Covid-19 has become Egypt's unofficial executioner

Covid-19 has become Egypt's unofficial executioner
Comment: Sisi's regime knew full well that Scorpion prison's derelict, unsanitary hospital was full of Covid-19 cases, but they sent journalist Monir, regardless, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
16 Jul, 2020
Egypt's notorious Tora (or 'Scorpion') prison where journalist Mohamed Monir contracted Covid-19 [Getty]
There was a dark joke circulating among Egyptians at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The humour might be a little lost in translation, but it went something like "if the virus kills enough Egyptians, the regime will give it a job".

The gallows humour that Egyptians often employ in the face of the brutal realities of life under Sisi now has literal currency within the country. Mohamed Monir, the 65-year-old acclaimed journalist, died this week after contracting Covid-19 amid the deliberate squalor of Egypt's notorious Scorpion Prison. 

Monir's "crime" was appearing on Al Jazeera, one of the hundreds of media outlets (including this one) banned by the Sisi regime as it exerts totalitarian control over freedom of speech and information in Egypt. 

Following his appearance, the black-clad paramilitaries of the Central Security Forces violently raided his home, eventually arresting the veteran journalist under the now familiar and absurd charges of "spreading fake news" and "joining a terrorist group". 

Additionally, in Egypt's Orwellian nightmare state, authorities had combed through his Facebook page, finding alleged evidence of him "misusing social media".

Monir, like many older Egyptians, suffered from diabetes and other lifestyle illnesses that contribute to an increased likelihood of serious or fatal complications from Covid-19.  Though his lawyers warned authorities that Monir's health was fragile and he ought to be released pending trial, the regime wouldn't budge. With Monir's health worsening, they sent him to the hospital wing of Scorpion.

With Monir's health worsening, they sent him to the hospital wing of Scorpion. This turned out to be a death sentence

This turned out to be a death sentence, and is where there is a truly dark irony to Monir's death. It is currently impossible for anyone to give a precise assessment of the state of the Covid-19 epidemic in Egypt. Part of the reason for this very deliberate environment of obfuscation and obscurantism is the Sisi regime's battle against journalism, which is one front in its wider war against truth. 

Egypt is 
one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to imprisoning journalists and muffling press freedom. Monir was thus a double victim - a martyr first to the regime's brutal siege against journalism, and then to Covid-19.

But one feeds the other. 

To attempt to report on or investigate these questions could be a potential death sentence - this was often true before Covid-19, but the presence and virulence of the disease among prison populations now adds a new layer to Scorpion's capacity as an informal death camp. The regime knew full well that Scorpion's derelict, unsanitary hospital was full of Covid-19 cases, but they sent Monir regardless. 

This is where the joke I opened with becomes a terrifying reality. As MENA Programme Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists put it regarding this new dimension of incarceration in Egypt, "even brief detentions amid the Covid-19 pandemic can mean a death sentence."

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Some might argue this is incompetency rather than a maliciously deliberate attempt by the regime to weaponise Covid-19. But that doesn't explain the unprecedented censorship and persecution of doctors and medical professionals since the eruption of the epidemic.

In many countries, Covid-19 has led to a renewed reverence for doctors and nurses, but not so in Egypt. In fact, given Egypt's testing capacity is stuck at the essentially useless ratio of 1318 per 1 million, and given the chronic shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, medicines and beds, it appears the regime has invested more in viciously policing doctors than it has in fighting the virus.

Instead of focusing on treating the sick, Egyptian doctors are forced to watch their backs, with colleagues loyal to the regime regularly reporting doctors who speak out against the overwhelmed and collapsing public medical system to the authorities. 

The social media accounts of doctors are under constant monitoring, while prime minister Mostafa Madbouly delivered a speech inciting hatred against doctors, insinuating that they were to blame for the worsening of cases of the virus and subsequent deaths. 

Along with this, doctors belonging to the Egyptian Medical Syndicate have been arrested and imprisoned, with the group's treasurer Mohamed Moataz El-Fawal being forcibly disappeared after criticising Madbouly's speech on Facebook. He was later imprisoned for 'spreading fake news' and "joining a terrorist group".  

Additionally, at least eight members of the Syndicate have been imprisoned for "spreading false news", which in reality meant that they have spoken out online against the true nature of the epidemic.

It's almost like they want the virus to prosper, especially among Scorpion Prison, which houses so many political prisoners and critics of the regime

Most tragically, and ominously, at least 117 doctors have died from the virus due to the unsafe working conditions that they are prevented from speaking about. And this gets right to the heart of the matter regarding the death of Monir and the weaponisation of Covid-19 by the regime. 

Even in free societies ravaged by Covid-19, the extent to which democratic governments - whether by incompetence or maliciously hairbrained attempts to deal with the pandemic - can be considered criminally negligent or culpable for the deadly impact of the disease, is up for debate.

In Egypt's monstrous tyranny, where human life only has meaning as it relates to serving the narrow interests of the state, it is observably true that their handling of Covid-19 is both reckless and malicious. 

The regime has not only been warned about the propensity of the virus to spread among the squalid, over-crowded conditions found in most Egyptian prisons, but it has terrorised those who issue such warnings - ensuring that such conditions have prospered. 

They were warned that they ought to vastly reduce the prison population size, but they chose not to do so. They were advised strongly to release the hundreds of doctors and nurses currently imprisoned for political purposes to aid the fight against the virus, but they didn't even consider it.

It's almost like, in certain areas, they want the virus to prosper, especially among Scorpion Prison, which houses so many political prisoners and critics of the regime. 

It is apt that Egypt's regime of brutality and inhumanity would appropriate a virus to carry out its vicious business

The Sisi regime has form when it comes to weaponising disease and illness. They have deliberately withheld medication or adequate medical and psychiatric treatment for political prisoners, including Mohamed Morsi and, more recently, Shady Habash, which in the case of the death of the former amounted to, in the words of an independent UN investigation, an 'arbitrary killing' by the regime. 

With so many political prisoners, combined with a war against truth that only serves to aid the spread of the disease, there is a real fear that Covid-19 has become Egypt's unofficial executioner. It is apt that Egypt's regime of brutality and inhumanity would appropriate a virus to carry out its vicious business. 

The Palestinian journalist Farah al-Barqawi likened her friend's murder to other killings of journalists in the Arabic-speaking world, writing "From the dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi with the saw, to the assassination of Hisham al-Hashemi, to the death of Mohamed Monir from coronavirus … weapons to break the pens, blood is shed to prevent the flow of ink." 

Nobody pulled the trigger on or kicked the chair away from Mohamed Monir, but the Egyptian regime allowed Covid-19to fulfil an executioner's role.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.