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Coronavirus and cover-up: Egypt's two-fronted war

A high-ranking military officer tells MEE the outbreak is much wider spread than the government admits - or is prepared to handle
A medical team member disinfects a metro station in Cairo near a banner for the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Reuters)

For weeks, suspicions have abounded that the Egyptian government has not been open about the extent of the country’s Covid-19 outbreak.

Multiple events this past week, including the deaths of two senior military leaders and now the leak of a military document suggesting that the virus is more widespread than previously disclosed, have only entrenched that view.

When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi finally emerged from a long public absence on Sunday, he stressed that his government was dealing with the crisis with full transparency and encouraged Egyptians to stay at home for two weeks.

“We don't want the crisis to hit larger numbers,” he said during the same TV address.

The government did not implement a lockdown, perhaps recognising the economic hardship that would entail for millions even if it would have made more sense from a public health standpoint. You can't employ social distancing only 50 percent of the time.

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Meanwhile, pro-state media continued to project success in controlling the outbreak. “We will defeat coronavirus just as China did,” one outlet declared with a short film showing iconic Egyptian sites with triumphant music interspersed with footage from the fight against the virus in China.

But by the time Sisi and others finally broke their silence, the Egyptian government was already losing both the battle against the disease and public confidence in its response. Here’s a recap.

Crisis management

Several days ago, the Guardian’s correspondent Ruth Michaelson was forced to leave Egypt after she wrote an article citing University of Toronto research which suggested that while the government was officially reporting three cases of the virus, the true number was much higher: potentially as many as 19,000, but more likely 6,000.

The episode reflected the leadership’s deep desire for information hegemony over the virus story.

But within hours of Sisi’s reappearance, Covid-19 dealt a full body blow to that strategy when the government was forced to admit the deaths of two senior Egyptian military leaders within 24 hours of one another.

Coronavirus in Egypt: senior generals die amid fears of undisclosed infections in army
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First to die was Major General Khaled Shaltout, head of water projects in the Armed Forces Engineering Authority, on 22 March. A day later, Major General Shafea Abdel Halim Dawoud, head of mega projects in the same authority, followed.

Dawoud, it turned out, was at the top of a list of 15 military officers, including high-ranking officials and conscripts, allegedly infected with the coronavirus, that list was shared widely on social media and later verified by two colleagues with high ranking sources in the army, suggesting that the virus was more widespread than publicly acknowledged.

These disclosures came a week after foreign news outlets had started questioning whether Egypt was covering up the extent of the virus outbreak as American, French and Indian tourists who had been vacationing in Egypt on cruises returned home infected and hundreds of others were potentially exposed.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) jumped into the fray saying Egypt was likely underreporting cases because infected people might not show visible symptoms.

'What we have to do now'

Within hours of the death of Shaltout, a high-ranking Egyptian military officer reached out to me: he had tested positive for Covid-19, two days earlier. He was mildly symptomatic, but his infection was never made public. He said he was speaking to me out of a sense of concern for the country. "This is what we have to do now. It is our duty," he told me.

But that was far from all he wanted to tell me. He said military models, specifically those constructed by the medical authorities within the army that he had reviewed, suggested that infection is doubling every two to three days. Public rates have been kept artificially low because only those in contact with positive and acute cases in need of hospitalisation are being tested, he said.

The rate was also underestimated because those who died of the virus are being classified as dying from respiratory disease, usually pneumonia, rather than from Covid-19.

This was not only confirmed by this high-ranking military source, but additionally, over the past three weeks, through multiple medical sources inside the country including a university-based epidemiologist and two emergency room doctors in separate facilities.

The two doctors additionally have told me that the cause of death was listed as respiratory disease, rather than Covid-19, as early as late January, long before the first announcement of the first case of the virus in Egypt in mid-February.

Even though it was known within military circles that the infection was spreading, the army’s leadership was careless, greeting each other with hugs and kisses as is traditional within Egyptian culture, and failing to maintain sufficient social distancing from conscripts, confirmed the senior officer.

