The COVID-19 pandemic has reignited the existing political fault lines in Egypt. While the country has managed to contain the spread of the virus, the economic and political fallout of the pandemic poses a critical challenge to the stability of the country. Key political issues involve the throttling of freedom of press and human rights abuse, anchored in emergency laws, and the growing influence of the military in Egypt’s political and economic affairs. Against the backdrop of these churnings, the country’s economy is likely to feel the heat of the drop in international tourism as well as remittances received from expatriate Egyptians.
Compared to the situation in other regional countries, Egypt is relatively less affected by COVID-19. As of June 2, there were more than 26,300 confirmed cases with over 1,000 casualties. However, the international media had alleged a cover-up of the actual number of cases. According to a report published in the British daily The Guardian on March 15, the cases of infection in the country could have been higher, given the fact that several of the European tourists returning from Egypt were found positive. The Egyptian Government not only denied the allegations but also expelled the British daily’s local correspondent, Ruth Michaelson, apart from threatening the closure of its Cairo bureau.
The Egyptian Government first undertook measures to mitigate the spread of the virus on March 15 when they suspended all international flights and closed down schools, colleges, universities and cinema halls. However, as the infection continued to rise, the demand for increasing social and religious curbs intensified. Meanwhile, the reported death of two high ranking military officers and the illness of the third, and the absence of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi from public view led to speculations about the president being quarantined given his exposure to the deceased military officers.
Amidst these speculations and growing criticism for mishandling the situation, Sisi attended a public event on March 22. Two days later, the government announced a series of measures to contain the pandemic. Accordingly, a night curfew was announced during which all public places, services and transportation were to remain closed. Further, all “malls, gyms, sporting clubs, restaurants and cafes” apart from non-essential government services were also shut down. Shops selling essential products had to operate within the reduced working hours. Notably, the ban on public religious gatherings and celebrations was implemented during the holy month of Ramadan.
Determined to tackle the pandemic head-on, Egypt announced a US$ 64 million funding for its health services in addition to a US$ 79.3 million stimulus package. To create public health awareness, sanitisation campaigns were organised in cities and villages with the help of youth volunteers. Measures were also taken to enhance critical-care capacity apart from stocking up of essential medical supplies. Eight isolation hospitals with a capacity of 2,000 beds including 1,000 ICU beds and 400 ventilators were set up. Nevertheless, some of the healthcare professionals criticised these measures for not being robust enough to protect them from potential exposure to the virus in their line of duty, apart from low medical allowances and skyrocketing prices of masks and sanitisers. Overall, despite the shortcomings, the government’s initiatives helped contain the spread of COVID-19.
The Sisi regime, however, has been accused of using the pandemic as an opportunity to intensify the crackdown on media and the opposition. On May 7, the regime amended the 1958 Emergency Law, ostensibly, to enforce public order. The government’s critics underlined that the amended law is designed to expand the military’s judicial power, particularly in the context of Article 4 which allowed the president to authorise prosecution of those found violating the emergency in military courts. The critics further pointed out that only five out of the 18 amendments were related to public health and cautioned that the amendments intended to suppress any potential protests that might be triggered by the deteriorating economic situation in the country.
The regime, meanwhile, has taken extraordinarily harsh measures in blocking a dozen news websites for allegedly spreading rumours about the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides expelling the Guardian correspondent in March, a reporter with the Arabic daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, Haisam Mahgoub, was arrested on May 11 for violating the COVID-19 curfew. He was also accused of spreading fake news after one of his reports highlighted the sufferings of those affected by the restrictions amidst the pandemic. This follows the growing trend of imposing restrictions on the freedom of press wherein Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation had taken action against several independent bloggers and social media influencers for views deemed critical of the authorities. Unsurprisingly, Egypt ranks 166 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2020.
Since taking over power in 2013, the Sisi regime has been expanding emergency laws, giving more power to military courts and undermining the independence of the judiciary. This process had gained further traction in the aftermath of the September 2019 anti-regime protests. Today, COVID-19 has provided a renewed opportunity to continue the process of curbing the simmering discontent in the country.
Amidst the political churnings, Egypt faces an uncertain economic future, given the pandemic induced disruption. One of the cornerstones of the Egyptian economy is tourism. It is the third-largest contributor to the nation’s GDP after international remittances and non-oil exports. In 2018-19, the tourism sector contributed US$ 12.2 billion to the economy. In comparison, inward remittances during the financial year 2018-19 stood at US$ 26.4 billion while non-oil exports were to the tune of US$ 17.1 billion. For the foreseeable future, Egypt is likely to get a fraction of the over 9,00,000 international tourists it receives annually.
While the government has announced an economic package worth US$ 6.35 billion to ease the impact on tourism and construction sectors, the economy could still find it difficult to recover from a potential loss of tourism revenue which accounts for five per cent of its GDP.
Moreover, the likely fall in remittances sent by the 4.5 million Egyptian expatriates in the Gulf, constituting around 10 per cent of the GDP, and decline in oil prices can deal the proverbial blow to the country’s economy. The only silver lining is the two per cent increase in revenue of the Suez Canal Authority over the previous year. Today, large sections of the urban population, comprising the poor and vulnerable, remain outside the purview of the economic package. This has triggered discontentment among them leading to growing criticism of the regime over the handling of the pandemic.
To conclude, while Egypt has done well to check the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic by bolstering the public health sector and imposing restrictions on the movement of people and gatherings, yet the deepening political and economic fault lines could pose a serious challenge to the Sisi regime.