These days, if you go walking in the “well-guarded city” (the “Al-Mahrusa” as Cairo has been dubbed) after 8 PM, you will see only policemen patrolling the empty streets, enforcing the exceptional rules laid down by the government to limit the spread of the coronavirus: shopping malls, cafés and community halls all shut down, only small shops partially open for basic necessities… Yet as of 27 June, there were 52,755 cases of the disease and 2,620 deaths. Each day hundreds of new cases are recorded.
Of course, the whole world has gone through an exceptional period with this coronavirus. But what is special about Egypt is that it has been under this state of emergency for the last seven years, and if we are to believe the declarations of the President and official institutions, they are all at war against the “evil people” (“Ahl el-charr”) who do not want the good of the country and throw spanners into the works to impede its development. The state of emergency needs an enemy within to justify its existence, and it now seems that the Sisi regime has so labelled the coronavirus, as if it were a “biological adversary” of the “country’s prosperity.”
Well-honed media discourse
Since the very start of the pandemic, Egyptian media rhetoric has been attacking anyone who dared question or criticise governmental decisions aimed at combatting the virus. Again, we were treated to the old saw about “evil people”, in this case, people accused of taking advantage of the pandemic to cast doubts on the regime’s competency in time of crisis. Once again too, TV host Nash ‘at Al Dihi—who has even authored a book called The Evil People—held forth on his program of the same name, with its credit titles scrolled against portraits of the best-known leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. He criticised the allegations of the opposition channels broadcasting from Turkey—refuge for the Brotherhood since 2013—and calling into question the veracity of the official figures and the appropriateness of the decisions taken by the Egyptian ministry of health. He was echoed by the chairman of the national press authority, Karam Gaber who declared that those “evil people” are overjoyed by the coronavirus crisis that Egypt is having to face. Suhir Othman, an academic, has joined his voice to this chorus, claiming that “adverse rumours are being spread by ‘evil people’ in an attempt to imperil the efficacy of the Egyptian government’s efforts”.
These various reactions began to proliferate on 7 April 2020 following the declaration made by President Al-Sisi after his meeting with the Health Minister and other government and military officials. Urging Egyptians not to be influenced by the “rumours” about the alleged inaccuracy of the published figures concerning the victims of Covid-19, he said: “Why would we want to hide anything? If we do not want there to be any bad people in Egypt, we must shun the rumours these evil ones are spreading.”
However, “evil people” is not a new expression and has not come into use with the coronavirus. In fact, it has long been familiar to Egyptians in the speeches of Sisi himself. While originally it referred to terrorists in the broad sense which the regime assigns to the word—therefore including the Muslim Brotherhood—the Egyptian president gave it an even broader definition in a 2016 interview when he said: “Evil people are all those trying to harm Egypt, its people and the state, trying to impede the forward march of Egypt, as a State and as a people.” And he added, with a knowing smile: “Egyptians know very well who these people are, at home and abroad.”
Extended state of emergency
After April 7 meeting, several MPs and various ministerial officials repeatedly warned the public against the temptation to doubt the figures published by the health ministry or the regime’s capacity to deal with the pandemic. The government has resorted to an emergency logic involving sanctions specifically adapted to the crisis. Thus anyone “spreading false rumours in connection with the coronavirus” faces a two-year sentence and a fine of up to 300,000 Egyptian pounds (£15,000 or $18,600). More recently, another syndrome has appeared: the apprehension of activists, journalists, or just ordinary citizens, accused in turn of belonging to the category of “evil people.” Among them is Mustafa Saqr, managing editor of two newspapers, Al-Bursa and the English language, Daily News Egypt, accused of spreading rumours undermining national security and of belonging to a terrorist group. In March, it was the Cairo office of the British newspaper, The Guardian, which was closed down following the publication of an article reporting the country’s 19,000 cases of Covid-19 and the lack of adequate governmental measures. Nor are the social networks exempt: Abel Fayed, a scholar specialising in international relations, was arrested on 26 May, accused of spreading rumours and endangering national security.
There have even been arrests of members of the “army in white.” When the virus first began to spread, doctors used the social networks to vent their anger over the penury of protective equipment—for themselves and for their patients. But soon some of them were summoned to appear before the commissions of enquiry set up by the health ministry and accused of having violated the rules of their profession. Others were even apprehended at their place of work; the Medical Association issued a communiqué demanding their release. And specialised physicians, who prefers to remain anonymous, told us that hospital personnel had been given strict orders not to evoke the penury of hospital equipment on the social networks under threat of falling foul of the current law against the propagation of rumours.
Enemy of the state
Many Egyptians see the virus as an uncontrollable destiny and Muslims and Copts alike pray their God night and day to deliver them from the pandemic. In Alexandria, there have even been night-time rallies with people gathered on their balconies or in front of their mansion blocks to appeal to God. In addition to these expressions of faith, other gatherings have taken place throughout the city, by day and by night, with people singing patriotic songs, as if the coronavirus were a foreign enemy targeting the Egyptian nation alone rather than the whole world.
These gatherings are reminiscent of the presidential elections of May 2014 and March 2018, as well as the time of the referendum for the constitutional reform in April 2019, when Sisi’s supporters got together to sing, dance and chant slogans lambasting those “evil people” lying in wait for the slightest sign of weakness on the part of “the saviour of Egypt and his people.” It was as if we were dealing with a nationwide carnival, not an electoral competition between political adversaries as one sees in other countries.
These quirky reactions to the spread of the pandemic are due to the influence of the rhetoric put forth by politicians, the media and even academics, for the benefit of the average Egyptian citizen. For example, the former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs recently declared: “We really feel that the state and the government are behind each and every Egyptian, that they are really afraid for us. Hence, this crisis will have served to show how closely united we are, shoulder to shoulder.” Similarly, these reactions, shot through with patriotic fervour, are not unrelated to the state of emergency established since Sisi took over the Egyptian regime with the self-appointed mission of defeating the “evil people” who wish to harm Egypt. This is all the more effective as the country has experienced, during the pandemic, another terrorist attack in Northern Sinai which took the lives of eight soldiers at the beginning of May, and besides which, did not Dar Al-Iftaa (Islamic Advisory, Judiciary and Governmental Body, in charge of issuing fatwas among other things) warn against the possibility that terrorist groups might take advantage of the coronavirus crisis to go into action, thereby establishing a connection in people’s minds between the security threat and the health issue?
Moreover, the army has been cast in the role of saviour, thus enhancing its image as a guarantor of national stability in every crisis that has come along: six military hospitals have been fitted out with 200 extra beds to deal with the crisis and the army has intervened in the various regions to distribute a total of ten thousand tons of equipment, from sanitary products to medical testing material.
We may therefore apply Gramsci’s term “subaltern” to the ordinary Egyptian citizen, a person who belongs to no political, cultural, or economic elite but who lives under the influence of the affective rhetoric of the power structure. Many have come to believe that the coronavirus pandemic is not a biological crisis affecting humanity as a whole, but a worldwide conspiracy aimed at hampering Egypt’s development. Covid-19 is seen as a foreign enemy threatening the nation with the aid of a fifth column, none other than those “evil people.” As for the patriots, they are looking forward to the day when they will be told the enemy of prosperity has been defeated and great projects will be announced so that the country may safely continue its march towards development, with no one to stand in its way.