For well over a month after the World Health Organization warned that the “whole world needs to be on alert” to fight the new coronavirus, the Egyptian authorities denied that the country was at risk. They then shifted to insisting that they were in full control as Covid-19 cases appeared, with security agencies threatening anyone who questioned the official narrative and forcing a foreign journalist who reported that the real number of cases might be higher to leave the country. Repressive instincts aside, the government has been developing a more coherent and effective response and increasing coordination among relevant state agencies since the first cluster of Covid-19 related deaths happened. Its first preventive plans and restrictive measures were decreed on February 5, even though it did not announce a full package of countermeasures until March 24.
However, most notable about the official response to the pandemic is the uncharacteristic willingness of both President ‘Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian armed forces to let the prime minister, key government ministers, and public health professionals lead it. This is a striking departure for a president who issues policy directives in all domains almost daily, overshadowing his government. It is no less unusual for a military that has challenged the primacy of civilian state agencies in driving social and economic development since 2013, has claimed that its managerial skills are superior to those of civilian counterparts, and has boasted of its role in resolving medical supply crises and complementing the public healthcare system.
The newfound readiness of the armed forces to take a back seat to civilians is no less welcome for being exceptional. But three things are troubling in its response. First, the military was worryingly slow to appreciate the nature and scale of the threat, and may be ill-equipped to respond. Second, the national armed forces in any country are an important potential responder to public emergencies, and so a lack of readiness impedes them from playing this role. And third, if the military does not fully grasp the risks and take active measures, it may suffer heavy infection rates within its own ranks. This would add to the disease’s overall toll and further disadvantage the country by severely incapacitating a needed emergency responder. Should the confidence exuded by both the government and the armed forces prove to disguise the true extent of the spread of Covid-19, then Egypt could face an unstoppable crisis.
That Egypt’s military failed to grasp the full scope of the threat early on and fell seriously behind in taking appropriate countermeasures was made graphically evident when virtually the entire military command crowded around a long table for a meeting with Sisi on March 3. Several senior officers were hospitalized after testing positive for the coronavirus on March 9, but the armed forces firmly denied reports of infections within their ranks until they were forced to admit that the heads of two army departments extensively involved in civilian public works, both of whom attended the meeting with the president, had died. The first public statement by the armed forces on their disinfection and prevention measures came in a tweet by a military spokesperson on March 15.
At least as worrying is evidence of a continuing inability to grasp the nature of the threat. Lieutenant General Kamel al-Wazir, who was the powerful head of the armed forces’ Engineering Authority until being appointed transport minister in March 2019, stated on March 25 that “nobody has been infected with Covid-19 as a result of using public transport.” He later added that seats, handles, canteens, and other public transport facilities were sterilized four times daily.
Given that the Cairo metro alone was still moving up to 900,000 people a day at the time and that active testing was all but nonexistent, let alone contact tracing, the mere fact that Wazir could make such claims underlined a stark failure to comprehend the challenge or epidemiology. And yet Wazir later expressed surprise that the number of people using public transport had risen by April 5, saying “I don’t understand, are they no longer afraid?”
The armed forces seem to share Wazir’s understanding of the threat. Their high-visibility dispatch of trucks to disinfect a few streets and squares in Cairo and other cities may have been intended to reassure the general public, but it had limited effectiveness. The same may be said of the military’s distribution of free face masks in Cairo. As with disinfecting public spaces, it did no harm, but it also did minimal good without proper use and unless it was part of a much wider range of measures.
Such steps serve the official approach of portraying the country’s authorities as being in full control. But they may also reinforce false notions about the efficacy of these countermeasures and encourage complacency regarding the need for individual and collective responsibility in dealing with an extraordinary public health challenge.
This, additionally, presents a potential problem as the military is often an important emergency responder in countries suffering epidemics or natural disasters. Trained and equipped to work under unusual conditions—indeed chaotic ones—while facing threats to their lives, military personnel have the discipline and organizational skills to meet the logistical challenges posed. The armed forces’ potential emergency role is especially significant given that it has nearly half a million men under arms, with roughly the same number in reserves. It moreover boasts of providing medical services at no cost or half the cost to the general public at dozens of military facilities around the country, and of complementing national health campaigns.
So far, the Defense Ministry has not misstepped. On April 7, it announced that it was preparing 22 out of 45 military hospitals as quarantine centers with 4,000 beds, establishing four mobile field hospitals with another 502 beds, and generally placing 1,870 intensive care rooms, 1,100 ventilators, eleven sample testing machines, and air evacuation assets at the disposal of the national effort. These have not yet been put to the test, as only half the hospitals designated by the Health Ministry for the purpose were used as quarantines by April 15.
