Analysis |

With a Curfew and Unreliable Coronavirus Toll, Egyptians Face a Cruel Ramadan

Egyptian editors are warned not to stray from the official line on coronavirus numbers, while rumors run wild on social media ■ Economic threats loom as tourism dries up

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A man sits on the side of a deserted street in Cairo during a night-time curfew, on March 25, 2020.
A man sits on the side of a deserted street in Cairo during a night-time curfew, on March 25, 2020.Credit: Khaled Desouki / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“They’ve drunk us dry, they’ve eaten us up, what will I survive on? How will I bring food for my children?” cried a young Egyptian woman in a clip she posted to her Twitter account. Even in ordinary times this young woman’s life is not easy, but after the Egyptian government announced a general two-week curfew last week, life became intolerable. This is a strange curfew; it begins at 7 P.M. and ends at 6 A.M. “What’s the logic? Does the virus only infect people at night?” many people asked on social media.

For millions of Egyptians, who work two shifts and a few jobs to make ends meet, the curfew is a “death sentence that will execute us all and then there will be no more infected people,” one person tweeted. The curfew applies to all forms of public transportation, including the subway, which has millions of passengers every day in Cairo, and to all shops except for pharmacies and supermarkets. The vibrant city, which doesn’t rest for a moment, day or night, has become, like many cities in Israel and Europe, a ghost town. Large police contingents patrol the major markets, some of which have already closed down completely, as well as alleyways and main roads, and send the people home to isolate themselves.

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Curfew breakers could be fined 4,000 Egyptian pounds (about $255), a huge sum even for the middle class. At the same time, Egyptians are having a hard time finding out how hard the pandemic has hit their country. According to official figures, so far about 40 people have died and some 540 people have tested positive for the coronavirus. No one believes these numbers, but anyone who challenges them and shows other data can expect to be penalized.

That’s what happened to the British journalist Ruth Michaelson, who has covered Egypt for the Guardian since 2014. Last week she was expelled after publishing a scientific study written by an infectious disease expert stating that as many as 19,000 people in Egypt were infected with the virus, when the authorities had reported that only three people had tested positive. The research, which was accepted for publication in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, resulted in Michaelson being interrogated for three and a half hours, with Egyptian intelligence chief Diaa Rashwan among those present. She was subsequently summoned for another session to discuss her visa status.

However, Michaelson, who also holds German citizenship, was warned by the German Embassy not to appear for questioning because she might be arrested and imprisoned. She ultimately managed to board one of the last flights out of Egypt. Egyptian journalists, though, have nowhere to flee. Moreover, no Egyptian media outlet would publish figures that contradict government statements after warnings and threats to stick to the official version that Egyptian editors have received.

On social media, in contrast, frightening stories and numbers are coming out, although not all of them meet the burden of proof. One of these claimed that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his family had contracted the virus and that was why he had not appeared in public for two weeks. This story led the president to make two appearances in a row last week, the first to report on the country’s efforts to curb the spread of the virus, and the second to confirm that two generals, Shafia Abdel Halim and Khaled Shaltout, had died “during their struggle against the coronavirus.” This news sent a shockwave through Egypt, as it made people realize that the army, which has the best means for testing and treatment in the country, is not immune to the disease.

The largest problem now facing Egypt is maintaining public services, as well as economic assistance to companies and other businesses whose operations have been frozen or sharply restricted. Egypt’s Central Bank announced an economic plan that includes a three-percent slash in interest rates on loans, bringing the rate to 9.25 percent, and provides loans and grants totalling $1.25 billion to businesses to stimulate investments, commerce and manufacturing. It is not clear who will qualify to benefit from this government assistance, as the criteria are vague, but what is certain is that at a time like this, it’s hard to picture foreign or local investors hurrying to invest in the country even if they were to receive greater incentives.

After the Egyptian stock exchange lost more than 40 percent in one month, the government was able to announce a drop in inflation to 5.3 percent, stemming from a dramatic plunge in consumption, and savings in its expenditures on oil purchases. In ordinary times such developments would attest to impressive success in the country’s economic reforms, which began in 2016. But at the same time, tourism has virtually ceased. This is the third most important source of revenue for the country (about $12 billion a year) after income from Egyptians living abroad (an estimated $24 billion) and non-petroleum exports, accounting for more than $17 billion in revenue. It is also an industry that employs millions of Egyptians, directly and indirectly, who have now been left jobless. Another threat is that hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who work in the Gulf states will have to return to Egypt after losing their jobs because of reduced activities by oil companies in the Gulf and the looming recession in the Gulf states.

Egyptians might even lose the comfort they look forward to during the month of Ramadan in the form of the television series that appear each year. Some of the producers of series that were to have been aired next month, when Ramadan begins, have announced they are ceasing activities because of the coronavirus. It seems that this will be the cruelest Ramadan that Egypt has known for decades.

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