Since the 2013 coup, Egypt’s posture vis à vis information and cyber warfare has evolved from a defensive one—geared toward domestic surveillance and blocking—to an offensive one also focused on influence operations abroad. This shift has pulled Egypt further into an open embrace of Russia, marking a new era in the politics of the Arab world’s information ecosphere.


 

Researchers for Facebook’s cybersecurity office announced in August 2019 that a massive online campaign of what it terms coordinated inauthentic behavior—when groups of pages or people work together to mislead others about who they are and what they are doing—was being directed at critical flashpoints across the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya and Sudan.[1] Although posts were disguised as online activity by local news organizations or public figures from within these target countries, Facebook traced the campaign to “individuals” in Saudi Arabia associated with the Saudi government and to two ostensibly private media groups located in Cairo and Abu Dhabi. The owner of the Egyptian company, New Waves, is a retired military officer and self-described expert on internet warfare. He denies any connection to the Egyptian government, but The New York Times reported that “the company operates from a military-owned housing project in eastern Cairo where employees are warned not to speak to outsiders about their work.”[2]

Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the first plenary session of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, October 24, 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via Reuters

Two months later in October 2019, it was revealed that Russia, possibly via the Kremlin-linked private mercenary Wagner group,[3] was also conducting an extensive digital interference campaign in the same regional flashpoints across many of the same platforms and to similar ends.[4] While those ultimately responsible remain shrouded behind layers of deniability, it is increasingly clear the two campaigns worked in concert. In both Libya and Sudan, high volumes of Arabic-language news reporting flowed from the Russian state-media behemoths RT and Sputnik before multiplying across scores of aggregator sites, blogsites and other online media outlets. Those items were amplified yet further through social media by individuals retweeting, reposting and commenting on the information ad nauseam.

According to researchers at Stanford’s Internet Observatory, all 15 of the Facebook and Instagram accounts used in Russia’s Libya operation, which began as early as May 2014, were administered from Egypt.[5] The $10,000 worth of advertising on the pages was paid for in Egyptian pounds, US dollars and Euros. Together the Facebook and Instagram pages used in the campaign amassed over 240,000 followers.[6] The New Waves operation included over 300 Facebook accounts, pages, groups and events and targeted at least nine countries including Libya, Sudan, Comoros, Qatar, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Morocco, amassing over 13.7 million followers.[7]

Both of the Libya operations aimed to bolster the campaign of the Egyptian and Russian-backed Field Marshall Khalifa Hifter and the Libyan National Army, which—in the midst of Libya’s ongoing civil war—is in a military standoff with Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli, which has links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Similarly, in Sudan following the 2019 uprising against the government, the two operations were antagonistic toward the Muslim Brotherhood while supporting the transitional military council that assumed power in April 2019.

The participation of Arab governments in Russia’s Africa campaigns is not surprising. But Egypt’s close involvement with these external disinformation operations reveals a major irony of the so-called Arab Spring. Egypt’s current military rulers went to great lengths to frame the 2011 uprising against Mubarak as part of an external US-born social media campaign—what it called “fourth generation warfare” (information-based warfare characterized by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, combatants and civilians)—that it alleged aimed to destabilize Egypt, divide the Middle East and advance the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood. With very different political aims and allies, Egypt’s military rulers now wield many of the same tactics of information warfare and external digital interference they once denounced.

Since the 2013 coup that restored military rule under the command of President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s posture vis à vis information and cyber warfare has evolved from a defensive one—geared toward domestic surveillance and blocking—to an offensive one also focused on influence operations abroad. This shift has entailed a high level of coordination with Russia and an increasingly shared media eco-system, pulling Egypt further into an open embrace of Russia and marking a new era in the politics of the Arab world’s information ecosphere.

Egypt on the Cyber-Defensive

 The Egyptian regime’s new cyber-offensive posture is the latest turn in an ongoing series of government responses to the well-documented surge in popular access to and use of information and communication technology (ICT) that occurred in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East during the second half of the last decade. Between 2008 and 2011 mobile phone subscriptions in Egypt doubled from 50 percent to 100 percent of the population. Internet use expanded to include a quarter of the population by 2011, up 10 percent from three years prior.[8]

Egyptian state involvement in Russian-style influence operations appears driven by an equally cynical tact insofar as the operations capitalize on the same social media platforms their censors simultaneously work to limit at home.

