Lucia Ardovini, The Swedish Institute of International Affairs
Egypt appears to be the worst-hit North African country by the COVID-19 pandemic so far, with 779 confirmed cases and the widespread suspicion that the real numbers are indeed drastically higher. Fears over the uncontrollable spread of COVID-19 are aggravated by the country’s demographics, with over 100 million inhabitants living on approximately 5% of the land, making it almost impossible to practice any form of social distancing. The weakness and unpreparedness of much of the Egyptian state, complicated by the ever-growing role of the military, makes the challenge even more acute.
The spread of global pandemic COVID-19 to Egypt poses a serious threat to the regime led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Since the coup d’etat in July 2013, the regime has not only wiped out what little gains were made after the 2011 uprisings, but also driven Egypt into the worst human rights crisis of its history. A renewed wave of popular uprisings in the fall of 2019 revealed that the country’s deep-seated issues, such as widespread corruption, social inequalities, and systemic poverty remain a key driver of popular discontent. The reality and urgency of these challenges have led the Egyptian government to prioritize controlling the narrative over fighting the spread of the virus itself– with potentially disastrous results.
Structural challenges and regime insecurities generally explain what is behind the attempts of MENA regimes to minimise the scale of the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the speed at which COVID-19 is spreading and its multi-layered implications considerably complicate such a task. In Egypt, the regime appears to be more invested into silencing those who openly talk about the virus’s impact on the country’s fragile society rather than attempting to fight the disease itself.
Globally, virus containment measures are most effective when populations trust their governments. However, the Sisi regime has long seen transparency as a weakness and prefers to inspire fear rather than trust. The majority of Egyptian society has only experienced living under a continuous state of emergency and associates political rule with the seizing of extra-constitutional powers. In the case of a global pandemic, familiarity with such draconian authoritarian rules considerably facilitate the process of imposing curfews and lockdowns, as Egyptians are used to the routine imposition of escalating emergency measures. Yet, this also creates the potential for increased repression and for the regime to tighten its control over freedom of expression even more, as there is no assurance that these measures will be lifted once the health crisis is over.
Imposing lockdown on a country that has existed under almost uninterrupted emergency regulations for the majority of its history as a modern nation state might not be a challenge in itself. The greater challenge is doing so without lowering the population’s trust in institutions. The regime’s mishandling and lack of transparency on the actual spread of the pandemic has left many Egyptians wary of the official narrative. General mistrust towards the regime’s reporting of the health crisis was in part shaped by the denial and misinformation that state-owned media displayed at the beginning of the outbreak of the pandemic in late February, mostly promoting the narrative that Egypt is “untouchable” and that Egyptians “are immune” to coronavirus. The reality of the health threat was also further dismissed by several celebrities who publicly mocked the pandemic and by numerous conspiracy theories gaining momentum on social media. However, reality has now started to sink in and anxiety and fear began to spread after the suspension of international flights on March 16th.
The first measurable impact of COVID-19 is the blow it is already dealing to the Egyptian economy, the stability of which is heavily dependent on external funding and tourism revenues. The outbreak of the virus in the city of Luxor at the peak of this year’s season was ominous, especially as the touristic sector had only just started to recover after the turmoil that followed the 2011 uprisings. To put things into perspective, in 2018-2019, 11,346,000 people travelled to Egypt generating approximately 12.6 million US dollars. While it is too early to speculate, economists estimate that the loss of income from tourism could reach $1 billion per month if these measures remain in place which, coupled with widespread corruption and widening social inequalities, mean that the unemployed and the working classes will be those who get hit the hardest, further contributing to the growth of popular grievances and discontent.
Despite its attempts to cover up the real number of infections from the very beginning, it looks like the regime is now following the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines on how to handle and contain the crisis. It shut down schools and universities, imposed a night-time curfew enforced by police patrols and announced the investment of 1 billion Egyptian pounds in improving the health services. Nevertheless, decades of under investment left the public health sector struggling to stay afloat, with many hospitals and health centres depending on public donations.
Sisi’s regime has attempted to shift the attention away from the COVID-19 crisis by further cracking down on freedom of expression and by accusing its political opponents of spreading misinformation. Given the political risks, the regime appears most concerned with hiding the real extent of the crisis by silencing those who try to spread the truth about the virus. Heavy restrictions on media and freedom of speech are two of the main tools that allow authoritarian rule to be as resilient as it is in the country.
Yet, it appears that at time of COVID-19 the regime is pushing this even further. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the first attempts was to point the finger at the banned Muslim Brotherhood, accusing the organization of spreading panic and fear by reporting fake statistics of infection. What is more worrisome, however, is the banning of British journalist Ruth Michaelson, who reported that a Canadian study estimated that the real number of cases in Egypt is likely much closer to 19,000. Together with the ongoing ban on domestic media that are not directly affiliated to the regime, such an overt lack of transparency has left the Egyptian population, as well as the international community, uncertain about the truth.
While the way in which Sisi’s regime is responding to the outbreak of COVID-19 is in line with decades of abuse of extra-constitutional powers, systemic inequalities and routine crackdowns on freedom of speech and opposition, the attention that it is generating is also shedding light on such issues. The deep lack of transparency displayed by the Egyptian regime reveals that its institutions are largely unprepared to deal with what awaits ahead. The further crackdown on information suggests that the president is deeply worried about its decreasing rates of legitimacy. As online opposition movements declare that “Sisi and the coronavirus are two sides of the same danger,” the way in which COVID-19 develops in Egypt will have a drastic impact on an already fragile economy and ongoing socio-political issues, possibly dealing an unprecedented blow to resilient authoritarianism.
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