The spread of COVID-19 has hit countries and regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region at a time already characterised by deep-seated issues, such as ongoing conflicts, widespread popular protests and economic crises. These ongoing insecurities partially explain what is behind several governments’ attempts at minimising or dismissing the real threat posed by the pandemic, as presidents and rulers attempt to maintain a hold on increasingly unstable societies and political systems. Yet, the velocity at which COVID-19 is spreading globally has made such a task impossible and a closer analysis of how this is being handled leads to some valuable insights into the status of state-society relations, resilient authoritarian rule and the real state of sociopolitical conditions.
Egypt is one of the countries that has been hit the hardest by the pandemic, despite the regime’s attempts to disguise the real number of infections. With a burgeoning population of over 100 million people who mostly live in high-density areas and an estimated 35% of Egyptians living below the poverty line, the country has the perfect structural conditions for a virus to spread exponentially fast. The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported on February 14, with numbers escalating in the tourist city of Luxor at the beginning of March. From the very start the Egyptian government was accused of attempting to cover up the number of infections and of not carrying out tests so as not scare tourists away, it being the peak of the tourist season. Egypt’s economy is heavily dependent on the tourism industry, as are thousands of locals and workers from across the country who flock to tourist hotspots for seasonal work. As the virus continued to spread, officials were forced to shut down all airports on March 16, essentially putting an end to a season that had just began. 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 for now they undoubtedly will.
An initial look reveals that the most damaging effects of COVID-19 on Egypt will likely be economic, given the country’s reliance on tourism and the already high levels of youth unemployment. Nevertheless, 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 that recently led to renewed mass protests despite the regime’s harsh crackdown on dissent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the way in which the regime is handling the virus tells us more about the status of state-society relations in the country than of the preparedness of the healthcare system in itself. In particular, a closer analysis of the ways in which President al-Sisi is responding to the looming health crisis reveals that the regime is highly preoccupied with its decreasing levels of legitimacy, and is more concerned with silencing those who talk about the virus and criticise state responses, than with focusing on containing the virus itself.
On paper, once it publicly acknowledged the danger posed by the pandemic, it seems like Egypt is closely following the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on how to handle the crisis and complying with the measures that need to be put in place to hopefully slow the spread of the virus. With over 450 cases reported on March 25, the government imposed a night-time curfew enforced by police patrols and extended the closure of schools and universities until at least mid-April. It even sent 1.5 million medical masks to Italy and earned the WHO’s praise for the “solid work being done to control the outbreak”.
Nevertheless, the regime’s responses are not being well received by the population. One of the key issues is the high level of mistrust in the government, with many Egyptians claiming that they are not being given the full picture and small groups of people even taking to the streets in Alexandria to voice their discontent. Moreover, al-Sisi’s announcements that there might be further exceptional measures implemented soon did not sound reassuring to a population that has mostly only known political rule under a continuous state of emergency and associates authority with the seizing of extra-constitutional powers. Plainly put, how can one lockdown a country that has existed under emergency status and regulations for the majority of its history as a modern nation-state?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, recent events show that the regime is more preoccupied with silencing those who talk about the effects that COVID-19 is having on Egypt’s deep-seated issues than with effectively containing the virus itself. On March 19 police forces arrested four prominent activists – Mona Seif, Laila Soueif, Ahdaf Soueif and Rabab al-Mahdi – who staged a public protest to raise concerns about the potential spread of the virus in Egypt’s overcrowded prisons, already infamous for their mistreatment and neglect of inmates. Similarly, British journalists working for The Guardian had their press credentials revoked and were banned from the country after reporting that, based on a study by the University of Toronto, the number of cases of COVID-19 in Egypt is likely closer to 19,000 rather than the reported 456. While this does not necessarily come as a surprise, given Egypt’s crackdown on journalism and free speech, it is deeply concerning that censorship remains in place despite the spread of a potentially crippling pandemic.
Overall, the overt persecution of those who try to shed light on the real impact that COVID-19 is having on the country reveals that both the regime and Egyptian institutions are unprepared to deal with what is to come, with potentially catastrophic consequences for both the economy and society. While al-Sisi’s attempts to hold on to what little legitimacy he has left by downplaying the real extent of the crisis is unsurprising, it appears that his efforts are not going undetected this time. The online opposition movement Batel recently stated that “Sisi and the coronavirus are two sides of the same danger” and “the real pandemic that is more dangerous for this beloved country is not corona, but is the Al-Sisi pandemic that has spread day after day”. Therefore, while the pandemic keeps spreading, it is worth keeping an eye on the impact that it will have on Egypt’s resilient authoritarianism, as it hits already simmering economic, political and social issues.