In response to the explosion of citizen journalism that occurred at the time, the government began formulating a defensive containment strategy against the spread of social media. As early as 2007, citing the fight against terrorism, the Mubarak regime created a “special department” within the Ministry of Interior to monitor Internet traffic.[9] In 2005 the government had also purchased a controversial Internet surveillance technology known as Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), giving it license to not only monitor online traffic through keyword searches but to outsource the technology.[10]

Yet similar to experiences in Tunisia, such defensive techniques—which also included password phishing and the wholesale blocking of websites—only magnified the struggle of online activists. The once oppositional paper Al-Shorouk reported that Egyptian cyber-dissidents had been “battling” online with government censors as a kind of “rehearsal” of the coming revolution only hours before taking the streets on the morning of January 25, 2011. The strategic coordination between online activists and oppositional figures like Mohamed El Baradei would continue over the first week of the Egyptian uprising.

In the months following Mubarak’s ouster on February 11, 2011, Egypt’s surveillance state appeared to be waning. Competing factions capitalized on the ostensible vacuum of authority to flood airwaves, news columns and blogsites with a deluge of free expression. State security clearances previously licensed by the General Authority for Investment, an arm of Mubarak’s innermost circle, were no longer required.[11] The Ministry of Information was briefly abolished,[12] and 16 new satellite channels appeared[13]—a surge that represented about a 30 percent increase in Egyptian broadcasting.[14]

But the opening was short-lived.

Unlike Tunisia, where legislators famously moved to neuter the Tunisian Telecommunications Agency—the country’s principal organ of Internet surveillance—the Egyptian government retained much of its pre-uprising footing.[15] In the spring of 2014, a cache of documents ostensibly leaked from the Ministry of Interior suggested that DPI technology was still in use. Published in the staunchly pro-Sisi newspaper al-Watan, the leak, which emphasized the ministry’s use of an “iron grip” technology for combating the security risks posed by social networks,[16] was as much a piece of propaganda for the government’s populist rhetoric of law and order as it was a notice for the public good. Still, the leak served as a reminder of just how entrenched Egypt’s defensive posture had become.

By late 2016, the government passed legislation allowing, among other things, the revocation of media licenses by a new, all-powerful regulatory body: the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media.[17] Several months later the government blocked access to a score of international websites and news organizations, including Al-Jazeera, The Huffington Post in Arabic and Mada Masr.[18] The takedown of oppositional political platforms, NGO websites, private media groups and contentious blogsites has continued at a steady pace.[19]

Arab Spring as Fourth Generation Warfare

The official narrative that justifies Egypt’s draconian post-revolutionary crackdown on the digital sphere since 2011 asserts that social media and the Internet constitute a major threat to national security. Since assuming power after the 2013 coup, President al-Sisi has claimed that Egypt is a victim of a powerful and clandestine misinformation campaign of fourth generation warfare backed by shadowy foreign conspirators, including the United States. In late November 2013, the state satellite channel Al-Oula 1 produced a documentary mini-series on the alleged threat of fourth generation warfare to Egypt. Examples of this alleged warfare included President Barak Obama’s speech in Cairo to the Arab and Muslim world (including his mention of US congressman Keith Ellison’s swearing in with Thomas Jefferson’s Quran), pro-Zionist historian Bernard Lewis’s “plot” to divide the Middle East, secret US funding for online Egyptian activists and, of course, the January 25 uprising and 2012 election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi as president.

Al-Sisi’s narrative of alleged fourth generation warfare intersected in official discourse with the perceived Islamist threat to Egypt or ikhwanat al-dawla (Brotherization of the state) and encompassed a host of new and old enemies—from the Qataris and Al-Jazeera to social activist groups like the April 6 Movement and, of course, Israeli and American spy agencies—in a broader conspiracy against Egypt.

