Egypt Arrests Doctors, Silences Critics Following Virus Epidemic

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Doctor arrested after writing article on Egypt’s fragile health system. A pharmacist returned to work after posting a shortage of protective equipment online. Editor taken from home after questioning official coronavirus figures. Pregnant woman arrested after co-worker used phone to report suspected coronavirus case.As Egyptian authorities fight the epidemic of coronavirus, security agencies have attempted to stifle criticism of the government’s management of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of the health crisis.

At least 10 doctors and six journalists have been arrested since the virus struck Egypt in February, according to rights groups. Other health workers say they have been warned by administrators to remain silent or to be punished. A foreign correspondent fled the country, fearing that he would be arrested, and two others were reprimanded for “professional violations”.

The coronavirus is booming in the country of 100 million people, threatening to overwhelm hospitals. On Monday, the Ministry of Health recorded 76,253 infections, including 3,343 deaths – the highest number of deaths in the Arab world.

“Every day I go to work, I sacrifice myself and my whole family,” said a doctor in Greater Cairo, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, as did all the doctors interviewed for this story. “Then they arrest my colleagues to send us a message. I don’t see any light on the horizon. “

A healthcare worker prepares to take samples from people lining up in their cars to test for coronavirus at a COVID-19 screening center by car at Ain Shams University in Cairo on June 17. At least 10 doctors and six journalists have been arrested since the virus struck Egypt in February, according to rights groups. (Nariman El-Mofty / The Associated Press)

In 2013, el-Sissi, as minister of defense, led the military withdrawal of the first democratically elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, after his short term sparked nationwide protests. Since then, al-Sissi has eradicated dissent, imprisoning Islamist political opponents, secular activists, journalists and even belly dancers.

Now the repression has spread to doctors who talk about their working conditions.

A government press secretary did not respond to requests for comment on the arrests of doctors and journalists.

Doctors buy their own masks

In recent weeks, authorities have been collecting medical supplies to prepare more patients. The military has set up 4,000-bed field hospitals, expanded testing, and ordered companies to make face masks and other supplies.

But health workers are sounding the alarm on social networks. Doctors say they are forced to buy surgical masks with their meager wages. Families advocate for intensive care beds.

The pandemic has pushed the Egyptian Medical Union, an apolitical professional group, into a new role as the sole defender of the rights of doctors.

Last month, the union published a letter to the prosecutor requesting the release of five doctors detained for expressing opinions on the reaction of the virus.

Another union member, Mohamed el-Fawal, landed in jail last week after demanding online that the Prime Minister apologize for comments that seemed to blame health workers for a spike in death.

The empty complex of the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx was locked in March 2020 due to the epidemic of coronavirus. In July, fearing further economic fallout, the government reopened much of society and welcomed hundreds of international tourists to resorts, even as the deaths reported daily exceeded 80. (Nariman El-Mofty / The Associated Press)

Exasperated doctors retaliated, claiming that they were under-trained, underpaid and lacking in resources, struggling to save patients. So far, 117 doctors, 39 nurses and 32 pharmacists have died from COVID-19, according to figures from union members. Thousands of people fell ill.

Security forces closed a union press conference to respond to Prime Minister’s comments and discuss supply shortages, said former leader Mona Mina.

“These doctors have no history of activism, they were arrested because they criticized their very specific professional situation,” said Amr Magdi of Human Rights Watch, who confirmed the arrests of eight doctors and two pharmacists. Two have been released, he said, while the others remain in pre-trial detention.

In one case, security agents broke into the home of Hany Bakr, an ophthalmologist north of Cairo, according to his lawyer and Amnesty International, about his Facebook article criticizing the government for sending aid to Italy and in China when Egyptian doctors lacked equipment. .

Doctors under threat

Prosecutors charged 26-year-old Alaa Shaaban Hamida with terrorism charges in March after letting a colleague call the government coronavirus hotline from his phone instead of reporting the case to officials, Amnesty International said. Three months pregnant, she remains in pre-trial detention.

Doctors in three provinces say administrators have threatened to report them if they express public frustration with the authorities or fail to show up for work.

In a voice recording obtained by the Associated Press, a health assistant in a Nile Delta province can be heard saying, “Even if a doctor is dying, he must continue to work. Or be subjected to the most severe penalty ”.

Tahrir Square in Cairo, which was the focal point of the Egyptian uprising of January 25, 2011 that overthrew autocrat Hosni Mubarak, is closed by police during curfew hours as a preventative measure due to the epidemic of coronavirus. (Nariman El-Mofty / The Associated Press)

A Cairo doctor shared WhatsApp messages with his manager’s AP, alerting staff that their presence was being monitored by state security. In two other hospitals in the capital, workers retracted letters of collective resignation on working conditions for fear of reprisals.

Repression of critics in Egypt is not unusual, analysts say, but the government has become more nervous as the pandemic tests its capabilities and its economy.

With the borders closed and planes idling, Egypt’s significant tourism revenues have disappeared. Last week, fearing further economic fallout, the government reopened a large part of society and welcomed hundreds of international tourists to seaside resorts, even though the deaths reported daily exceeded 80.

Bulwark against regional instability

“Because of Egypt’s constant attention to its image as a place open to tourism, open to business, open to investment, the authorities seem particularly sensitive to the divergent perspectives during the pandemic,” said Amy Hawthorne, Egyptian expert on the Middle East Democracy Project. .

At least 15 people have been arrested for spreading “fake news” about the pandemic, the UN human rights office said. Four Egyptian journalists who reported on the epidemic are still in prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranked Egypt among the worst jailers of journalists in the world, along with Turkey and China.

In March, Egypt expelled a journalist from The Guardian who cited a report disputing the official number of viruses. The Egyptian state news agency summoned correspondents from the Washington Post and New York Times for critical coverage during the pandemic.

Despite growing human rights violations, the international community is counting on Egypt as a bulwark against regional instability, a Middle East human rights defender told the UN. on condition of anonymity to discuss political issues.

“There is no appetite,” said the lawyer, “to approach what is going on in Egypt and even less to punish them in whatever way the government does to their own people.”

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