Amidst the Covid-19 crisis in Egypt, a recent chain of events reveals the systemic violence that the regime of President al-Sisi exerts. To address those developments, what’s behind them and how international actors might respond to them, we are speaking with Amr Magdi, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Amidst the Covid-19 crisis in Egypt, a recent chain of events reveals the systemic violence that the regime of President al-Sisi exerts. On May 1, the 24-year-old filmmaker Shady Habash died in prison, where he was put for spreading “false information” and without a trial. To protest against this widespread practice, the prominent activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah went on hunger-strike for 36 days. To support his case, Alaa’s sister Mona Seif gave an interview to Lina Attalah, the main editor of the independent news-outlet Mada Masr, who was then arrested for being around the prison as a journalist. Moreover, as if there was nobody left, social media personalities are arrested for alleged debauchery and immorality, including a 17-years-old teenager. And most recently, Sarah Hegazy, a LGBTQI-activist who sought political exile in Canada had committed suicide. To address those developments, what’s behind them and how international actors might respond to them, we are speaking with Amr Magdi, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Officially, there are around 56,000 cases of Covid-19 in Egypt, almost 2,200 have died from the virus. How would you describe the current situation in Egypt?
We know from media reports and experts that the current situation is very concerning, as we are seeing the uncontrolled spread of the virus among many Egyptians. Most of the public and private hospitals have reached their maximum capacity and cannot take any more patients, which leaves people who seek admission without any help. We reached this point in part because of the extreme mismanagement and ill-treatment of the crisis through the government.
We started to see a lot of confusing and contradicting decisions, first a delay in taking serious lockdown-decisions, and now what appears to be a premature opening again despite the ongoing spread of the epidemic. The government apparently prioritizes economic life over public health. The nighttime-curfew that was imposed may have also caused more crowding during day-time because citizens would rush to finish their errands, including with massively overcrowded public transport, and thus making it more difficult for people to socially distance themselves.
We know how difficult and dangerous it is to voice any kind of criticism in Egypt. How is it these days and with regard to how the government is responding to Covid-19?
As soon as anybody criticizes those measures or the lack of information about the virus, the lack of transparency about decisions that are being taken, or the lack of tests and hospital beds, the government reacts in a very politicized way. It alienates and ignores independent health experts in a time that it needs them the most. It arrests not only activists, but also ordinary people, doctors and pharmacists who speak out, either at their workplace or on social media. There is a general environment of intimidation. The military is effectively ruling the country. Generals apply the mentality of a military camp on everyone, including medical teams. This is starkly evident in the excessive use of “war” language in the governmental statements about Covid-19: Even civilian ministers such as the health minister speak of “battle” and “soldiers”. But now Egypt has also one of the highest death-rates of doctors and nurses that are fighting the virus. The governmental media however portrays medical staff who refuse to work in unsafe conditions without sufficient protective equipment as traitors. The Corona-virus itself is sometimes depicted as an invention of the Muslim Brotherhood.
And what does the government say?
To defend itself against the criticism, the government usually evokes either conspiracy theories or says that Egypt’s resources are limited. But we know for sure that this is not a question of resources. For example, when it comes to testing, many countries around us with similar conditions have done much, much more tests. We also know for sure that the government received loads of external aid and money from other countries in urgent assistance in fighting Covid-19. But where did this money and the equipment go? We don’t know. What we know is that it is nearly impossible these days to get tested in Egypt, to find an ICU bed for a critically ill patient, and that many medicines are in shortage. People know the government has failed them and now they independently do what they can to save their beloved ones, buying medical equipment for example to treat their family members.
This sounds like a systemic crisis, in which the problems that people encounter on a daily basis are currently being reproduced. You hinted at corruption, what other elements of this crisis do you see?
We currently see not only a very sad failure of the government to address the crisis properly, but also the consequences of ignoring social, economic and political rights for years. Today’s failure is also the result of years of multiple failures to invest in socio-economic rights, particularly in health and education. The health and education budgets under President al-Sisi’s government have been the lowest in the country’s recent history even though our constitution says that the spending should be increased. This really is a systemic problem that ultimately fails both doctors and patients.
The striking point about this is that reality and narrative differ so much. Al-Sisi always says that everyone should be more concerned about social and economic rights, and that journalists and foreign leaders “unjustly” ask him only about political rights and political prisoners. But the current catastrophe is a strong testament that this kind of narrative is only used to justify the severe curtailing of civil and political liberties. In reality, social and economic rights cannot be separated from political and civil rights. And there is no plausible progress of social rights. If al-Sisi was as serious about the “development of the country” as he says he is, he would adequately invest in health and education, not in the multi-billion dollar purchase of arms. By now, Egypt has become one of the world’s biggest importers of arms from France, the US, but also Germany of course.
