Egypt and the Coronavirus:A Fragile Stability

Michael Barak’s essay outlines the Sisi government’s late start in its effort to curb the crisis and control the media narrative. This article is part of "The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis".

Egypt during Corona Crisis
From Pixabay.

The first case of the coronavirus was discovered in Egypt in mid-February 2020. However, it was only in mid-March that the Egyptian regime be­gan to take significant measures to confront it. The government has shut schools, clubs, airports, and places of worship including imposing a night­ly curfew until the end of Ramadan on May 23.

On May 1, the Egyptian Health Ministry reported 5,895 infected and 406 deaths from the virus. Ac­cording to the Egyptian authorities, the low rate of infection indicates that the regime is equipped with efficient tools to prevent the spread of the epidemic in the country. However, Western media reports cast doubt on the official narrative and argue that a lack of transparency indicates an at­tempt to conceal a much higher rate of infection. Egyptian citizens have raised similiar doubts, as well.

The government has warned Egyptians to be cau­tious about consuming “fake news” produced by the Muslim Brotherhood or by the foreign media. The Egyptian parliament’s decision to expand the emergency laws on April 22 in response to the coronavirus outbreak and to take steps such as suspending schools suggests that the crisis is more serious than the government is willing to admit.

Egyptian Society’s Responsiveness to the Coronavirus Restrictions

The preventive measures taken by the govern­ment have received support from large sectors of the Egyptian society. In mid-March, the Al-Azhar religious establishment issued a fatwa banning mass prayer in mosques as a precaution. Shaykh Alami Shawki, Mufti of Egypt, supported this fat­wa and called on Egyptians to pray at home with relatives. The Sufi orders announced on the ab­olition the annual Mawalid celebrations, which attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. Further, some Sufi orders have volunteered to clean and disinfect public spaces, such as the Azmiyya Sufi order. This order, for example, launched a “Sufis against the Corona” campaign, in which they began to disinfect mosques, grocery stores, and vehicles in major cities beginning in Al­exandria. The Coptic Orthodox Church instructed their believers to celebrate Easter in their homes, and closed its monasteries and churches to the public.

Nevertheless, there are indications that some citizens have not followed the restrictions. An Egyptian doctor from the Dakahliya Governor­ate warned that “the level of health awareness in many areas of Egypt is close to zero” and people are gathering in the streets. Moreover, by the end of April 2020, the Egyptian regime approved a law punishing those who refuse to wear masks outside their homes. Some Salafi religious schol­ars have not followed the regime’s precautions, calling on their followers to pray in mosques or in the streets. In response, they have been arrested and held for trial. The Ministry of Endowments, Al-Azhar, and social media activists have accused them of ignorance and of putting peoples’ lives at risk.

The defiance of these dissident Salafi scholars may deepen its suspicion towards the state, which it views as an oppressor of Islam. It also fuels the propaganda of anti-Islamist Egyptians, who would like to delegitimize the Islamists.

The coronavirus has led some sectors of Egyptian society to bully doctors and nurses suspected of spreading the virus. In Dakahliya, for example, cit­izens prevented the burial of a doctor who passed away after falling ill with the coronavirus. As doc­umented on social media, the Egyptian police has intervened facilitated the doctor’s burial.

This incident reflects a trend suggesting that some Egyptians have changed their perception of doctors, from heroes on the front line of the battle against the virus to carriers of the virus. In order to combat this phenomenon, al-Azhar is­sued a fatwa ruling that deceased persons infect­ed with the virus were martyrs, and therefore it was prohibited to cause any harm to their bodies. The Mufti of Egypt Shawqi Alam supported this fatwa adding that it was forbidden to harass peo­ple infected with Corona. Sawt al-Umma news­paper, politicians, artists and other public figures have been trying to counter this phenomenon by promoting campaigns named “Stop bullying,” and “Corona is not a crime.”

Economic Implications

Since the virus has become a global pandemic, Egypt has had to face both global and domestic economic challenges. The abrupt halt to tourism, the return of thousands of overseas Egyptian workers and their remittance income, as well as the shrinking economic aid coming from the Gulf states are threatening Egypt’s economic stability. Egyptian businessmen such as Naguib Sawaris have warned that if the imposed Corona restric­tions continue it would lead to a catastrophe and to “economic bloodshed.”

President al-Sisi has emphasized that his govern­ment was doing everything in its power to pre­serve economic stability. On April 7, he announced a government plan to dispense a monthly pay­ment of EGP 500 (€29) to laborers and others for three months. He also called on public and private sector organizations “not to cut staff salaries.”

Indeed, there have been efforts by the state to support domestic production. For exam­ple, on April 28 Egypt set aside 57,217,523 EGP (€3,346,904) for the tourism sector. However, this support is mainly limited to large economic enterprises and does address small business. On social media, Egyptian citizens complain of wide­spread economic hardship, unemployment, and distress.

A Fragile Stability

Currently, there are no signs of instability lead­ing to protests or anarchy. Moreover, the ongo­ing support of Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church to President Sisi has been an important factor that has allowed the government to maintain stability. Nevertheless, as long as the coronavirus remains a deadly threat, there is a strong possibility that Egypt will face severe challenges to its health sys­tem, economic stability, and social order. Finally, political adversaries like the Muslim Brotherhood are making every effort to exploit the crisis and fuel social unrest and anger toward the Sisi re­gime. Therefore, more transparency and econom­ic support will be critical if the Sisi government is going to overcome these challenges.

This article is part of The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis.

For a full version of this article that includes source citations, please see the original publication file, here.