Egypt… so far, so good

Summary: Coronavirus in Egypt is spreading fast but the lockdown measures have been relaxed to save the economy; peak-corona expected third week of May.

On 22 April, as part of the Sinai Liberation Day celebrations, President Sisi gave a speech stressing the ongoing danger of the coronavirus pandemic and asking citizens to continue to abide by the social distancing measures and hygiene practices, while avoiding gatherings as much as possible.

“If the situation escalates, we will be obliged to take tougher and difficult measures, and even more than what we have already taken. So let’s be well informed and further abide by the necessary practices” he said.

Egyptians gather to persuade a man suspected of having Covid-19 to get in an ambulance and go to quarantine

On Tuesday the nationwide state of emergency was extended for another three months, the eleventh renewal since it was imposed on April 10, 2017. Universities, schools, governmental bodies, mass gatherings and prayers, domestic tourism and operational airspace all remain closed.

The same day as Sisi’s stern warning Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly made another announcement that the curfew would be relaxed by one hour. His explanation for this was that it would reduce overcrowding in the hours before the curfew begins, but for many Egyptians his message seemed to undermine the spirit if not the letter of what the president had just said.

The result was widespread confusion about the curfew time and many people simply giving up worrying about the virus altogether and going back to living their old lives as they had done before it struck.

Since then, by day the streets have been thronged with traffic and by night the curfew has hardly been enforced. Many restaurants, coffeeshops and hairdressers open late and social media is awash with pictures of people enjoying crowded Ramadan celebrations.

Many Egyptians never took the virus seriously anyway. Conspiracy theories abound, for example that Boris Johnson was never sick but this was an illusion manufactured to make British people accept the lockdown, and few accept the virus is as it appears to be. Most people get their “news” from Facebook which is why the final posts of a dying physician criticising the regime’s response to the coronavirus have made such an impact in the last few days.

What it seems Madbouly was really trying to do by relaxing the curfew despite Sisi’s warning message was to give the battered economy some breathing space, while simultaneously putting himself in the firing line in case, as seems quite possible, this turns out shortly to have been a catastrophic decision.

After all, even by the regime’s own figures it is clear the pandemic has still not reached its peak. This week has already seen a series of record breaking statistics. On Monday the Ministry of Health and Population announced twenty deaths, the biggest one day total to date and 248 new infections. On Tuesday the Ministry announced a new record: 22 deaths and 260 new infections, the highest daily rise for both figures.

Sisi off-loading responsibility for the pandemic onto the civilian authorities has been one of the unusual hallmarks of this crisis and naturally he has found other ways to bolster his position. Earlier this month the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee approved a set of proposed amendments to the emergency law giving him additional powers. His supporters say he is doing his best at a difficult time and you cannot force 100 million people to follow social-distancing guidelines.

As in countries all over the world there are heavy economic pressures to relax the lockdown and though the medical situation is not yet critical the economic one is: on Sunday Madbouly announced Egypt is seeking an aid package from the International Monetary Fund. Business tycoon and ex-politician Neguib Sawiris has urged the authorities to order people back to work and threatened suicide if the virus counter measures drag on.

Interestingly, both Sisi and his close friend Mohammed Bin Zayed, the Abu Dhabi crown prince and defacto ruler of the United Arab Emirates relaxed their curfews on the same day, the first day of Ramadan, although infection rates are also rising in the UAE. It is another sign of the close strategic relationship between Sisi and MBZ, the architects of the counter-revolutionary movement. The Eastern Mangroves Hotel and Spa in Abu Dhabi remains a favourite of many senior Egyptian army officers on vacation at MBZ’s expense.

Going forward the regime has outlined three likely scenarios for containing the virus: there is a 20% chance it is contained by June; 50% chance it ends by September; and the third scenario sees a 30% chance it lasts until the end of December. Leaked internal government documents say Egypt will reach its peak of coronavirus deaths in the third week of May at the end of Ramadan.

Unofficially regime insiders say Egypt is entering a critical phase and that in the next few weeks the number of cases is either going to balloon to 100,000 cases or else for some  unforeseen reason – such as a younger population, the climate, or the prevalence of BCG vaccinations against tuberculosis – it just fizzles out.

There is particular concern for the fate of the thousands of prisoners in Egypt’s prison archipelago, above all for the handful of US citizens thought to be currently detained. In January US lawmakers called on the Trump administration to place visa bans on Egyptian officials after what Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker called the “needless, tragic and avoidable” death of Egyptian-American Mustafa Kassem in Tora prison following a hunger strike. Now the plight of another US citizen, Egyptian-American medical student Mohamed Amashah, is threatening US-Egypt relations. Amashah, who suffers from an autoimmune disease and asthma, has been awaiting trial for more than a year on charges of misusing social media and helping a terrorist group. He was among several prisoners mentioned in a letter sent on April 10 by a group of bipartisan US senators to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking him to call for the release of US prisoners, citing the risk from coronavirus. Last week Secretary Pompeo wrote to Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry emphasising that Americans detained in Egypt be kept safe during the pandemic.

This is a sample Arab Digest newsletter.

To start receiving complete daily newsletters, click on the link below for your Free 30-day Trial or Join Arab Digest now to receive full membership benefits.

Join TodayBack to Sample NewslettersFree 30-day Trial