The Defense Ministry is also importing medical supplies from abroad. The National Service Projects Organization, an agency affiliated with the military, is producing sanitizers at its Nasr chemicals factory. And the Military Production Ministry, which promised to market sanitizers by mid-April, assigned three of its factories to produce face masks, which passengers receive for free when purchasing Metro tickets in Cairo.
Much of this started late—production of hand sanitizers commenced over seven weeks after the need was being reported globally and three weeks after shortages hit European countries—but at least it is being done, and in any case civilian businesses are the main suppliers of these needs. The National Service Projects Organization also stockpiled food—partly in anticipation of the month of fasting during Ramadan, which began on April 23—and the armed forces’ Logistics and Supply Authority announced that it could provide up to 1 million people with food for three months.
On the face of it, the military appears both prepared and responding effectively to civilian needs. But the real test will come if it proves that Covid-19 has been spreading among the military rank and file. The vulnerability of large numbers of personnel who, of necessity, must live and work in close quarters was demonstrated by the infection of some 600 sailors on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier and of a similar number on the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. In the United Kingdom, 13,000 members of the armed forces were absent from duty by mid-April because of the coronavirus—whether to self-isolate, care for relatives, or work from home—although actual infection rates remained low.
The military’s initial delay in grasping the nature of the threat, along with its natural secretiveness (like the armed forces in all countries), emphasis on supporting the official narrative, and inadequacy of public health resources and data in a country that suffers from an illiteracy rate of over 28 percent and a poverty rate of 32.5 percent, all suggest that assurances by Egypt’s military (and civilian) authorities cannot be taken at face value. As the Economist has noted, the rise in total mortality figures compared to historical averages in Italy and other European countries indicates that the true death toll of the new coronavirus may be over twice as high as official counts show. Poorer countries such as Egypt that have less capacity for testing and treating patients are probably suffering even more heavily, albeit less visibly.
For the armed forces, the principal risk arises from underestimating the scale of the threat. The problem with relying on the tally of confirmed cases within the military’s ranks or in the country as a whole is that they are a lagging indicator of infection. Unless the military puts an early warning system of varied and repeated testing in place, its personnel may be at high risk. At a minimum, it should cancel rotations and drills, reduce the number of personnel on active duty, and call up reservists with specialist skills, as the United Kingdom’s Defense Ministry has done, for example.
Even in war-torn Syria, the government’s armed forces had suspended conscription by March 20, and then announced the demobilization of thousands of reservists on March 29, so as to reduce the risk of infection. Egypt’s armed forces should do no less. As importantly, they should put a force protection plan in place for all personnel and departments they have designated to provide frontline support for civilian health agencies.
Worryingly, the military takes its policy cues from Sisi, not the government. His concern about the economic fallout of preventive measures related to Covid-19 has led him to exempt construction—a labor-intensive sector that accounts for 16 percent of GDP and up to 20 percent of the workforce—from observing the official lockdown. He gave a nod to public health concerns on April 4 by delaying the planned inauguration of so-called “national projects.” This included the new administrative capital being built by the military. However, the armed forces general directing the latter project confirmed that construction had not stopped “for a second,” and on April 1 workers were ordered to remain on site for a month to reduce the spread of infection.
On April 12, Sisi renewed instructions for the continuation of military-managed highway construction and the “complete modernization of the transport system.” A video news clip that went viral in the meantime showed him scolding a military officer for allowing construction workers on a project to work without face masks. But this only underlined the inadequacy of statements issued by Sisi, Wazir, and other officials about “application of the highest levels of preventive measures to ensure safety and healthcare for workers in national projects.”
Reflecting the primacy of politics in its response, on April 21 the military chose the Tahya Masr fund, a pet project that Sisi established in 2016 to receive a donation of EGP100 million ($6.35 million) from its private reserves to “assist state efforts to combat Covid-19.”
In a best-case scenario, the success of the Egyptian government’s approach to defeating the coronavirus will demonstrate the competence of civilian state agencies and encourage Sisi to curb his policy interventions and deployment of the armed forces in their domains of competence. Failure could lead to the opposite, as Sisi would be likely to rely even more heavily on the military. That would truly test Egypt’s armed forces.
As economist Daron Acemoglu recently noted, autocratic systems “exhibit paper-thin policymaking competence ... Bureaucrats in these countries get accustomed to praising, agreeing with, and taking orders from the top rather than using their expertise to solve problems.” The Egyptian armed forces are used to staging highly choreographed training maneuvers that leave no room for surprise or initiative. So they may be woefully unready to cope if the coronavirus escapes the containment strategy currently in place.