An exclusive contribution by a scholar in Egypt
Infection clusters began emerging in the tourist zones of upper Egypt on March 6. Though the Health Ministry (HM) moved to isolate and contain these clusters, airports remained open to tour groups from all over the world till March 19. By March 22 significant clusters had emerged in most of the country’s governorates. Containment strategy included a series of curfew and closure measures announced between March 19 and March 31, then a staggered easing or lifting of most of these measures in the lead-up to Ramadan in mid-April. While expectations were that closures would end immediately after Eid al-Fitr on May 24, the government has just announced a three stage re-opening plan that does not include imminent lifting of curfew. The current restrictions in place are: schools, universities and the hugely popular and profitable local study centers closed; sporting clubs, beaches and parks closed; 6 am to 9pm curfew (exceptions for pharmacies, medical staff, trucking and TV production personnel; social distancing measures for public sector employees. All businesses except restaurants, bars and cafes may open from 6 am to 9pm seven days a week (most restaurants continue to offer delivery services) and all public transportation is open for normal operations. Mosques and Churches were closed and services suspended indefinitely on March 21. A minor rebellion on social media and on the streets followed this measure, but quickly died down due to police action and the support of senior clerical authorities. Muslim worshipers continue to hold group prayers outside local mosques or on the roofs of buildings in popular quarters of Cairo in defiance of the ban on public assembly, and these are mostly tolerated by the police. More generally numerous and systemic local violations of curfew have been taking place on a daily basis during Ramadan with minimal police intervention.
According to government figures, it took 51 days to go from zero to 1000 cases. Thereafter the curve has risen significantly and is currently averaging around 400 new cases per day, with total infections currently at 11,228 cases and 592 total deaths; an alarmingly high morbidity rate. Many of these deaths are reported to have occurred en route to quarantine hospitals or soon upon arrival. This indicates that the number of unreported infections vastly exceeds official figures. Under-reporting of infections (and deaths) seems to be increasingly occurring around the world to greater or lesser degrees as the drive to ‘open the economy’ gathers pace. In Egypt testing continues to be extremely limited (879 tests per 1m population) and restricted to mysterious criteria that HM refuses to clarify, to the point that medical personnel known to have been in contact with infected colleagues and patients are being refused testing. The WHO has repeatedly requested that the government institute an exponential increase in testing, but health authorities are ignoring these calls. Egypt’s number of ICU beds is also extremely limited: 1000 beds for the entire population of 102 million. As of last week, HM finally acknowledged that community transmission is underway. A significant and alarming percentage of infections have occurred in already crumbling and underfunded government hospitals (over 50% of staff at some hospitals), including in flagship university hospitals where medical staff have been complaining from early on about lack of PPE, egregious misinformation and negligent hospital administration. Some medical personnel who have spoken out on social media have been subject to administrative penalties or to prosecution under the ‘fake news’ laws. There are over 500 infections and over a dozen reported deaths to date among medical personnel. To add insult to injury the total public health sector allocation in the 2020-21 state budget—just released—is set to decline to less than 1.5% in line with austerity planning. Nevertheless, HM maintains its brisk and professional image in state and private media with the support of the WHO and, no doubt, some capable US public relations firm. The pandemic has presented a golden opportunity for the regime to burnish its image and re-acquire a level of legitimacy that was decidedly on the wane over the past two or three years in the wake of the brutal austerity measures imposed as part of the 2016 IMF loan agreement. On 5/6/20, HM made the stunning announcement that state quarantine hospitals have reached maximum capacity and that all new cases will be told to isolate at home, with severe cases taken to fever hospitals (which are some of the poorest and most underequipped hospitals around the country). There is now a growing recognition by a variety of social actors that the state is no longer pursuing mitigation and that so-called herd immunity is unstated government policy . One obvious reason for this chilling conclusion is HM’s stubborn and inexplicable refusal to test populations who are among the most vulnerable to infection, but also the most significant vectors forinfection (such as medical personnel and patients), coupled with its bald admission that the state no longer has the capacity to quarantine and treat new infections. Most recently, Doctors Syndicate demands for more rigorous lockdown measures during the two weeks leading up to and through the Eid al-Fitr holiday when market traffic and travel between provinces increases exponentially have been met with total silence by HM. Instead, on May 13 the government released its “Living with Covid-19” plan which, besides a number of token sanitary measures provides for further re-openings, including the domestic tourism sector (at 25% capacity; a figure which will most certainly not be enforced). The unstated yet explicit ‘policy’ here is that the economy is open for business and that it is every man for himself. In the wake of this unstated policy, talk shows and news bulletins across state and private media have moved to decrying the ignorance and irresponsibility of the masses who refuse to follow HM distancing guidelines, when these guidelines are themselves merely cosmetic (see above), and as I discuss below, at least partly motivated by securitarian policing strategies, with the emphasis being on nightly curfew as a substitute for informed, equitable and adequately funded public health policy.