Passengers board a train at Cairo's Ramses railway station earlier this month (AFP)
Passengers board a train at Cairo's Ramses railway station earlier this month (AFP)

After his recovery the source was back in touch to share a document.

On the face of it, the one-page document, marked top secret with a side note that it be delivered to leaders "upon arrival", appears straightforward enough. It lists quarantine procedures for soldiers both leaving and returning to military barracks specifically from Alexandria, Qena, Menya, Menoufia, and Doomyat.

'All those returning from those locations during the past 72 hours must be quarantined for 15 days'

- Orders on document leaked by Egyptian officer

“Until further notice, all vacations to the above stated locations are here by banned," the document says. "All those returning from those locations during the past 72 hours must be quarantined for 15 days."

But this is the first time there is any suggestion that these locations are hotspots. Further, the areas listed could easily include hundreds of thousands of Egyptian civilians while the order only covers the hundreds of thousands of Egyptian soldiers, including high ranks.

The document suggests a much bigger and growing crisis inside the military and for the entire country than has been publicly disclosed so far.

The officer also explained that the army had settled on a policy of herd immunity, the same concept that the British government was reported to be considering at an earlier stage in the spread of the virus in the UK.

But the UK policy was hurriedly and belatedly dropped after a report by scientists at Imperial College London predicted that hundreds of thousands of people could die without more focused efforts to contain the outbreak. Now Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, is among senior officials infected.

This was the Egyptian strategy, the source told me. The virus would be allowed to spread, a protocol resulting from a dearth of test kits so extreme that even senior military leadership would not be tested unless they had a high fever, sore throat, or difficulty breathing, he said.

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The military has no way of knowing the true extent of the virus and its spread without testing far more vigorously, he explained. He told me this the same day the WHO declared that Egypt had the capacity to conduct up to 200,000 tests for Covid-19.

Military families, he continued, would receive preferential medical care as the pandemic spread. Meanwhile, a deeply worried population would be left wondering how the reported rates of infection and associated fatalities could be so low compared with countries with far better healthcare provision.

Contrast these details with what Sisi said when he emerged: “Our people, ie Egyptians, are very precious to us as is any human being in the world.”  

The Egyptian government's State Information Service did not respond to MEE's request for comment on the information shared by the officer by the time of publication.

Time for transparency

The contradiction, however, is one that should surprise few Egyptians, even those who are pro-Sisi and justify secrets or misinformation as necessary for national security.

“When the government announces numbers and some cast suspicion, should we forget that this is part of their strategy, that this has been their strategy for 80 years?” Sisi said, clearly referring to the Muslim Brotherhood.  

In his world, all doubters are Brotherhood members, even when those doubters include foreign journalists and respected international scientists.

That the Egyptian government is capable of attempting to cover up a national disaster should shock no one, nor should the fact that it is trying to control messaging and is limited in its resources and underprepared when it has a failing health system at its disposal.

Millions in danger

However, when that cover-up endangers the lives of millions of Egyptians and, by extension, millions of others around the world, then the consequences could hardly be more serious.

The government response has not been all bad. Advertisements have flooded the radio and TV. One is a catchy tune: “We will not shake hands, we will not kiss, we will not transmit the virus." Another shows the popular muppet Abla Fahita: “A call from a famous widow! Gatherings are a deadly poison," she blasts an Egyptian street from a bullhorn in a moving vehicle.

But now Sisi must stand before Egyptians and be frank, rather than allow the daily infection and death tolls to increase exponentially.

On Friday and Saturday, the Ministry of Health registered the highest toll yet of six deaths. This move towards higher numbers may very well be a harbinger of increased transparency, but half measures will not suffice in such dire times.

If the newest WHO declaration that Egypt has the capacity to conduct up to 200,000 tests for Covid-19 is true, then those tests must be carried out, not just out of responsibility to the Egyptian people but also as a necessary measure to combat the virus worldwide.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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