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The ‘Egypt Papers’: Here is what we know so far

Over the past week, the investigative French platform Disclose has published a series of stories on Egypt-French relations dubbed the “Egypt-Papers.” The stories hone in on arms and spytech deals between the two countries, as well as a joint counterterrorism mission from 2016 to 2018 that resulted in at least 19 airstrikes on the Egyptian-Libyan border.

Disclose’s investigation is based on hundreds of documents from the services of the presidential office, the Élysée Palace, the French Armed Forces Ministry, and the French military intelligence services that the platform has obtained.

In France, the investigation has sparked an inquiry by the government into the claims, while in Egypt access to Disclose’s website has been blocked on all five internet service providers, according to the Open Observatory of Network Interference.

To take stock of the investigation to this point, we summarized the reports that have been published thus far, in addition to some of the fallout in their wake.

Operation Sirli

In the first report published on Sunday, Disclose detailed a joint Egyptian-French military operation along the Libyan-Egyptian border dubbed Operation Sirli.

According to the documents obtained by Disclose, intelligence supplied by the French military was used to conduct airstrikes on what were considered to be smugglers moving along the Egyptian-Libyan border.

The platform traces the beginning of the operation to a 2015 meeting between then Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his Egyptian counterpart Sedky Sobhi. Sobhi raised the “pressing need” for aerial intelligence, and Le Drian pledged to set up “operational and immediate cooperation” as part of a “global maneuver against terrorism,” Disclose writes.

At the beginning of 2016, a 10-person French team — four soldiers and six former servicemen working in the private sector — were sent to Egypt’s Western Desert. The team included two pilots and four systems analysts, the latter of whom were employed by CAE Aviation, a Luxembourg-based company specialized in imaging and communications interception. CAE Aviation also rented out a Merlin III light aircraft equipped for surveillance and reconnaissance, which would act as the ears and eyes for the team.

During the time Operation Sirli was in effect from 2016 to 2018, French forces provided intelligence that led to at least 19 airstrikes, according to Disclose.

While the targets were presented as legitimate, one of these airstrikes, which took place on July 5, 2017, left three civilians dead in Bahriya oasis after being struck with a missile, according to previous coverage by Mada Masr. Ahmed al-Feki, an engineer working in road construction, drove a four-wheel drive vehicle with three workers on board from the oasis to a well in a nearby mining area. When they arrived, one of the workers stepped out to fetch some water while the other three waited in the car. A plane then flew overhead at low altitude and struck the car with a missile and a hail of bullets, killing three, while the fourth worker was unharmed.

Mercenaries of the sky

In a report published on Monday, Disclose took a closer look at the Luxembourg-based company that provided France and Egypt with information used in arbitrary executions under Operation Sirli.

The intelligence collected by the French military was reportedly being collected by CAE Aviation, one of Europe’s leading specialists in aerial surveillance, with which French intelligence has been collaborating since 2010.

According to the report, France agreed to send CAE Aviation pilots, technicians and equipment to station at a Marsa Matrouh military base in 2016 to carry out 5–6-hour surveillance missions using the light plane, which could fly undetected at higher altitudes, for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The contract for Operation Sirli with CAE Aviation, which until 2019 did not have officially listed military aircraft, prohibited use of the aircraft in targeting missions. However, in 2019, a Beechcraft 350 plane owned by CAE Aviation obtained the classification of “military aircraft.” As a result, the French armed forces could charter the aircraft from the Luxembourg-based company without the presence aboard of civilian personnel and could also freely use it for targeting operations.

Disclose estimates that CAE Aviation has, since 2016, received around 18.8 million euros for its services for operation Sirli, paid out of public funds. Payment to the company comes out of the budget allocated for French military operations abroad, and in utmost secrecy.

Surveillance made in France

In a report published on Tuesday, Disclose and Télérama profiled how three French companies transferred spyware technology to the Egyptian government and oversaw the installation of a surveillance system and training of Egyptian intelligence officers to operate it for the collection of information en masse from the telecommunications network in Egypt.

Based on a series of leaked documents, the outlets reported that Nexa Technologies won an 11.4 million euro contract in 2014 to install an internet surveillance software called Cerebro, while Ercom-Suneris won a nearly 15 million euro contract in the same year to install a phone tapping and geolocation device called Cortex vortex. The French arms giant Dassault Systèmes was also contracted to provide search and information access software to connect data intended to be gathered to the Egyptian national database.