Another element of the mismanagement of this crisis, which has also been in place for many years, is the extreme centralization of the administration in Egypt. Everything has to run through Cairo. And not just through Cairo but even through very small circles within Cairo. For example, the Ministry of Health suddenly realized that it doesn’t have regional branches for the Central Laboratories across the country. This means that patients who needed to be tested for Covid-19 had to travel to Cairo or other bigger cities. Another example is how the Health Ministry wanted to oversee all aspects of the crisis to the extent of banning virus testing in the private sector. Most officials in Egypt still possess this old, obsolete mentality that knows little about decentralization and relegation of authorities. But a country that is effectively run by the military is far from taking any steps towards decentralization.
How does Covid-19 add to all this?
It makes all the negligence and failures from the government more evident for many citizens. Sisi’s government effectively rose to power with an unwritten agreement: “Forget your political freedoms and liberties and I will give you stability, security and economic development.” We have to admit that this agreement had some considerable support from the public at some point. However, Sisi’s government has apparently lost most of the popularity it enjoyed in 2013-2014 since it has been unable to deliver on those fronts.
Now Covid-19 now makes it even more evident for the average Egyptian that the government is failing: Egypt is the third largest prison for journalists, after China and Turkey. Freedom of speech is severely restricted. Poverty is hitting almost a third of the population, according to official statistics. And the reality might be much worse. Illiteracy is very high. All those factors shape public opinion, and it continues to breed discontent that might erupt again at any moment. Incidentally, this is what happened in 1919, when the mismanagement of the Spanish Flu in Egypt also contributed to the Revolution against the British occupation.
Maybe we don’t even need to go that far back? Ten years ago, the killing of Khaled Said by police forces in Alexandria helped spark the revolution in 2011. And these days thousands of people are protesting against police violence and racism after the murder of George Floyd.
Without drawing parallels, it is clear that the lack of good governance in any crisis meets the political frustrations that have been building up for years. The public anger here is not necessarily about how many people die in the epidemic, but that people need to feel that their government has done its best to mitigate the crisis. That people know they can trust the government to protect them. This is definitely lacking in Egypt, where you clearly feel there is a general sentiment among people that they feel betrayed by their government.
The horrific murder of Khaled Said evokes a lot of sadness, not only because of what happened, but also because of the lack of justice and impunity until now. But ten years later, we are dealing with the “normalization” of torture and state violence. We have such instances on a daily basis, people disappear every day and we know what happens to them in secret detentions.
So this reminds us that even though Mubarak was ousted, his regime has not fallen, but has become even more monstrous. This monster was so badly injured in the 2011 uprising that it has become wild. But usually any authoritarian regime gets most brutal shortly before it falls. This is because the more brutal a regime becomes, the more it realizes it cannot take a step back. Al-Sisi has failed to build any pillars of economic or political legitimacy for his government in the eyes of many, and his security agencies know the size of discontent and public anger they fed. We all remember the protests in September 2019 that were triggered by a few videos on Facebook about rampant corruption. Security agencies believe that a retreat will enable more discontent and so they go on with more violence to crush the slightest criticism. They are caught in this cycle and they do not know what else to do. They think Mubarak was ousted because he allowed some margins of freedom and are fearful that another uprising might happen again.
What’s behind all this?
A defining element of the government of President al-Sisi is that it views any kind of criticism as an existential threat. For them, criticism is the problem because it tarnishes the image of the country, not the violations of human rights, not the reality on the ground. When you merely hint at police violence or abuse of authority, you are tarnishing the image of the country. Then this becomes the problem, not the governmental failures and excesses. This is the mentality that rules this country, which also undermines any accountability. Nobody should know about abuses and speak up about them.
This mentality persists until today, which is why we are seeing ascending numbers of arrests at times when prisons should be opened up because of the particular risk of infection. This is also why al-Sisi issued a presidential pardon for as many as 10.000 prisoners, including convicted criminals and murderers, but ignored political prisoners whose only “crime” was to speak up.
