The Irony of Sisi’s War on Disinformation

By Dounia Mahlouly|March 29, 2023|Uncategorized|0 comments

In 2018, Egypt passed a new law criminalising the publication of online content deemed “fake news”. Since then, the issue of disinformation has been conveniently invoked to legitimise state control over the media and further securitise the online space. Human rights advocates reported that Sisi’s war on disinformation is used to reassert the agenda of national security. This became particularly obvious in the context of the COVID-19 epidemic, during which a number of civil activists were arrested for allegedly spreading harmful disinformation. The 2018 law on the Organisation of Press issued by the Supreme Council of Media fails to provide a clear legal definition of disinformation but includes broad prohibitions of ‘false news’ that impose tighter restrictions, limiting the rights of local activists, bloggers and independent journalists. This suggests that Egypt’s policy responses to disinformation are framed as part of the 2013 mandate ‘to combat terrorism’ that served as a justification for Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet in spite of Sisi’s war on disinformation, Egypt’s state-owned media outlets are providing visibility to Russian official sources when reporting on the conflict in Ukraine.

Russian sources have gained visibility thanks to a partnership between Egypt’s largest national newspaper Al Ahram and the Russian news agency Sputnik. In addition, the content produced by the regional channel of Russia’s international news network, RT Arabic, is circulated via popular news applications such as ‘Nabdapp’, which delivers information based on users’ preferences and topics of interest. Additional platforms like (روسيا بالعربية) have been active since 2015 to advertise Russia’s perspective on regional and international news. These platforms gain significant traction from related social media accounts like the @Rt_araby Twitter profile (21,935 followers), which was created by an external Egyptian party on the month of Ukraine’s invasion (February 2022). Such related social media profiles (e.g. @Rt_araby) have a suspicious frequency of posts that would suggest inauthentic (i.e. automated) behaviour.

The salience of these Russian sources in the Egyptian media landscape is effectively shaping public opinion in favour of Russia, while promoting a logic of state authoritarianism that is equally profitable to the military regime. A number of Egyptian social media accounts have shared expressions of patriotism, posting images of Putin alongside the president. Sisi’s supporters are also publishing sarcastic comments about Zelenskyy, referring to Ukraine as an agent of Western imperialism. In contrast, Putin and Sisi are both perceived and described as charismatic father figures sharing a common nationalist ideology. One Twitter bio reads: “Long live Sisi’s Egypt, Putin’s Russia and Trump’s America”.  

But why is Russia’s rhetoric so successful amongst Sisi’s supporters? A framing analysis of RT Arabic and Sputnik news stories reveals that Russia is capitalising on news topics highlighting a divide between Western governments and regional audiences. Three recurrent themes stand out from the coverage of these news networks. The first prominent theme relates to Palestine, commonly referred to as a symbol of anti-colonial struggle in the region. Related news stories allow RT to appropriate experiences of Palestinian resistance, using similar rhetorical devices as Hezbollah to gain the sympathy of the pro-Palestinian audience. This media frame allows Russia to position itself as an ally of the Palestinian community, while condemning the disengagement of Western media. The second news topic identified pertains to the priorities of Western policymakers with regards to immigration and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. As such, it alludes to the double standards in Europe’s approach to refugees and the fact that Ukraine ranks higher than other international conflicts on the agenda of Western governments. Finally, the news frames of RT Arabic evoke a sense of reactionary nostalgia for pan-Arabism, calling for solidarity amongst all Arab nations and their leaders supposedly united against a common Western oppressor. This enables Russia to legitimate its relations with the Syrian regime, while promoting its ties with other military powers in North Africa (i.e. Egypt and Algeria). Through this lens, Russia is represented as a defender of the nation state and an alternative to Western imperialism.

Thanks to this framing, Putin has gained popularity amongst Sisi’s supporters. The appeal of Russia’s narratives on social media in fact suggests that Egypt’s state-owned media are effectively supporting Moscow’s communication strategy, significantly expanding its reach in the region. However, Russia’s reactionary rhetoric is only beneficial to Sisi insofar as it helps him discredit the progressive values of the civil opposition. Beyond these considerations, his contribution to Russia’s media operatives is very ironic. Indeed, some of the media frames promoted by Moscow both compete and overlap with the narrative of pan-Islamist resistance that once made the success of the Muslim Brotherhood.  The themes of pro-Palestinian resistance and the idea of a common struggle against the Western coloniser in fact still resonates with the rhetoric of the Islamist opposition. This stands out from the coverage of online news channels affiliated with the Brotherhood like (نافذة مصر). The news platform remained active posting content on various social media accounts, engaging a large audience of followers by featuring catchy infographics, occasionally reporting on the conflict in Ukraine. The convergence of media frames between such affiliated media and Russian sources shows that populists from across the political spectrum have applied the same discursive techniques. Along with the Egyptian military, these actors are exploiting legitimate feelings of injustice about Western foreign policy towards the Middle East, and genuine anxieties about the economic uncertainties of the country.  

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