Report

How to Defeat Extremism Without Becoming Egypt’s Microserf

As Cairo enlists Microsoft’s help in curbing terrorism, experts say the tech giant must avoid being a prop for Egypt’s crackdown on free expression.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19:  Members of the United Nations Security Council hold a meeting on the situation concerning Iraq on September 19, 2014 at UN headquarters in New York City.  Secretary Kerry attended the Council for supporting the new Iraqi government and the Iraqi people.   (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19: Members of the United Nations Security Council hold a meeting on the situation concerning Iraq on September 19, 2014 at UN headquarters in New York City. Secretary Kerry attended the Council for supporting the new Iraqi government and the Iraqi people. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

As it presides this month over the U.N. Security Council, Egypt has invited tech giant Microsoft to advise world powers on helping governments confront violent extremism. But the rare opportunity also puts the world’s most iconic software company in somewhat of a pickle: how to avoid serving as a prop for a country that has mercilessly cracked down on social media and other agents of free speech, from artists to journalists to novelists.

The Security Council debate, set for Wednesday and titled “Countering the Narratives and Ideologies of Terrorism,” seeks to explore ways to confront the Islamic State and other extremist groups, according to a confidential concept paper drafted by Egypt and obtained by Foreign Policy. Egypt wants the Security Council to adopt a statement highlighting the need for governments to develop a “comprehensive international strategy on countering the narratives and ideologies of the terrorist groups, with special emphasis on ISIL.” The Islamic State is also known as ISIL or ISIS.

The meeting will feature speeches by Microsoft’s vice president, Steve Crown; Deputy U.N. Secretary-General Jan Eliasson; and Mohi el-Din Afifi, the secretary-general of Al Azhar Islamic Research Academy in Cairo, which has been closely associated with the Egyptian state. Diplomats say they can’t recall the head of a digital company addressing the U.N. Security Council, though Microsoft founder Bill Gates delivered a speech before the U.N. General Assembly on his philanthropic activities in 2008.

Critics fret the Egyptian initiative is designed to rally international support for Cairo’s policies that suppress free speech in the name of reining in the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted Brotherhood leader and then-President Mohamed Morsi in a military coup in July 2013. More recently, Egypt has stepped up its crackdown by jailing journalists, political opponents, artists, and novelists who have criticized the state.

“There’s a genuine problem with ISIS and others’ use of digital tech,” David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression, told FP in emailed remarks. Yet “a lot of countries are using the ‘extremism’ problem to censor or punish journalists and others sharing information, especially online,” Kaye said.

Egypt, he said, “is using the language of countering violent extremism to jail individuals who protest, including journalists covering protests.”

The meeting comes as Egypt tries to convince the world to respond more strongly to what it sees as an existential terrorist threat. Cairo has picked a topic that has generated broad sympathy among the Security Council’s big powers, including China, Russia, and the United States. All three have hosted Security Council meetings on countering violent extremism. And some U.N. diplomats said Egypt has legitimate concerns about the threat of terrorism at home and abroad, especially following a February 2015 video that appeared to show Islamic State militants executing 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.

But the United States was concerned that the Egyptian-drafted statement didn’t go far enough in recognizing the need to include civil society groups, as well as high-tech companies, to work together with governments to counter extremists’ efforts to radicalize and recruit potential followers. The final draft statement that will likely be approved includes a series of American amendments that address those concerns.

Still, Suzanne Nossel, executive director of the literary organization PEN American Center, suggested the Security Council meeting has placed Microsoft between a rock and a hard drive as it partners with a government that jails artists, filmmakers, and writers.

“No social media company wants to be seen as an arena for the spread of violent extremism. That’s bad for the brand,” Nossel told FP. “But it’s a potentially risky partnership for the technology companies to assume the role of policing content.”

The challenge for Microsoft is striking a balance between recognizing that terrorism is a “serious global threat that warrants greater cooperation and actions,” and ensuring that the war on extremism cannot be used as “an excuse or fig leaf” for domestic repression, Nossel said. “They have to avoid having anything they say being characterized as a license to crack down on domestic political enemies or opponents.”