The government continuously acts like there is an eternal conspiracy against Egypt and claims that those who criticize it have foreign agendas to bring down the regime. This shows that the government deals with a lot of insecurity. They know they don’t have a lot of legitimacy. This is why they are constantly scared of its people and the truth. And therefore, their calculation is that they need to suppress any dissent as early as possible. This means they arrest Egyptians. And they kick out foreigners whose arrest proved to be of high reputational and material cost for them.
So the regime is oppressive at home yet worries for its image abroad. Could this translate into leverage for international actors? For example, Egypt recently requested an IMF-loan to combat the economic consequences of Covid-19 and improve the country’s standing as a borrower. But those loans feed into the regime’s narrative in that they prioritize economic development over human rights. How do you see it?
Egyptian governments have long sought international loans, which is why the foreign debt of the country has grown over 150 percent in the past years. This is very concerning to many experts who worry about how Egypt will repay all those loans and the economic burden they impose on generations to come. This is why we have a special UN rapporteur on the impact of foreign loans on human rights and there are guidelines that were adopted by the UN in 2012 about how governments should behave around foreign debts from a human rights standpoint. To make sure that loans are best used for sustainable developments and in line with policies that aim at the progressive, efficient improvement of social and economic rights.
But in Egypt, even the official reports say that poverty rose to almost 35 percent of the population, and they are not even following the international, but the Egyptian poverty line, which is even lower. This sharp rise in poverty is definitely the result of the measures that were taken in the course of the last IMF-loans, at least in part, for example the devaluation of the Egyptian pound in 2016 and the decrease of spending on public services.
And the recent request for another loan would add to this?
Yes. In the midst of Covid-19 and when economic support packages are needed, the Egyptian government announced that it would raise electricity prices by up to 19 percent. This always hits the poorest the hardest. They also decided to cut one percent of employees’ salaries for months to come. In the same time, they are fixing the prices of basic services such as electricity for industrial production for the next five years. These policies are not necessarily wrong. It might encourage investment. And I also want to emphasize that we are not opposing these loans and I am personally far from being an expert on economy. I am just echoing concerns I read by many experts. The problem here is that there is no room to question, let alone change, these policies, whether in media or in the Parliament because all aspects of public life are severely controlled by intelligence agencies. At the end, you have officials deciding what they want or what they think is right, not necessarily what Egyptians want or think is right.
This tells you a lot about the loyalties of government, which supports the business owners, not the poor. The government has actually waged a very aggressive campaign against workers, oppressed their right to organize, criminalized protests. This has shifted the balance between business-owner and workers in the name of protecting investment. But protecting investment should be about reducing the chaotic bureaucracy and widespread corruption in Egypt, not eliminating strikes and arresting workers that seek to change this situation.
International financial institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, or European Bank of Reconstruction and Development have a clear responsibility to raise civil society and human rights issues and access to justice to the negotiation of deals and agreements with the Egyptian government. But this usually only exists on paper and they don’t do much to reflect it in reality.
Because they think they should not confront the Egyptian government directly, that it would be detrimental. But the Egyptian government needs the money, this is very clear, which gives foreign actors a significant leverage if they really want to bring human rights issues as far as their mandates as financial institutions allow. But free and independent civil societies as well as access to justice are also crucial for the right environment for investment because no investor will want to risk his money by investing in a country where there is no independent judiciary or civil society to fight corruption.
And what about foreign governments in Germany, France and the UK? Or the EU?
Unfortunately, most of these governments have favored, again, a very shortsighted vision on what they perceive as the “stability” in Egypt. Indeed, a stable, secure Egypt is important in terms of fighting terrorist threats in Egypt and the region. Egypt is also important for them to control borders and irregular migration. But this should not happen by supporting an oppressive government. It’s precisely this unconditional support to governments with oppressive policies that led us here. Only human rights, democracy and good governance are able to guarantee long-term stability and economic progress. This would ultimately treat the root causes of the waves of migration and violence in the region.
When we meet foreign officials, they usually use one of two arguments: They either claim they have no leverage on the Egyptian government. Or they say change in Egypt was not their responsibility. But no human rights advocate ever wanted Merkel or Macron to ride a battle-tank and lead a war to topple the regime in Egypt. All we are asking for is to stop arming abusive security forces with weapons, spying technology and expertise; condition your support on human rights improvement, and be vocal in your support of the Egyptian society and people, not the regime. But they do not do this. As the situation in Egypt worsens, they continue to pour their verbal, economic and security support almost without any conditioning. It is a big mistake to think you do not have leverage, because the Egyptian government existentially relies on all of this money and material as well as verbal support.