The origins of Al-Sisi’s fourth generation warfare rhetoric can be traced directly to the early days after the January 25 uprising and to a powerful covert influence operation that—as has since become clear—bore the hallmark of Russian coordination. By January 29, 2011, in fact, state media such as the newspaper Al-Ahram were promoting a powerful counter-narrative at odds with the nascent story of the Arab uprisings. Instead of ordinary citizens fed up with poverty, corruption and nepotism rising up against oppressive regimes on their own volition, the counter-narrative described a coordinated plot to destabilize the establishment and undermine the law. An article translated from Norway’s Aftenposten featuring a WikiLeaks story alleging US funding for pro-democracy groups in Egypt was produced as evidence of this plot. The article singled out three cables, including a 2009 telegraph sent by the US ambassador to Egypt in which she describes pressure put on her office by then Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abu al-Naga to cut funding for ten organizations “on the grounds that they were not registered NGOs.”[20]

In addition to the leak to Aftenposten, WikiLeaks released memos to CNN, The New York Times and The Daily Telegraph in London. The Daily Telegraph, which had recently signed a partnership with Julian Assange, went to press on January 28 with the headline, “America’s secret backing for rebel leaders behind uprising.”[21] The evidence used to support the claim included a series of initiatives from 2008 administered by the office of the Undersecretary of State known generally as Public Diplomacy 2.0. As the US Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey told me in 2016, the program represented a drop in the bucket of the State Department’s well-known support for pro-democracy movements around the globe.

The strategic timing of the WikiLeaks dumps, coupled with the willing dissemination by editors at major news outlets, appeared to be little more than a happy coincidence for the Egyptian regime and a minor detail amidst the revolutionary events of the day. But as has become apparent, the WikiLeaks dump on the eve of the January 29 Friday of Rage reflected a now recognizable tactic in the Kremlin’s global strategy of animating the margins of digital media to shape the core of public discourse.

Accompanying the Telegraph article—which the lead journalist on the piece later told me went viral on the right-wing American aggregator site The Drudge Report—were some 1,382 comments, many of which expressed hostility toward the Egyptian protestors. “Here is the truth about Wael Ghoneim and his partners claiming that what happened in Egypt is a spontaneous youth revolution,” writes one commentator in Arabic and English. Another writes in Arabic, “Look what these writers are talking about… the documents from Wikileaks confirm the role of the CIA in everything that happens.” A user identified as “Tropicgirl” is even more specific: “OBanana,” “The New World Order,” “globalists,” and “thieving world bankers” were seeking to create in the Middle East a “Stone-Age Caliphate” while throwing ostensible allies (Israel and “quasi-democratic” Arab states) “under the bus.”

As with the later hacking of the American elections in 2016 by Kremlin-linked cyberespionage agencies, the opening of the Arab uprisings set in motion a complex interchange of counter-communications. The “wolves” as it were “were everywhere.”[22] “Tropicgirl,” who would become active across a broad if peculiar range of media including The Daily Telegraph, The Hill in Washington DC, Breitbart News and Investment Watch Blog, was responsible for 57,400 comments as of March 2017, far more than a single person could produce. Imbued with the kind of racially tinged pinged conspiracy jargon used to influence the US election in 2016, the reliably ardent Trumpist (as the user later declared) gave casual evidence to a near fully-formed counter-revolutionary messaging strategy that, by January 28, 2011, was deftly poised to descend onto Egypt’s emerging field of public discourse.

The mythology of foreign fingers burst onto the airwaves of Egyptian state radio and TV stations at this time. As the former editor-in-chief of Al-Shorouk Hani Shukrallah recalled, one program featured “a young woman with her face blurred or darkened… like a prostitute…. [they] got her to confess on TV that she had been taken by the Americans, along with other members of 6 April movement… to a seminar on how to make a revolution… [it was] Jewish intelligence officers who gave the lecture.”[23] Rumors about Kentucky Fried Chicken and Euros being distributed to protesters ran wild. Videos of foreigners “infiltrating” protests went viral. As Naila Hamdy and Ehab H. Gomaa noted in their survey of the press from this time, 420 of 800 articles sampled from semi-official news outlets, including Al-Ahram, defined events through reference to a conspiracy.[24]

Egypt’s counter-communications offense was underway. On January 29, with police disbanded and the city on edge, citizens armed with sticks and machetes descended into the streets, barricading neighborhoods and breaking street lamps to detour outsiders from entering.[25] Underpinning the story of the uprising was now the very real prospect of chaos. Meanwhile, reports of looting and armed assaults from across the city live-streamed on the state-run Nile TV and over the radio. News of looting, prison breaks and clashes between police and protestors filled the papers.