“This is not uncomplicated for Microsoft,” added Michael Hanna, an expert on Egypt at the Century Foundation. If it publicly associates itself with the Egyptian government, “that will raise eyebrows,” he said.

Following the January 2015 terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly magazine, governments have dramatically ramped up pressure on Internet technology companies to cooperate with government intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Digital rights advocates say that has included demands to remove offensive content or monitor potential extremist activities. But without an internationally recognized definition of terrorism or violent extremism, individual governments are left to decide what is deemed as unacceptable.

Egypt views the Muslim Brotherhood as the ideological predecessor of today’s extremists, including the Islamic State. But the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which was banned under President Hosni Mubarak, was legalized after the Arab Spring revolution that drove Mubarak from power. The United States sought to work with Morsi, and President Barack Obama congratulated him on his election victory in a 2012 phone call. The movement is now considered a terrorist organization by Egypt and its closes allies, including Saudi Arabia and Russia. But few other countries share that view, and the Muslim Brotherhood has never been designated a terrorist organization by the United Nations. And it is not named in the final U.N. Security Council statement that is expected to be adopted Wednesday.

Egypt’s concept paper does not explicitly mention the Muslim Brotherhood. But it includes an oblique reference to the movement, blaming its mid-20th-century scholars for providing the religious underpinnings for modern extremists like the Islamic State, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Nusra Front in Syria, and al-Shabab in Somalia.

“All those terrorist groups share the same ultimate goal of restoring, through violent means, the ‘caliphate’ and establishing an Islamic State,” the concept paper states.

In Egypt, journalists are routinely jailed for “for allegedly having violated anti-terrorism laws because they are covering the Muslim Brotherhood or are being critical of the government,” said Emma Llansó, the director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Free Expression Project. This month, Egypt sentenced two Al Jazeera reporters to death in absentia on the grounds that they leaked state secrets and documents to Qatar, an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al Jazeera maintains the charges are groundless. “This is a dangerous over-reading of what constitutes a credible threat to national security,” Llansó said.

The U.N. has been working behind the scenes to enlist support from social media companies to fight terrorism. The U.N. Counter-Terrorism Committee, a branch of the U.N. Security Council, hosted a meeting last December that included representatives of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, WeChat, and Weibo. Microsoft’s press office declined to comment for this report about Wednesday’s meeting except to confirm Microsoft’s attendance.

But Crown himself provided a possible preview during the December conference of what he might tell the Security Council this week.

“We look forward to working with you to redeem the Internet,” Crown told foreign diplomats from China, Russia, the United States, and scores of other countries.

Crown said Microsoft is already working closely with governments to combat a range of criminal activities, including terrorism. He said the company worked with French and U.S. authorities to supply online information it obtained within 45 minutes of the Charlie Hebdo strike. But he also said Microsoft’s cooperation will be “guided by principles anchored in the rule of law, including international law.”

“We are, of course, outraged by terrorists’ use of our platform or our technologies,” Crown said in December, assuring the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Committee that his company had never intended for their products or subsidiariesincluding the voice- and video-chat company Skype — to be used by terrorists. But he said it is impossible to “retreat from the reality” that digital technologies “can be used for ill or for good.”

Egypt’s U.N. initiative will call for a “comprehensive international strategy” that brings together governments, intelligence agencies, religious leaders, and social media companies in the struggle against violent extremism. It will single out the Islamic State, which has already carried out terrorist attacks against Egyptians. A key goal is to find an “ideal mechanism to coordinate follow-up and mobilize the necessary action and resources,” according to the concept paper.

Moving forward, the paper suggests discussions on steps the international community can take “in accordance with the rule of law and while ensuring freedom of speech” to curb terrorists’ use of media, social media, and other online communications to disseminate narratives and ideology.

“What measures should be taken to enhance the cooperation and coordination between security and intelligence authorities of different countries?” the paper asked. “What legal measures should be implemented to counter the narratives and ideologies of the terrorist groups?”

Photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ / Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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