the government and used to issue pro-government text messages. And, perhaps most famously, fashion designer Kenneth Cole took to Twitter to announce that Egyptians were in uproar not over Mubarak, but over a Kenneth Cole sale online.
The Hemp Industries Association (HIA) only recently came to know about Mostafa Soliman, a U.S. resident and owner of Healthy Harvest, who only narrowly made it out of his prison cell at the last minute because protesters had attacked and set the jail on fire. Now the organization is launching a campaign to get him out of Egypt, but as one might guess, the U.S. Embassy is a bit swamped right now and the fact that Soliman was in jail on drug charges doesn't make his quest to get out any easier.
"This is a tragic mistake that could be solved with a simple drug test. Mr. Soliman is being falsely accused of importing 'hash oil' when it fact it was healthy hemp food," said Eric Steenstra, Executive Director of the HIA. "The HIA and Votehemp.com are launching a campaign to free Mostafa Soliman that will hopefully jump-start action at the U.S. State Department. We recognize that the unrest in Egypt will make it more difficult for U.S. authorities to act, but this terrible mistake by Egyptian authorities was made well before the recent protests began and in many ways symbolizes the corruption the protestors are resisting."
Over in the U.K., British Foreign Secretary William Hague issued a statement directed at the Egyptian government calling the Vodafone's coerced texts "abuse." Under emergency situations, governments can use mobile networks for safety messages, but in Egypt's case they used it for propaganda.
"The armed forces are looking after your security and will not resort to violence against this great people," read one text. Another read, "To every mother, father, sister, brother, to every honourable citizen: preserve this country because the fatherland is everlasting." And, "To the youth of Egypt, beware of rumours, listen to the voice of reason, Egypt is above everything, preserve it," read another.
(Vodafone also responded with a seemingly un-related news update that sales in emerging markets were growing and that 2011 looks to be a good year for the company.)
Finally, Kenneth Cole—the acclaimed fashion designer who in the past has launched a number of social awareness cause campaigns—made an unfortunate move in one of his tweets. "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard that our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo." Cole quickly followed up with "Re Egypt tweet: we weren't intending to make light of a serious situation. We understand the sensitivity of this historic moment -KC."
Some unfortunate moves all around. Egypt's clashes are not only on the domestic front, it seems—as the country has moved to the center of the world's stage, it has attracted the attention of everyone from small business owners to major corporate giants. The political missteps associated with a roiled nation we knew we'd see; these corporate snafus are, in a way, more surprising.
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