Russia is using propaganda to make Egypt the linchpin of its new Cold War with the West

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In recent months, Egyptian state media have amplified claims by the Russian foreign minister and other Kremlin officials that, in imposing sanctions on the exportation of Russian goods like fertilisers, “European countries are looking for any way to punish Russia but are in fact punishing poor countries.”

The West, according to these allegations, is attempting to use the Ukraine conflict for “hybrid warfare against Moscow.”

This is, in fact, a prime example of how Egypt’s state-run media ecosystem has become an echo chamber for Russia’s narrative on the war in Ukraine. 

RT Arabic’s popularity explodes

Egyptian-Russian cooperation in the realm of information has Cold War roots. However, its recent iterations date to 2018 when Egypt’s Middle East News Agency, MENA, joined the online platform of Al-Ahram, the country’s oldest news outlet, in signing an “agreement” with Russian officials to “develop cooperation and expand media broadcasting across Egypt and Russia.” 

The agreement preceded an explosion in the popularity of RT Arabic — a part of the Russian state-owned network banned in the EU after the February invasion of Ukraine — making it the most trafficked news website in the country right after Youm 7, a semi-official news site that frequently reposts Russian media.

And Egypt became the largest audience for RT Arabic, which in turn is Russia Today’s largest language division after English. 

More nefariously, the agreement foreshadowed revelations by Meta and other international monitors that Egypt had become a hub for the exportation of disinformation campaigns targeting Libya, Sudan, and elsewhere.

But the question remains whether the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regime finds true ideological synergy in Russian-state media or whether the cooperation is only a bargaining chip in the country’s greater bid for external funding.

Moscow pitches its investments as good for Egypt

Russia has invested heavily in Egypt in recent years, with massive loans for the construction of a nuclear power facility in al-Dabaa and an industrial trade zone along the Suez.

With Russia’s pending war in Ukraine and widespread sanctions targeting Russian investors, Egyptian officials recently announced a delay to the “timetable” for some of the projects. Yet, the agreements remain in place.

Egypt imports more of its wheat from Russia than ever before, and trade has increased between the two countries, which have even discussed using direct trade in national currencies.

Russian state news outlets like Sputnik have been telling Egyptians that trade with Russia is improving domestic growth. 

It’s a risky assessment, however, as some of the recent Egyptian-Russian dealings, like the proposed sale of Russian fighter jets or implementation of Russia’s MIR payment card system, brought the threat of direct sanctions from the US, Egypt’s largest trading partner.

At the same time, there are no signs that the importation of cheaper Russian goods is helping inflation which currently sits above 20%.

In fact, Russia mostly exports ideology

The most compelling reason for understanding why Egypt annexed its mighty media organs to Russian propaganda is ideology.

As far back as the Arab Spring in 2011, Egyptian state media worked to demonise the pro-democracy movement and to embolden the military’s return to power.

It joined Russia in supporting the rogue regime of Khalifah Haftar in Libya and the counterrevolutionary military regime in Sudan. 

Furthermore, Egyptian outlets are now giving airtime to the Russia-brokered return of Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian regime to the Arab League. 

Egypt’s National Media Authority or “Maspero” recently featured an article highlighting Syrian President al-Assad’s “support for Russia in its war against Western-backed Nazism.”

The EU and the US are fighting back — but could still do more

Despite all this, the West appears committed to sustaining its relationship with Egypt. 

Washington has been pushing back against Russian propaganda in Egypt through high-level diplomatic actions, such as by issuing a 23 February “Joint Statement of 34 Ambassadors in Cairo in Support of Ukraine.”

Along with a slew of European counterparts, the US denounced “Russia’s continuous use of disinformation campaigns” and the “attempt to shift blame for the repercussions of the war to others,” including through public diplomacy.

In February, the State Department sponsored a delegation of Egyptian journalists and news editors for an International Visitor Leadership Program titled “Countering Foreign Disinformation for Egypt.”

But rather than cede the battle for public discourse to Russian propaganda, the EU and US should incentivise Cairo to open its media sector and stop persecuting independent voices. 

This is important because if this new Cold War looks anything like the old one, Egypt may once again become a linchpin in the game of nations.

Nathaniel Greenberg is the author of How Information Warfare Shaped the Arab Spring and an Associate Professor of Arabic at George Mason University.

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