The Egyptian government's response to the Covid-19 outbreak has become a case study in repression, propaganda, and misinformation. The regime has been quick to treat the pandemic as a regime security risk, rather than a public health crisis. This policy is rooted in the security apparatus’ control over civilian institutions, and the zero-tolerance approach to dissent.
One of the regime’s first responses to the brewing coronavirus crisis was to amend the emergency law, which went into effect on April 22 . The amendment allows the President to give direct tasks to the security and the armed forces, endows the armed forces with the power of arrest and extends the military prosecutor's power to investigate those held by the military. The power of arrest is not limited to crimes or attacks against military buildings or personnel, either direct or indirect. In essence, this amendment extends the already considerable power of the military legal system to prosecute civilians. It also gives the President direct, personal, command over the security forces and the military, bypassing the existing command structure.
Regime officials have also embarked on an organized propaganda campaign, which involves false claims about governmental actions and the healthcare system’s strength. At the outset of the pandemic, Minister of Health Dr. Hala Ziad made a trip to China on March 1 to show “solidarity” in an attempt to project the government’s prowess and international standing, Egypt gave ten tons of medical supplies to China and made similar gestures of support toward Italy and the United States. This sparked outrage in Egypt as those supplies were already in short supply.
As the pandemic began spreading, government officials made a slew of deceptive statements to increase the public’s trust in the regime’s response. For example, on May 2 the governor of Sharqiya stated that the pandemic was under control, while Minister of Health Dr. Hala Zayed touted the strength of the Egyptian healthcare system and Egyptian doctors’ experience in dealing with similar pandemics. On May 21, the minister of higher education presented a statistical model that predicted that the pandemic would start to recede by May 28 after reaching 40,000 cases. However, this model ignores the limited number of tests conducted by the state, which has only reached 105,000 compared to countries of similar size such as Germany which has conducted close to 4 million tests. The lack of testing places all the official figures in doubt and is part of the regime’s disinformation policy. Despite these inadequacies, on May 25, Head of the Preventative Medicine sector Dr. Ala Eid commended the government’s response, stating that the pandemic was “stable.” Moreover, as infection rates were exponentially increasing, the minister of health was making absurd statements, such as her assertion on June 1 that the superior strength of Egyptians’ immune systems had given the government “breathing space” in dealing with the pandemic. False statements by government officials, combined with the rising infection rates, will have dire consequences on public trust regarding the state's ability to deal with the pandemic and similar crises.
Furthermore, the government has shirked responsibility for the pandemic’s spread by blaming the citizenry. For example, on May 3, Head of the Scientific Committee to Combat Covid-19 Dr. Hossam Hosni stated that the pandemic reached its apex and attributed the rising number of cases to inappropriate social behavior. The minister of health reinforced this narrative on May 9, stating that the virus spread due to a lack of adherence to social distancing rules, while also hailing the Egyptian healthcare system as one of the best in the world. However, in reality the high infection rates are largely due to the government’s public health initiatives which were limited, short-lived, and based on a policy of “co-existence” with the virus. The state’s response included the implementation of a partial lockdown in April and a fine of 4000 pounds on anyone not wearing a mask on May 19. However, this policy was only in effect for two weeks and on June 27 most of these restrictions were lifted. Since then, the government has allowed restaurants and cafes to open at 25% capacity, extended stores’ working hours until 9 PM, and lifted the night-time curfew.
The regime also embarked on a systematic campaign of repressing critics – particularly within the medical community – of the government’s response to the pandemic. For example, three doctors were arrested and accused of spreading false news, joining a terrorist organization, and misusing social media. The arrest occurred after the defendants critiqued the government’s handling of the pandemic on Facebook, particularly the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical staff. By June 23, signs of an already collapsing medical system increased, as the number of deaths among the medical staff reached 92 doctors. The government embarked on another wave of repression following Dr. Walid Abdel Halim’s death in Monyara Hospital due to the lack of PPE. In the aftermath of Dr. Abdel Halim’s death, a wave of medical professionals resigned in protest of the government’s pandemic response and accused the state of failing to take adequate measures to protect doctors. In response, the state launched a campaign accusing the medical staff of treason, alleging that the Muslim Brotherhood urged the doctors – who the state also claims are members of the Muslim Brotherhood – to resign. This response also included claims of foreign interference from Turkey to foment dissent. Following the most recent wave of arrests linked to the pandemic, head of the Arab Network of Human Rights, Gamal Eid, places the total number of arrested at 500 people, including 11 journalists.
The government’s response to the pandemic reveals a structural transformation in the state under President Sisi. Namely, altering the essence of civilian institutions by collapsing their independence, integrating them into the state, and making these institutions an integral component of the state’s policy of repression. These transformations have rendered civilian institutions incapable of effectively dealing with any form of crisis or issue of public policy, due to the state’s prioritization of repressing dissent over issues of public policy. In the long term, this will only erode the efficiency and effectiveness of civilian institutions and accelerate the process of the public’s lost trust in the state and the regime. This is bound to create an escalating crisis for a regime that views repression as an all-encompassing answer to all challenges. The capacity of the state to deal with crises will continue to diminish.
Maged Mandour is a political analyst and writes the “Chronicles of the Arab Revolt” column for Open Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @MagedMandour.