By Sunday, January 30, the narrative of the revolution as it appeared in the opposition press five days earlier was altered beyond recognition. Gone were the characters of the “online rehearsal” including the April 6 movement and Mohamed ElBaradei. Nor did that original narrative reappear in the headlines for the remainder of the 18 days. In its place was the heroic image of a uniformed officer hoisted onto the shoulders of a jubilant crowd. Echoing headlines from across the country, the caption to al-Masri al-Youm’s cover photo read: “al-sha‘b wa al-jaysh: eid wahda” (the army and the people are one hand),[26] a foreshadowing of the rhetorical populism of the anti-Morsi Tamarrod campaign and the July 3, 2013 military coup.

Misinformation Machine

Egypt’s shift to offensive cyber-influence campaigns such as those in Libya, Sudan and elsewhere has entailed a concerted level of coordination with Russia in the form of “black propaganda”—as evidenced by the Facebook campaigns in Sudan and Libya—and “white propaganda”: In 2015, Bawaba al-Ahram, the online site of Egypt’s largest state-run newspaper Al-Ahram signed an agreement with the Russian news behemoth Rossiya Segodnya to turn over a percentage of the paper’s platform to Sputnik, one of Rossiya Segodnya’s principal news outlets.[27] And many of Egypt’s most-visited online news sites, including Al-Balad, Al-Watan and Youm 7, function in the gray zone of Russian influence operations as each site—presumably by their own volition—regularly serves viewers a heavy diet of reporting from Sputnik and RT.

The efficacy of media influence—social or otherwise—is difficult to measure. As the stars align in the new Russian-Arab alliance, however, the tactical dimensions of the communications assault on North Africa and the Middle East extend well beyond the conflicts that it targets. In addition to creating its own Russian-language alternative to the Internet, RuNet, the Kremlin launched RT in 2005 as an English-language alternative to the “Anglo-Saxon” hegemony in global communications.[28] RT-Arabic, begun in 2007, was the country’s first foreign language platform beyond English. Countering the Arab uprisings, which RT-Arabic at first referred to casually as a Facebook revolution, was arguably its first major test.

The Kremlin has since spent up to $1.1 billion per annum on mass media,[29] and its mission is to undermine Facebook from the inside-out. [30] Julien Assange, who would become a host on RT, described the social networking site as an “appalling spy machine.”[31] Russian manipulation of the digital platform turned it into just that.

Egyptian state involvement in Russian-style influence operations appears driven by an equally cynical tact insofar as the operations capitalize on the same social media platforms their censors simultaneously work to limit at home. If one accepts the theory, however, that in 2011 Egypt fell victim to a covert wave of fourth generation warfare—or, as Putin’s “vizier” Surkov claimed, that world powers had embarked on the “first non-linear war of all against all”[32]—Egypt’s cyber-offensive appears understandable. In the midst of mass upheaval and with the region spiraling into violence, the urgency with which civic leaders and public intellectuals sought explanations for the unfolding events amplified the power of theories like fourth-generation warfare. Ironically, such theories also pulled the country yet further into the embrace of Russia, whose iron-grip on the Arab world’s information ecosphere was only beginning.

 


ENDNOTES

[1] Facebook, “Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior in UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” Facebook Newsroom, August 1, 2019.

[2] Declan Walsh and Nada Rashwan, “‘We’re at War’: A Covert Social Media Campaign Boosts Military Rulers,” The New York Times, September 6, 2019.

[3] Pierre Vaux, “Russia’s Wagner Mercenaries Have Moved into Libya: Good Luck With That,” The Daily Beast, September 28, 2019.

[4] Facebook, “Removing More Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior from Russia,” Facebook Newsroom, October 30, 2019.

[5] Stanford Internet Observatory, “Evidence of Russia-Linked Influence Operations in Africa,” Stanford Internet Observatory, October 30, 2019.

