Joey Shea is a researcher focusing on the social, economic and political effects of technology in the Middle East.
Egyptian security authorities have expelled the Guardian’s correspondent in Cairo, Ruth Michaelson, after she reported that the number of COVID-19 cases in the country was likely higher than official figures. Ms. Michaelson cited research from the University of Toronto estimating the size of the outbreak in Egypt to be as many as 19,310 cases – a figure significantly higher than the official number of cases reported by the Egyptian Ministry of Health at that time.
Ms. Michaelson’s expulsion is the latest effort by the Egyptian government to systematically control reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak in Egypt. The New York Times’ Cairo bureau chief, Declan Walsh, was also issued a warning by the State Information Service for tweeting a reference to the same research. Both reporters have been named in a lawsuit accusing them of spreading false news with the aim of destabilizing public security.
A campaign of online harassment was launched against the journalists. On March 17, the hashtag “lies of the Guardian"(in Arabic) trended on Twitter in Egypt. The hashtag was chock-full of abuse hurled against the newspaper. Posts accused the Guardian of being funded by “terrorist Qatar” and the Muslim Brotherhood.
These attacks come amid a wider state campaign to control the narrative around COVID-19. Websites have been ordered blocked, social-media users forced to close their accounts and citizens have been arrested for posting “rumours” about the virus on Facebook – all while state-owned media outlets have lavished praise on the government’s “unprecedented” response to the crisis. Many countries likely have more cases than official figures, but Egypt has responded to criticism particularly harshly.
On March 27, the Ministry of Health denied rumours there was a shortage of medical supplies in state hospitals. Just two days later, the public prosecution reiterated the penalties for spreading false news about the coronavirus: a minimum sentence of two years in prison, and a minimum fine of roughly $9,000.
Two news websites were also ordered blocked for six months by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR), as a penalty for spreading what it said was false news about COVID-19. The Council ordered six personal Facebook and Twitter pages to be closed by their owners for the “promotion of rumours” and referred the owners of the pages to the public prosecutor for further legal action.
On March 12, Egyptian state media reported that three individuals were arrested for posts published on Facebook; they, again, were charged with “spreading rumours on social media related to the coronavirus.” The reported arrests came just one day after a flurry of criticism erupted on social media that condemned the decision by the Ministry of Education to keep schools open, contravening a recommendation from the World Health Organization. Schools have since been closed.
Under Egypt’s Media Regulation Law, the SCMR has the authority to censor websites, blogs and personal social-media accounts. Any social-media account with more than 5,000 followers is considered a media outlet and can be subject to fines and blocking orders. When the law was issued in 2018, it was widely condemned by rights groups as legalizing and legitimizing authoritarian censorship practices.
Rather than demonstrating a genuine effort to combat harmful misinformation about the virus – which is undoubtedly circulating widely on social media – these measures have instead stifled legitimate public criticism of the Egyptian government’s delayed response to COVID-19. Accusations claiming the government has concealed cases from the public have been dismissed as conspiracy theories concocted by the Muslim Brotherhood, while many citizens have complained about the lack of transparency in the government’s response.
On March 1, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly boasted there was “not a single coronavirus case on Egypt’s soil.” This statement was made even after a number of foreign nationals had tested positive for the virus upon returning to their home countries after recent travel to Egypt. Qatar closed its borders to Egyptian workers out of fear that the number of cases in the country were far higher than official estimates, while Kuwait introduced strict screening measures for Egyptians.
Initially, the state was likely worried that reports of the coronavirus in Egypt would harm the tourism sector, which has only recently rebounded since the historic downturn after the 2011 revolution. But since the virus was declared a global pandemic, security authorities are more concerned with regime survival: controlling and containing information on the spread of the contagion is vital to maintain a fragile, authoritarian legitimacy. This legitimacy is dependent on the state’s ability to maintain social and political stability, and protect its citizens from chaos.
Egypt is certainly not the only country to have blundered its initial response to the virus. But the country has followed China’s authoritarian playbook by censoring early reports, arresting citizens and slandering journalists. The state is unfortunately just as concerned with controlling the narrative around the virus, as it is with containing the virus itself.
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