Some brief points:
*Repatriation and migrant labor:
All airports continue to be closed except for repatriation flights. Thousands of Egyptians remain stranded abroad with migrant workers in the Gulf States being particularly vulnerable to job termination, visa cancellation and carceral measures like internment in temporary detention camps. The exact figure of nationals seeking repatriation in the Gulf and elsewhere is unknown as the government’s requirements for repatriation eligibility is very narrow. Individuals who can afford to pay tens of thousands of pounds for airfare and quarantine in five-star hotels are able to return irrespective of whether they qualify according to government repatriation criteria. Those who cannot afford to do so—like the 3,500 migrant workers still stranded in Kuwaiti camps—continue to wait for government action under difficult if not abysmal conditions. Egyptians who have been repatriated under government-sponsored plans are being quarantined in squalid and hastily designated state school and dormitory buildings with zero sanitary protocols in place.
Egypt has historically been an important station in the northwards journey of African refugees. Invasion, civil war and desperate economic conditions have led to an increasing influx of refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, Iraq and Syria over the past decade. At the end of 2018 according to UNHCR figures there were 247,000 registered refugees and 68,000 applicants for refugee status in Egypt, in addition to a significant but unknown number of undocumented and therefore illegal migrants. Refugees have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, as they are the first to be laid off from daily wage jobs and the least likely to be rehired as closures are eased. They are also among the most vulnerable to discrimination, harassment and homelessness, and even worse, sex and organ trafficking. The office of the UNHCR, which is the body with oversight for refugee affairs in Egypt, has been effectively closed since March, which means that already meager stipends, subsidies and food and medical aid has all but disappeared. The fate of the undocumented is even worse, of course, with no work permits, and no access to NGO aid or emergency medical care.
There are no official estimates of Egypt’s prison population. The horrendous conditions of Egyptian prisons have been well documented, however. Tens of thousands of dissidents have been jailed since 2013, and at least 1,600 continue to languish in pretrial detention according to Amnesty, in the wake of a summary decision by a panel of ‘terrorism circuit’ judges at the Cairo Criminal Court to bar them and their lawyers from remand renewal hearings. This practice of pretrial, or remand detention has greatly accelerated since 2017. Detainees—journalists, human rights activists and culture workers—are unconstitutionally subject to an indefinite cycle of 15-day renewals of the remand order, sometimes lasting several years with no end in sight. Individuals are taken from their homes without warrants or judicial orders and often ‘disappeared’ for days or weeks at a time before eventually re-surfacing under remand detention.
Prisons are ideal breeding grounds for Covid-19 and yet HM has not instituted any country-wide protocols for testing or releasing vulnerable inmate populations. On March 19, in the wake of calls to reduce overcrowding in prisons due to Covid-19 concerns, State Security announced the release of 15 prominent opposition figures. On April 25, the anniversary of the liberation of Sinai, the Interior Ministry announced the release of 4,000 non-political prisoners. At the same time, all prison visits have been suspended and delivery of food and medicine by family members prohibited. Meanwhile political detentions have seen a sharp spike over the past two months. In March, author Ahdaf Soueif, maths professor Layla Soueif and political scientist Rabab Al-Mahdi were detained for staging a four-woman demonstration (including geneticist Mona Soueif) to protest prison conditions, including those of Layla Soueif’s son, activist and blogger Alaa’ Abd Al-Fatah, imprisoned since 2014. They were charged with unlawful protest and spreading false news (and have since been released on bail). In April vlogger Hani Moustapha and translators Kholoud Said and Marwa Arafa were kidnapped from their homes and surfaced two weeks later under pretrial detention.
