How online hate speech fuels anti-refugee sentiment in Egypt

Online hate campaigns are fuelling anti-refugee bias in Egypt
6 min read
28 March, 2024

When Amani Mabyuo, a 50-year-old Sudanese refugee living in Egypt since 1999, was shopping at a grocery store in Cairo, an Egyptian woman loudly complained that refugees had ruined her country. She then bullied her with taunts and jibes until she gave up her space at the till. 

This type of incident is now relatively common in Egypt. It's also a real-life example of how rising xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiment are fuelled by misinformation spread on social media.

"I have seen online posts about refugees being the reason why rent prices are high in Egypt. There's also misinformation campaigns about landlords evicting Egyptians to rent to Sudanese because they pay more, and that the UNCHR supports them financially," Amani told The New Arab.

"In a 2023 case study of various accounts on X, Dina proved that they [anti-refugee accounts] are part of an organised network that highlights and amplifies the pro-government hashtag, #Egypt_Supports_Human_Rights"

Since war broke out in Sudan in April 2023 between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF), about 450,000 Sudanese have crossed the border into Egypt to seek shelter.

While the Sudanese constitute the largest diaspora of refugees and migrants in Egypt — followed by Syrians — the North African country hosts nine million refugees and migrants, whom pro-state social media users now accuse of fueling the country’s worst currency crisis and economic woes.

Online hate speech has skyrocketed in Egypt’s online sphere, with many hashtags demanding the deportation of refugees in Egypt going viral on X — formerly known as Twitter.

#Stop_the_Refugees_Chaos,#Boycott_Refugees_Shops,#Deportation_of_Refugees_is_the_People’s_Demand, and #Deporting_Refugees_Is_National_Duty are among some of the hashtags that trended at different times over the past year on X as the country grappled with issues ranging from the depletion of the country’s foreign reserves to the sugar crisis

Egypt Sudan
Sudanese refugees in Egypt are scapegoated for the country's dire economic crisis [Getty Images]

How online hate speech leads to real-life violence in Egypt

Farah Amer, monitoring and evaluation officer at the Egyptian delegation of Terre des Hommes (TdH), told The New Arab that Egyptians suffering from the economic crisis channel their frustration into blaming refugees. 

“Online hate speech could potentially trigger people and influence them to the point where it could easily transfer to reality in the form of violence,” Farah explained. 

A German study conducted in 2017 on the relationship between social media — particularly Facebook — and hate crimes concluded that there is a correlation between spikes in online anti-refugee sentiment and increased incidents of anti-refugee violence.

Nour Khalil, executive director of Refugees Platform in Egypt, an independent organisation that supports “people on the move,” told The New Arab that this is not the first time online campaigns targeting refugees have emerged. 

“Some Egyptian officials adopt the same hate speech; Egypt’s officials often blame the presence of refugees for the exacerbating economic crisis,” he said, adding that “these online campaigns are always associated with a political event or a message that the state is attempting to tout. They attribute the administrative and economic failures of the Egyptian state to the most vulnerable groups who won’t be able to defend themselves.” 

Perspectives

While Nour refused to offer a conclusive statement as to whether these campaigns are mobilised by the government, he believes that these campaigns are impossible to become so systemic without the knowledge of Egyptian security authorities.

The University of Oxford published a report in 2020 saying that Egypt ranked number 17 out of 81 countries for having a ‘high cyber troop capacity’— defined as “government or political party actors tasked with manipulating public opinion online." 

Nour added that these accounts are not always operational, they only typically engage in coordinated campaigns. “They are either uniformly attacking a particular opponent, launching simultaneous attacks on human rights organisations, or simultaneously posting tweets, posts, and publications in support of the Egyptian state.”

"The lack of safety and poverty in Egypt has driven many Sudanese back to their country where conflict between warring parties continues to rage on"

The Egyptian government has never directly addressed the claims of mobilising people online to smear dissidents or accuse refugees of the government's failures, but it has repeatedly accused the Muslim Brotherhood group of employing online techniques that target the Egyptian state. 

Egypt’s law prohibits inciting racism or intolerance on social media, which includes personal blogs and social media accounts with more than 5000 followers.   

Are anti-refugee accounts part of an organised network?

Some of the accounts that are breeding this content appear to have a few things in common; exhibiting nationalist tones in their photos, usernames, and bios.

Some of them, The New Arab learned from Dina Sadek, a Middle East research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), are part of an organised network. 

In a 2023 case study of various accounts on X, Dina proved that they are part of an organised network that highlights and amplifies the pro-government hashtag, #Egypt_Supports_Human_Rights. 

“We monitored and identified a large number of accounts in this network that follow a similar pattern of posting coordinated content,” Dina told The New Arab.

“An X user, suspected to be the ringleader of the network, has several accounts with different handles used interchangeably and changed occasionally, including @Bassemelmassry, @BassemElMssry2, @BassemElMassry1, @bassembekhet2, and @bassembekhet3,” Dina explained.

Some of the accounts that DFR identified, including that of the alleged ringleader, have been found to amplify hashtags promoting hate speech against refugees in Egypt and demanding their deportation. 

Looking closely, Dina explained, “You will notice that, for months, they have amplified content and hashtags in support of the Egyptian government. These accounts exclusively promote pro-government content, indicating their coordinated behaviour of pushing and amplifying specific narratives.” 

TikTok trolls and attacks

Hosam El-Din Kanaan, an Egyptian-Syrian whose TikTok account has thousands of followers, was the target of online discrimination. “This is a Syrian man who lives and illegally works in Egypt and owns an unlicensed shop, benefiting from all services for free at the expense of Egyptians,” wrote one such X user on a video Hosam had posted on his Tiktok account.

“I do not even live in Egypt, I live in Turkey,” Hosam told The New Arab. “I lived in Egypt from 2014 to 2015, and I wish I could return,” adding, “There are a lot of Syrians in Egypt but none of them are exploiting other [Egyptians].”

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Community paralegal and Sudanese activist and refugee Butrus Anyuon told The New Arab, “I saw a video that’s been circulating on chat groups between Sudanese people about how refugees are ruining the country, demanding the closure of the borders and not allowing more refugees in Egypt,” he said, adding that this video was shocking and disturbing to many of the Sudanese diaspora in Egypt.

The lack of safety and poverty in Egypt has driven many Sudanese back to their country where conflict between warring parties continues to rage on.

Some of the refugees, on the other hand, are nonchalant about these online campaigns and how they may affect them. “I believe I am protected by law against violence so the online hate speech does not affect me,” Ayda Suliman, an Eritrean refugee in Egypt and the president of the Eritrean Single Mother Initiative told The New Arab, adding that “hate speech is coming from a place of ignorance and unawareness.”

This article is published in collaboration with Egab 

Nadin Muhammed is a journalist, committed to telling stories about human experiences, reporting real issues, and uncovering the truth