To facilitate its attempt to surveil citizens, Egypt also built a giant data server in cooperation with the US company DataDirect Networks, purchased new Dell computers, and captured traffic off the submarine internet cables linking the country to Europe in order to analyze the data. The headquarters of this operation was in Almaza military base in Cairo, according to Disclose.

The purchase and transfer of these technologies were facilitated by the United Arab Emirates, in coordination with Nexa Technologies’ Emirati-based subsidiary Advanced Middle East Systems, at a cost of at least 150 million euros through a subsidiary of the Emirati technology solutions and services company Etimad.

Per European Union arms treaties that France is a party to, the export of dual-use technologies must be approved through a regulatory process at the level of the state. According to Disclose, the export of Cerebro and Cortex were approved by the Service des Biens à Double Usage (SBDU), the body under the French Ministry of Economy charged with regulating dual-use technologies. According to documents obtained by Disclose, Nexa’s application for approval mentioned a “provision of services [to Egypt] related to the implementation of a legal IP interception system in the context of the fight against terrorism and crime.” The contract included 550 days of installation and 200 hours of training.

“If the French state had had the slightest doubt about the supply of [Cerebro] to the Egyptian state, it would have refused export of the technology and opposed the sale,” Nexa Technologies told Disclose.

Ercom-Suneris, which was purchased by the French defense technology firm Thales in 2019 (the French state maintains a 25.6 percent share in Thales) declined to comment when contacted by Disclose.

The French justice system has opened a judicial investigation against Nexa and its management for “complicity in acts of torture and enforced disappearance” in Libya and Egypt. On June 16, Nexa Technologies was indicted for “complicity in torture and enforced disappearance in Egypt between 2014 and 2021.”

In the service of weapons sales

In a report published on Wednesday, Disclose detailed how Jean-Yves Le Drian, former President François Hollande’s defense minister and President Emmanuel Macron’s foreign minister, saw an opportunity in Sisi’s ascension to power in 2013 to boost French arms exports to Egypt.

Under Hollande, Le Drian and his representatives “brushed aside” criticism voiced by the French Foreign Ministry of arms sales to Egypt, including armored personnel carriers, “because of the potential use […] for law enforcement operations.”

Le Drian’s role in arming Egypt earned him praise from Egyptian authorities, who, according to Disclose, described the decision of Hollande’s successor Emmanuel Macron to appoint Le Drian as his minister of foreign affairs as “wise.”

Once in office, Le Drian called on diplomats to facilitate arms contracts with Egypt, despite what French diplomats described as Egypt’s poor collaboration and the “counter-productive” effects of the “use of violent and often indiscriminate methods” in the fight against terrorism. The same message was echoed by David Satterfield, then US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs and former head of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai Peninsula, who said, according to a note from the French Foreign Ministry, that “Egyptian armed forces [are not] interested in the fight against terrorism in the Sinai,” describing terrorism as a “vested interest” for the military regime.

Fallout from the reports

Egyptian officials have not publicly commented on Disclose’s investigation. Instead, the Disclose website was blocked on all five internet service providers in Egypt. OONI Explorer, a website that specializes in detecting internet censorship around the world, reported that the Disclose Egypt Papers website was blocked in the country at 9 am on Tuesday.

When asked about the investigation, a high-level Egyptian government source told Mada Masr that there has been longstanding, close Egyptian-French cooperation which has improved in recent years to serve the interests of both countries.

In France, Defense Minister Florence Parly ordered an investigation into the allegations, while a number of opposition deputies in the French parliament called for a parliamentary committee to investigate, the French press agency reported.

Ariane Lavrilleux, one of the journalists who worked on Disclose’s reports, told Mada Masr that the French Defense Ministry confirmed in a press conference on Thursday the start of an investigation on the matter, which will include an internal investigation to look into how the documents were leaked.

Lavrilleux added that the French media dealt with the publication of the reports briefly, and television media did not take it seriously, while some journalists informed her that their institutions did not show an interest in publishing the information. According to Lavrilleux, this may be an expression of the French defense sector editors’ fear of working with these documents and losing access to their military sources, and it may also be a form of damage control, especially in light of the proximity of some French newspaper owners to French decision-makers.

In addition, a French source informed of relations between the two countries said that this leak is certainly disturbing and casts skepticism over the efforts undertaken by France to encourage Egypt to move positively on important issues such as human rights. “But in any case, France is not the only country working with Egypt in the face of smuggling, whether smuggling of individuals or otherwise,” the source told Mada Masr. “Controlling the borders is a joint action in the interest of both countries.”

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