Egypt is facing a catastrophe of epic proportions in the form of coronavirus. Hospitals are closing across the country, doctors are being hooked up to mechanical ventilators, and patients are escaping from quarantine in fear of social stigma, with some likening it to prison.
WHO has said that 13 per cent of confirmed coronavirus cases in Egypt are medics, making them highly vulnerable. Many of them have spoken out about how difficult it is to obtain masks, protective clothing and disinfectant.
Instead of tackling the pandemic head on, the government has been accused of hiding the true number of infected cases, and criticised for turning its focus to keeping its allies happy. In the past several weeks it has sent medical aid to Italy, China and the US, despite being told it is desperately needed on its own frontline.
Human rights organisations and the families of detainees are begging authorities to release prisoners in case the virus hits the overcrowded prison cells, which are dirty and lack ventilation, according to numerous accounts of former prisoners. If COVID-19 finds its way inside, through one of the guards for example, it will almost certainly be a disaster for the people held captive there.
Family visits have been banned, communication between detainees and their lawyers disrupted and prisoners have been prevented from attending renewal hearings for their sentences. Regimes in Iran and Bahrain, hardly famous for their human rights records, have both released prisoners amid the pandemic. Why won’t Egypt do the same? concerned onlookers ask.
As criticism of the government’s coronavirus response gathers pace, Egyptians are bearing the brunt in what has been a savage week for detainees. On Saturday, an Egyptian criminal court placed Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath and former parliamentarian Ziad Al-Alimi on the “terror list” along with 11 other detainees, which means they have been placed under a travel ban, their assets frozen and their passports seized.
A mother of a two-year-old girl, Marwa Arafa, was abducted from her home at 1am on Tuesday morning and her whereabouts not disclosed. Though in the past Marwa advocated for the rights of Egypt’s child prisoners, who are tortured and abused like adults in prison, her husband posted on Twitter that for the past several years her focus had only been on their young daughter.
Also this week, award-winning journalist and activist Wael Abbas, who rose to prominence after sharing videos of police brutality, was arrested and then released 18 hours later. We can now add to the list the arrest of researcher and head of translation at Alexandria Library, Kholoud Sayed Amer, who was arrested at dawn on Wednesday and taken to an unknown location.
The biggest gift to the government came in the form of Haneen Hussam, a young social media influencer who was arrested, detained and accused of “debauchery” after she posted a video on TikTok calling on other young women to set up live feeds to advertise her platform in exchange for money, which went viral.
Despite the fact that Haneen specifically said she only wanted women over the age of 18, fully clothed and that men would not be allowed to work for the platform, she was accused of prostitution and seeking to lure young women online for darker purposes. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Haneen, and not about Egypt’s coronavirus crisis.
At the same time, the government has passed new amendments to the emergency law and granted the president expansive powers in the name of fighting COVID-19, including appointing the military prosecution to investigate crimes and restrict demonstrations and public ceremonies. No doubt these powers will be used to repress citizens, not help protect them from a highly contagious disease.
As thousands across the world woke up at dawn today to begin the holy month of Ramadan, a month of mercy, it’s worth thinking about the people detained unjustly in Egypt, their families and medics on the frontline who are being drowned in a narrative of terrorism and indecency.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.