COVID-19: a new Trojan Horse to step up authoritarianism in Egypt

COVID-19 has provided another excuse for the Egyptian regime to expand its powers and crack down on rights, freedoms and rule of law in the country. Meanwhile, Egypt is facing its worst human rights crisis in recent history.

After a continued state of emergency dating from before the Mubarak regime was lifted in 2012, Egypt imposed a new state of emergency in 2017 which has been regularly renewed every three months since then. The emergency law has recently been amended to address the COVID-19 pandemic, and some changes are in violation of international law. A mere five out of the 18 amendments are related to public health emergencies, demonstrating that the focus is more on entrenching repression than tackling the virus.

The amendments grant President al-Sisi greater powers to deal with the sanitary crisis. However, they also help suffocating dissent by suspending universities and schools, while further reinforcing President’s personal authority in the country. He can ban assemblies without reference to public health reasons and assign the investigation of crimes to the military prosecution, which is especially concerning. By extending the control of the President and the military over the justice system, judicial independence is de facto abolished. Breaching state of emergency measures can land citizens for up to 15 years in prison. These measures severely undercut the rule of law.

In parallel, the narrative of combatting coronavirus “fake news” has been used to justify the regime’s efforts to curtail freedom of expression. Several news websites and social media accounts have been blocked by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation over the past two months for allegedly spreading “rumours” about the virus, adding to the over 500 websites blocked in Egypt since 2017. Journalists have been targeted for “spreading false information”, and a Guardian journalist was even forced to leave the country for reporting on an academic study arguing that the figures of COVID-19 victims were higher than reported. The authorities have continued to arrest people, including human rights defenders, for “spreading false news”, further crowding Egypt’s saturated prisons which constitute a hotbed for viruses.

Although independent media are blocked, state propagandists have reportedly spun conspiracy theories presenting COVID-19 as engineered by the West while praising Egypt for its fight against it.