The statutes used to charge detainees are from the post-coup terrorism laws, including the 2013 ban on public demonstrations, and the 2018 internet law which makes it a serious political crime to spread ‘false’ or ‘inflammatory’ news on the internet. These laws have been extremely effective at shutting down all public political life in the country. This, in addition to the regime’s chaotic, unregulated and extra-legal mass blocking of websites it deems problematic has made access to reliable and critical news, including on Covid-19, much more difficult, especially in light of ongoing State Security oversight of private cable media. Consequently, any kind of organizing around urgent social and economic issues emerging from the pandemic is currently non-existent.
The lexicon of the pandemic is important for thinking through the social crises and struggles that are currently emerging around the world. I do not remember exactly when the curious term ‘social distancing’ was first used in US media. From the beginning I found it somehow uncomfortable, like a fancy pair of shoes you know you shouldn’t be wearing because they don’t quite fit and will ruin your feet. The feeling was made more acute by a spate of gushing articles in the business and lifestyle sections of liberal news outlets like the Guardian and the Financial Times that speculated about social distancing as both the wave of the future, and a virtue in itself. To be clear: to my mind, while closures, quarantines, public health education campaigns and targeted sanitary measures are urgently necessary tactics, ‘social distancing’ appears to be an emerging and variable ideological concept in the toolkit of hegemonies under threat.
Most would agree that social distancing—as concept and practice—belongs to the arsenal of class privilege across the world, as well as being a marker of imperial or global north biopolitics. We see this in the constant hand-wringing in the western media over prevention of ‘the catastrophe to come’ in Africa for example, despite the certain knowledge that decades of imperial politics have created a situation where tens of millions are endemically vulnerable to mass death by many means, not just Covid-19. This is quite obvious in a country like Egypt, where in 2014, two years before the catastrophic IMF backed devaluation of the Egyptian pound and the imposition of brutal austerity, an annual income of around 300 USD for a family of four constituted the lower threshold for membership in the top quintile. According to latest World Bank figures, in 2017, 31.3 million Egyptians (roughly 1 in 3) lived under the national poverty line, a figure which is likely to have greatly increased as a result of the currency devaluation. As of 2019, an estimated 10-12 million Egyptians worked in the informal economy with no access to even the most minimal social security nets. The state has made next to no provision for the majority of Egyptians likely to be distressed because of closures due to the pandemic. The April 2020 6.4 billion USD stimulus bill was almost entirely aimed at supporting foreign direct investment and big business, in the form of fee and tax cuts and deferrals, energy subsidies for the industrial sector, and monetary easing policies for tourism and other ‘key’ sectors (interest rate cuts, subsidized loans and debt relief). The only measure included in the bill for the support of the poor and seasonal and informal workers is a 500 LE (32 USD) emergency monthly stipend available to qualifying applicants for a duration of three months. As of April 13, only 1.5 million people had signed up for the stipend as workers were required to have been previously registered with the Manpower Ministry by their employers in order to qualify (employers are notoriously unwilling to register day workers and other seasonal/informal employees in order to avoid the social security tax). Moreover, illiteracy and lack of access to the internet mean that a majority of informal workers are unable to register for the payments. Three years of austerity and spiraling inflation have also meant that Egypt’s constantly struggling middle class now finds itself in dire straits, what with small and medium business closures and bankruptcies. These figures and the broader economic situation are important for understanding the state’s strategy as well as social attitudes towards lockdowns and distancing.
