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Sam Hamad

As coronavirus spreads in Egypt, Sisi puts the truth on lockdown

Egypt currently claims that it only has 126 cases of coronavirus [AFP]

Date of publication: 17 March, 2020

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Comment: The main victims of Sisi's efforts to obscure the truth will be the poorest Egyptians, writes Sam Hamad.
As the spread of COVID-19 picks up speed in Egypt, factual information and the truth appear to have been placed on lockdown.

While essential, critical, or merely informative journalism in Egypt that touches upon any areas of government policy has already been effectively criminalised, there's particular fear among the regime about the spread of coronavirus.  

As a doctor, speaking under necessary anonymity, working in Egypt put it to me, "things are difficult here… we can't really talk about what we're doing in great detail to anyone."

Needless to say that I didn't press him too much further, but it was apparent that two things worried him: the potentially catastrophic effect of the virus on the Egyptian population, due to Egypt's plundered and decrepit health services, and a kleptocratic, authoritarian regime that seeks primarily to protect its own interests at the expense of truth, liberty and lives.  

And as reported by the Guardian, the true figures for coronavirus infection in Egypt are thought to be many times higher than the official numbers. In fact, this is a given. Countries affected by coronavirus can only post infection figures based on official testing, while the numbers are assumed, based on epidemiological models, to be much higher. 

There is no controversy regarding this understandable discrepancy in liberal democracies, but in Egypt, there is no such official recognition of this reality; even the official number is thought to be false. And, as is the case everywhere, one of the best tools to fight this virus will be freedom of information and keeping the public informed.  

Egypt currently claims that it only has 126 cases of coronavirus, made up of both Egyptians and foreign nationals, with only four deaths. But the evidence strongly contradicts this.

The first indications of an epidemic in the country came from a Nile cruise ship operating in Luxor, the destination of millions of tourists every year. The outbreak was attributed by the regime to a Taiwanese national aboard the boat in January, and further investigations were closed. However, a later investigation by the Taiwanese government confirmed that the person had actually caught the disease in Egypt. 

For the regime, the public safety of tourists and Egyptians is secondary to keeping the economy, and by extension the kleptocracy, ticking over

It's therefore unknown how long coronavirus has been lurking on Egypt's cruise ships, though we do know it has contributed to boosting the spread of the disease around the world. The impact it has had on the spread among Egyptians is currently unknown - and chances are it will remain that way.

In other countries, this news might shake the authorities into realising cover-ups and secrecy are huge impediments to fighting the disease, but not in Egypt. This is a country where covertness and propaganda trump freedom of information and reality at the best of times. It's a country where whatever is deemed to serve the kleptocratic regime best is forced upon the population, regardless of the consequences.

In comparison to its neighbours, Egypt delayed taking social distancing measures in light of the epidemic, only recently banning large public gatherings and closing schools. This delay alone could have allowed the virus to explode across the country, with speculating cases could be at least around the 19,000 mark.  

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Tourism is of course Egypt's most important economic sector. Fear likely led the regime to believe that the longer Egypt could project itself as being free of coronavirus, the longer it could attract maximum numbers of tourists. 

This tells us that for the regime, the public safety of tourists and Egyptians is secondary to keeping the economy, and by extension the kleptocracy, ticking over. But tourism numbers, as you would expect during this pandemic, are once again down, with the regime's mendacity seemingly a deterrent to both internal, and the much more lucrative external tourist market.  

Egypt's message until today was that its tourism hotspots are open for business as usual. In the most critical phase of the growing epidemic, Egypt did not even consider tapering down tourism, let alone shutting it completely in the areas of known contamination.

These are the signs of a callous regime in a state of the most perverse denial. Speaking in parliament, Mohamed Mukhtar Juma, the Minister for Religious Affairs, claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood had been deliberately spreading the virus. As most Egyptians and the world laughed at this, Egypt's parliament, packed as it is with Sisi-loyalists, applauded. 

Information about the true scale of the epidemic in Egypt and any criticism of the government's response will be suppressed at all costs

Information about the true scale of the epidemic in Egypt and any criticism of the government's response will be suppressed at all costs - propaganda, disinformation and silence will reign supreme. 

We've also seen this in China, where Li Wenliang, the doctor who first raised the alarm, and who has now sadly passed away due to the disease, was arrested by the regime for "making false comments". China's initial authoritarian denialism, as is the case of the horrific pandemic in Iran, has cost many lives needlessly. Even more recently, a critic of Xi Jinping's handling of the epidemic has been 'disappeared', and on Tuesday, China announced it would expel American journalists. 

In Egypt, denial and propaganda will be rolled out to maintain economic stability, and protect Sisi from criticism.  

And the main victims of this petty, tyrannical obscurantism will be the Egyptian people, specifically the poorest Egyptians who survive in conditions of abject poverty (and often depend on the scraps left to them by tourism), living in overcrowded slums all across Egypt's urban areas, but particularly in the Delta and Cairo.

The doctor in Cairo I spoke to told me that not only is the general vibe among his patients that the official statements on the epidemic cannot be trusted, but that he knows them not to be true. 

Read more: 
Tourist hot spot Egypt 'likely under-reporting 19,000' coronavirus cases, disease specialists believe

More worryingly, he told me that Cairo "isn't even nearly" close to being ready for a worsening epidemic. Asked if that was due to a lack of intensive care units, ventilators and beds in general, his reticent reply was "all of that and more… We don't have the necessary means to put into practice the necessary testing procedures to keep track of the virus."  

On Sunday it was reported that several high-ranking army officers have tested positive for coronavirus. The testing, as ever in Egypt, is being reserved for the ruling elites, with the praetorian ruling caste enjoying primary importance. 

The same will be true of treatment for at-risk groups. Egypt's plundered, vastly under-resourced public health system will be simply unable to cope with a highly infectious disease sweeping through a population of over 100 million.

Propaganda, disinformation and silence will reign supreme

In Egypt's kleptocracy, the money to invest in these services simply can't be magicked out of thin air, the loans it has recently taken out from the Gulf and the IMF are proof of that. So the emphasis will instead be placed on social distancing, in an attempt to preclude the necessity of health resources they don't have. 

Unlike Egypt, in China, authoritarian denialism was offset by a recognition from the Communist Party that the outbreak was a huge threat to order. As a result, its own robust and innovative healthcare system was mobilised, with striking efficiency.

The scary thing about Egypt is that it doesn't have the capabilities for such a mobilisation. The monstrous short-termism, authoritarianism and denialism of Egypt's kleptocratic regime could now turn it into a hot zone of coronavirus, on a potentially catastrophic scale.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.


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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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