Although new infection rates reached their highest levels in mid-June, the government is hastily pressing forward with reopening plans. On July 1, international airports resumed flight services, and famed tourist attractions like the Pyramids at Giza and the Egyptian Museum accepted visitors for the first time in months.
But questioning the wisdom of those plans to restart normal activity is not a debate that will be allowed in the Egyptian press.
One of them is Mohamed Monir, a 65-year-old journalist with a long and distinguished career, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. He was arrested on June 15 after he wrote a column, published the previous day, that criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Monir was charged with “joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, and misusing social media.” Such allegations are often leveled at journalists to justify long periods of pretrial detention. But for older detainees with underlying health conditions, like Monir, such charges could become an unofficial death sentence.
A few days later, Nora Younis, a former Washington Post contributor and the founding editor of Al-Manassa, a popular news site, was also arrested over critical coverage and held overnight before posting bail.
Media workers aren’t the only people affected. Doctors publicly criticizing government efforts to control the pandemic are being arrested and face threats to their personal safety.
In addition to the threat of prosecution, these individuals are also at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus in detention. There have been covid-19-related deaths of a government employee and detainees at Tora prison, where many of Egypt’s political prisoners are held. Prison officials have forbidden family visits to the inmates and have also cut off communication between them and the outside world, fueling concerns that the health risks are not being addressed.
While some other governments sought to reduce the number of journalists and human rights advocates they held behind bars, Egypt is intensifying efforts to eliminate perceived opponents by increasing the number of arrests. Sissi is clearly using the public health crisis as a convenient pretext to further silence any sign of dissent.
“There have been so many waves of crackdowns on journalists in Egypt, but this one seems like the worst. The number of journalists in jail has been steadily rising. In December, there were 26. Since March, at least nine more journalists have been arrested. All of them specifically for their covid coverage,” Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me.
Given the United States’ long-standing support for Egypt, the Trump administration has leverage to do something about this. But, so far, it has done nothing to signal that there will be any consequences for Sissi’s ill treatment of the press.
In recent years, the alleged spread of “false news” has become Egypt’s go-to charge to justify the arrest and prosecution of journalists. Labeling any criticism as a lie didn’t start with the election of Donald Trump, but the U.S. president’s own overuse of the allegation and his abusive treatment of the press have essentially greenlit authoritarians like Sissi. An intolerance for truth is might well be the defining political trend of this era.
But calls are growing for the U.S. government to speak out against Egypt’s repressive campaign against “peaceful opponents,” including journalists. Last week, the Working Group on Egypt, a Washington-based bipartisan group of foreign affairs analysts, published an open letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, pressing the U.S. government to do more.
“Sisi may believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has diverted the international community’s attention. The United States should make clear it is watching. As one of Egypt’s most important international partners, the United States has a responsibility to use its influence with Sisi to halt these egregious abuses of internationally recognized human rights,” the letter stated.
The reality, though, is that the current U.S. administration’s silence continues to enable Sissi’s attack on the press.