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Russia’s Media Operatives in Egypt: A New Brand of White Saviour

Updated: Mar 31

In recent years the rapprochement between Egypt and Russia enabled Moscow to develop its strategic communication activities in the Middle East and North Africa region. Egypt’s state-owned media outlets have collaborated with Russian news agencies, reproducing sensationalist media frames that support populist rhetoric and a reactionary patriotism. This trend of Russian-style media narratives serves the interests of the military regime by discrediting the progressive values associated with the civil opposition while promoting the moralism of state authoritarianism. State-owned newspapers and online news platforms like Al Ahram have quoted a majority of Russian official sources when reporting the conflict in Ukraine, consistently relaying the narratives of Russian news outlets. The centrality of Russian sources in Egyptian news outlets has emphasised the Russian perspective, reframing the invasion of Ukraine as a fight against Western imperialism. This story of self-proclaimed resistance capitalises on an anti-Western sentiment, which is likely to strike a chord with a significant proportion of the Egyptian audience.

Admittedly, one would expect to see more expressions of solidarity towards Ukraine in a country like Egypt, which had its fair share of anti-colonial struggle. The proximity of the Syrian conflict has also shaped the perspective of Middle Eastern audiences. One would assume that those who deplored Russian military airstrikes in Syria and witnessed the subsequent influx of refugees in neighbouring countries would be more sympathetic to Ukraine. However, Russia recently gained influence over the Egyptian media market, changing public perception about the war in Ukraine. Its media operatives speak to the frustrations of the Egyptian audience with regards to the agenda of Western powers, by appealing to Egyptians’ national pride. News stories disseminated via its networks and related accounts claim to provide an alternative to the discourse of Western governments, by challenging the prioritisation of the conflict in Ukraine, the lack of solidarity with Palestine and the double standards surrounding the refugee crisis. By exploiting the frustrations of the audience pertaining to these matters, Russia capitalises on issues that fail to be addressed and acknowledged by Western policymakers to fuel anti-Western sentiment.

Another important element of its communication strategy lies in the economic argument underpinning Sisi’s rapprochement with Moscow. Egypt’s current crisis is recurrently evoked by Sisi's supporters linked to Russian news sources, who describe Putin as an ally of Egypt. One of the most influential Egyptian producer for RT Arabic, Ahmad Alashkar has been proactively tweeting about soft news topics, such as sport, culture and the economy. His type of casual engagement contrasts with the formality of traditional journalism, which allowed him to build an audience over 40,000 Twitter followers. But his reach also demonstrates that besides the appeal of informal topics, the Egyptian public is genuinely concerned with the economic state of the country. Russia’s advocates are in fact likely to capitalise on these concerns to promote economic partnerships with Moscow, as Egypt continues to face critical inflation levels and an alarming scarcity of foreign liquidity.

Russia recently gained leverage on the economic front by making significant investments in local infrastructure. Besides the development of a rail transport network and an industrial zone near the Suez Canal, Russia recently invested in the construction of a nuclear powerplant at El Dabaa. The project, carried out by the Russian state corporation Rosatom, represents an estimated investment of US$25bn. Moscow also remains a crucial economic partner due to its significant wheat imports and the considerably high proportion of Russian visitors who contribute to the tourism industry. This incentivised Egypt to consider the introduction of the rouble-based MIR payments system used by Russians as an alternative to Visa and MasterCard, following the financial sanctions imposed by Western governments in response to the invasion of Ukraine. The plan was shelved in November 2022 but was initially expected to facilitate the payment of imported Russian wheat in roubles at a time when Egypt is suffering from a critical shortage of dollars and foreign liquidity.

Indeed, dollar scarcity continues to hinder the payment of customs fees at Egypt ports, which generates bottlenecks of import shipments. This considerably increases the price of imported food commodities, such as wheat, grain, flour and related food products. In addition to dollar shortages, Egypt is also facing critical inflation rates as well as a dramatic increase of energy costs, which are not only due to the war in Ukraine. In part, these rising energy costs result from the government cuts on energy subsidies required as part of the terms of a US$3 billion IMF Extended Fund Facility (EFF) loan, which was approved in December 2022. Egypt initially expected to secure US$9 billion, but objected to the conditions required for a higher-value loan, which involved a privatisation of several economic sectors. This further illustrates the economic pressures the country is facing because of the government’s refusal to relax its control over the economy. In this context, Russian-style rhetoric will conveniently contrast with the discourse of international financial institutions to legitimate state ownership by advocating for a strong, centralised nation state.

Egypt’s economic challenges also create incentives for potential economic partnerships with Russia, pulling Egypt’s political discourse to a deliberately ambiguous rhetoric with regards to the conflict in Ukraine. Russian stakeholders, for their part, see Egypt’s current socioeconomic context as an opportunity for the development of local strategic communication activities in the Middle East and North Africa. These topics are recurrently addressed by pro-Russian social media accounts covering international news relevant to Egypt, which are intended to reach the national audience.

One of Sisi's supporters posted a comment stating “Egypt would not have found solutions and innovations if it weren’t for the crises the country is currently experiencing (…) without the current crisis in Ukraine, Egypt would not have purchased imported Russian wheat in Egyptian pounds”. Such statements reveal that Sisi's support base is indeed very favourable to Russia and receptive to this new brand of white saviour narrative.

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