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Egyptian military’s miracle cure machines create a potentially tragic scandal

Supporters of Egypt's president-elect Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi wave national flags and his posters as they celebrate the official announcement declaring him the next president of Egypt in front of the Presidential Palace, in Cairo, on June 5.

Amr Nabil/AP

Of all the calamities that have befallen Egypt in the first three years of the Arab Spring, none have tested the citizenry's legendary tolerance for absurdity more than the surrealist scandal that is KoftaGate.

Earlier this year, news of a history-altering medical breakthrough transfixed much of the country. In a press conference before dozens of uniformed officers, a doctor and Egyptian military general named Ibrahim Abdel-Atti announced that armed forces researchers had developed a device, called C-FAST, that can detect hepatitis C and HIV infections in patients instantly, externally and without the need to draw blood. God willing, the General told his audience, "you won't find another patient suffering from hepatitis C after today."

Beyond its external design – it resembles a staple-gun with a TV antenna glued on – little is known about C-FAST. According to a patent application filed with the World Intellectual Property Organization and listing the Egyptian Ministry of Defence as the applicant, the device weighs 300 grams, can accurately detect infection in patients upwards of half a kilometre away, and is powered by "static energy resulting from the human body." (The patent application was denied).

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Perhaps not surprisingly, observers quickly raised serious questions about the veracity of the doctor's and Gen. Abdel-Atti's claims (his rank appears to have been bestowed by the Egyptian military in some kind of honorary capacity). Even more curious, though, is that in addition to C-FAST, the military research team announced they had also created another machine – the modestly named "Complete Cure Device."

Using blood-cleansing technology never quite explained in any real detail, the CCD was said by its inventors to permanently cure patients of both AIDS and hepatitis C. The military is apparently readying to begin full-scale treatment using the device at the end of this month. And so was born KoftaGate.

The name KoftaGate comes from a clumsy analogy employed by Gen. Abdel-Atti during his press conference to describe how the CCD supposedly breaks down HIV into harmless proteins before pumping the blood back into the patient – in effect, providing the patient with a boost of protein no different than if he'd eaten a steak or the popular Egyptian meat dish kofta.

"I take the AIDS from the patient ... and I give it back to him as a bite of kofta," said the General, inadvertently uttering a sentence that has since launched a thousand Internet memes throughout the Arab world. In subsequent interviews on many of Egypt's hugely influential TV news talk shows, other members of the research team piled on with more astonishing tales of CCD's prowess.

The machine was also capable of curing diabetes, they claimed, and cancer. In less than a month, researchers aligned with the Egyptian military had not only unveiled a device capable of detecting nanometre-sized viruses from four city blocks away, but another one that harnessed all the powers of Panacea.

Given the cartoonish implausibility of the entire endeavour, it is perhaps easy to dismiss KoftaGate as a harmless distraction, a scandal tailor-made for punchlines and little else. But as Egypt waits for the grand unveiling of the military's miracle cure machines at the end of this month, there's reason to fear that the lasting legacy may be more tragic than humorous.

Throughout many parts of Egypt, hepatitis C is endemic. Somewhere between 10 to 20 per cent of the country's 80 million citizens suffer from the disease – and because many of those patients also suffer from extreme poverty and a lack of access to basic education and adequate medical care, the prospect of a government-administered cure-all can become a tempting thing on which to pin one's hopes.

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"You are promising millions of people in Egypt and hundreds of millions of people around the world that you will cure them of AIDS and hepatitis C," said Bassem Youssef, the host of El Barnameg, Egypt's equivalent of The Daily Show, in a rare serious segment on an otherwise satirical program.

"This is called a promise ... and if a promise made by the largest institution in Egypt isn't kept on June 30, then every doctor and researcher [responsible] should be held to account."

In addition to being an exercise in medical credulity, KoftaGate has also increasingly become a barometer for freedom of dissent in post-revolution Egypt. Despite the extent to which the military researchers' claims may appear to lean toward cheerful hallucination rather than medical fact, many Egyptians have nonetheless chosen to give the country's military the benefit of the doubt.

It is around the armed forced that a new outpouring of popular patriotism has coalesced in the year since Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's freely elected Islamist president, was booted out of office. In those 12 months, former military head and now newly elected President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has sought to purge the country of the Muslim Brotherhood from which Mr. Morsi emerged. Egypt has also seen some of the worst violence and instability in its modern history during the same time period. Rightly or not, many Egyptians see any criticism of the military as tacit support for the Brotherhood.

(This week, El Barnameg host Mr. Youssef, who has often served as the country's loudest voice of satirical dissent during the past three years, announced that his program is shutting down. He cited, in part, fears for his safety and the safety of his family as reasons for the decision).

The KoftaGate saga is likely to come to a head at the end of the month – Gen. Abdel-Atti's team is apparently preparing to begin treating patients en masse starting June 30. According to a report this weekend in an Egyptian periodical, the military researchers claim that 70,000 people have already applied for treatment.

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