Egyptian authorities arrest doctors and silence critics amid pandemic

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  • July 6, 2020
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Authorities in Egypt have arrested a raft of doctors and journalists during the coronavirus pandemic, according to rights groups.

It is believed security agencies have been trying to stifle criticism over the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi‘s handling of the crisis.

At least 10 doctors and six journalists have apparently been detained since the virus hit the country in February.

Other health workers say they have been warned by administrators to keep quiet or face punishment.

Busy streets in Cairo ahead of the coronavirus curfew (AP)

One foreign correspondent has fled the country, fearing arrest, and another two have been reprimanded over “professional violations”.

The coronavirus is surging in the country of 100 million, threatening to overwhelm hospitals.

As of Monday, the health ministry had recorded 76,253 infections, including 3,343 deaths, the highest death toll in the Arab world.

A drive-through testing centre in Egypt (AP)

One doctor in Cairo said: “Every day I go to work, I sacrifice myself and my whole family. Then they arrest my colleagues to send us a message. I see no light on the horizon.”

In 2013, Mr Sisi, as defence minister, led the military’s removal of Egypt‘s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, after his brief rule sparked nationwide protests.

Since then, Mr Sisi has stamped out dissent, jailing Islamist political opponents, secular activists, journalists, and even belly dancers.

Mask-clad tour guides pose for a selfie at the Temple of Luxor (AFP via Getty Images)

Now the clampdown has extended to doctors who speak out about their working conditions.

In recent weeks, authorities have marshalled medical supplies to prepare for more patients.

The military has set up field hospitals with 4,000 beds, scaled up testing and ordered companies to churn out face masks and other supplies.

The World on Coronavirus lockdown

However, health workers are sounding the alarm on social media. Doctors say they are forced to purchase surgical masks with their meagre salaries, while families plead for intensive care beds.

The pandemic has pushed the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, a non-political professional group, into a new role as the sole advocate for doctors’ rights.

A health worker wearing protective gear at a drive-through test centre (AP)

Last month, the union released a letter to the public prosecutor demanding the release of five doctors detained for expressing opinions about the virus response.

Another syndicate member, Mohamed el-Fawal, landed in jail last week, after demanding an apology from the prime minister over comments that appeared to blame health workers for a spike in deaths.

Incensed doctors hit back, saying they are under-trained, under-paid and under-resourced, and struggling to save patients.

Security forces guard the entrance to a prison in Cairo (AP)

So far, 117 doctors, 39 nurses and 32 pharmacists have died from Covid-19, according to syndicate members’ counts. Thousands have fallen ill.

Security forces shut down a syndicate press conference that was set to respond to the prime minister’s comments and discuss supply shortages, according to former leader Mona Mina.

“These doctors have no history of activism, they were arrested because they offered criticism of their very specific professional circumstances,” said Amr Magdi of Human Rights Watch, which has confirmed the arrests of eight doctors and two pharmacists.

A bed prepared at the Ain Shams University Field Hospital (AP)

Two have been released, he said, while the rest remain in pre-trial detention.

Doctors in three provinces say administrators threatened to report them if they publicly expressed frustration towards authorities or failed to go to work.

In one voice recording obtained by The Associated Press, a health deputy in a Nile Delta province can be heard saying: “Even if a doctor is dying, he must keep working … or be subjected to the most severe punishment.”

The suppression of criticism in Egypt is hardly unusual, analysts say, but the government has become more jittery as the pandemic tests its capabilities and economy.

With borders shut and flights halted, Egypt‘s critical tourism revenue has vanished.

Last week, fearing further economic fallout, the government reopened much of society and welcomed hundreds of international tourists to resorts, even as daily reported deaths exceeded 80.