[6] Facebook, “Removing More Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior from Russia,” Facebook Newsroom, October 30, 2019.

[7] Facebook, “Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior in UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” Facebook Newsroom, August 1, 2019.

[8] The World Bank, “Individuals using the Internet (percent of population),” 2017.

[9] Le Monde, “L’Egypt: autre ‘ennemi d’Internet,’” Le Monde. Jan 26, 2011.

[10] Rebecca MacKinnon, Consent of the Networked (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

[11] Rasha Abdulla, “Egypt’s Media in the Midst of Revolution,” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 16, 2014.

[12] Abolished in February of 2011, the Ministry of Information was reinstated on July 12. See Committee to Protect Journalists, “Egypt’s reinstatement of Information Ministry is a setback,” July 12, 2011.

[13] Abdallah F. Hassan, Media, Revolution, and Politics in Egypt (London: IB Tauris, 2015).

[14] See Emad Mekay, “TV Stations Multiply as Egyptian Censorship Falls,” The New York Times, July 30, 2011.

[15] Lilia Blaise, “De l’ATI à l’ATT: Quel avenir pour l’internet en Tunisie?” Huffpost Maghreb, March 18, 2014.

[16] Magdi al-Galad, “Infirad,” Al-Watan, June 1, 2014.

[17] Mohamed As‘ad, “Hay’at jadida l-il-sihafa wa al-i‘lam,” Youm 7, November 19, 2016.

[18] Ruth Michaelson, “Egypt blocks access to news websites including Al-Jazeera and Mada Masr,” The Guardian, May 25, 2017.

[19] See Samuel Woodhams, “Egypt’s Arrested Digital Spaces,” Middle East Report Online, July 22, 2019.

[20] Al-Ahram, “Burqiyat diblumasiya hasal ‘alayha Wikileaks,” Al-Ahram, January 29, 2011.

[21] Tim Ross, Mathew Moore, and Steven Swinford, “Egypt Protests: America’s Secret Backing for Rebel Leaders behind Uprising,” The Daily Telegraph, January 28, 2011.

[22] “Tropicgirl” was not the only user from the January 27 Telegraph article to reappear in support of Trump and far-right narratives. The author has retained the names of at least half-a-dozen.

[23] Hani Shukrallah, “Covering the Arab Spring: Myths, Lies, and Truths,” Issam Ferres Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, The American University in Beruit, May 21, 2012.

[24] Naila Hamdy and E.H. Gomaa, “Framing the Egyptian Uprising in Arabic Language Newspapers and Social Media,” Journal of Communication 62, no. 2 (2012).

[25] Nathaniel Greenberg, “Chaos Comes to Cairo: Neighbors Unite to Keep the Peace,” The Seattle Times, January 31, 2011.

[26] The phrase eid wahda derived from the lyrics of a state-sponsored pop song written in the wake of the Two Saints Church bombing on New Year’s Eve, 2011. The lyrics by Hani Shaker, read “all Muslims and Christians live in dignity, as one hand.” The revolutionary version was made famous by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who referenced the slogan shortly following the arrival of the military on January 29. See Nathaniel Greenberg, How Information Warfare Shaped the Arab Spring (Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press, 2019).

[27] See Nathaniel Greenberg, “Russian Influence Operations Extend into Egypt,” The Conversation, February 12, 2019.

[28]Anna Borshchevskaya and Catherine Cleveland, “Russia’s Arabic Propaganda: What It Is, Why It Matters,” The Washington Institute for Near East Studies, Policy Notes 57 (December 2018).

[29] Todd C. Helmus et al, “Russian Social Media Influence Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe,” Rand Corporation (2019).

[30] Todd C. Helmus et al, “Russian Social Media Influence Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe,” Rand Corporation (2019).

[31] Nicholas Jackson, “Wikileaks’ Assange: Facebook is an Appalling Spy Machine,” The Atlantic, May 2, 2011.

[32] Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (New York: Public Affairs, 2014).

How to cite this article:

Nathaniel Greenberg "Egypt’s Post-2011 Embrace of Russian-Style Misinformation Campaigns," Middle East Report 292/3 (Fall/Winter 2019).
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