The state and social distancing:
The state has attempted to negotiate the economic and political risks and costs of Covid-19 lockdown by opting for minimal closures and curfews to encourage distancing while keeping the economy open for business. While the efficacy of these loose and haphazardly enforced closures is highly questionable (see above), they are certainly of a piece with securitarian strategies that predate the pandemic. Since the draconian two-month curfew imposed in August 2013 after the Rabaa massacre of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood affiliated protesters, the Interior Ministry has resorted to periodic and localized, unofficial curfews as a precautionary measure, or in response to rare but rattling street protests like those that occurred nation-wide in September 2019. One very important item in this securitarian toolkit had been the automatic closure of street cafes in local hotspots at the first sign of potential unrest. Cafes are popular meeting places; they were instrumental to the protests of 2011-13, as an extension of the street in revolt, but also as refuges, makeshift clinics, and rapid-response information networks. It is no surprise then that outdoor cafes remain closed by government order and will probably be the last to open (after mosques), with many permanent closures likely. Generally speaking, the promulgation of the law effectively banning all protest and assembly in 2013 along with the Emergency Law of 2017 (amended to give the president further powers in April of 2020) have been central to the state’s response to the pandemic. In the state’s political lexicon social distancing is both a strategy for managing the economic fallout of the pandemic, and just as critically, for maintaining its political survival.
The public and social distancing:
The brutal crackdown on political organizing and civil society that occurred after 2013, in addition to the criminalization of assembly and the growing prosecution of internet crimes has rendered the resort to classic liberal concepts of the public sphere provisional at best. It is hard to emphasize the extent to which these three factors have completely shut down the unprecedented spaces of mobility, discussion and debate that emerged across the country in 2011. Before March 2020, this is what social distancing would have meant to Egyptians: ongoing and ruthlessly effective state repression.
The literal Arabic translation of the term—al-taba’ud al-ijtima’i—speaks volumes. It has a decidedly strange ring to it, simultaneously foreign and technocratic. Moreover, recognized by ordinary people as an absurd oxymoron, it continues to invite all kinds of mockery and semantic play on social media, etc, (not least of course because Egyptian cities are among the densest in Africa with a peak population density in Cairo of 175,000 per square kilometer).
If coming together was a crime before Covid-19, now, we are being told, staying apart is a moral duty. This is the state narrative, as well as that of the affluent middle classes, who from their spacious homes, remote offices and beach properties, periodically take to Facebook and Twitter to castigate the stupidity, perversity, backwardness and selfishness of the masses going about their business in the middle of the pandemic. Egyptians, we are told, are no better than sheep and cattle; the failure of government leadership and the hypocrisy of government discourse is never taken into account in this narrative. Meanwhile the 0.1% can do without social distancing; they have their compounds, private planes, clinics and ventilators always on hand. These same masses, already crushed by disease, precarity and hunger, have next to nothing to lose—unlike their corporate overlords of course. Billionaire CEOs like Naguib Sawiras of Orascom have been the most prominent voices against closures, but millions of people are also sure of one thing: that their very lives and the lives of their families depend on working; their own work, and as a condition for that, the work of many others. Sociability—those extended and intersecting networks of people who need each other to survive and to thrive—is the basic condition that sustains the lifeworlds of the forgotten, the marginalized, and the exploited. This is one reason I think, why most Egyptians seem to take what at first glance might look like a cavalier attitude towards the pandemic: many understand that in a country like Egypt if people must choose between the virus and hunger, they will choose the virus, and that this is both the rational and the moral choice. Popular videos and memes circulating on social media transfigure this very real moral and political drama into outrageous spectacles of defiance: covert and packed favela weddings where the bride luxuriantly sprays the groom with disinfectant as they dance, or a crowd of young men eagerly running behind a sanitary truck dispensing pesticide. Needless to say, this is a catastrophe and a tragedy. The pandemic brings the rotting sewer of national political-economic reality into sharp focus and sheds a bright light on class relations at a time when the regime’s legitimacy is under threat. Perhaps it also serves as an upside-down reminder or affirmation of what so many Egyptians once knew and thought they had forgotten: that their only true power lies in coming together rather than standing apart. In the meantime, everyone does the best they can. People are not stupid, they understand the risks they are forced to take; they will take that step back, withhold the welcoming hand, the warm embrace for now. They’ll leave the shoes outside, wash their hands and maybe even wear a mask if they can find one, whether new or used, found or borrowed or rented. As for the solitary sickness and the unremarked death, it is all in God’s hands as the saying goes.