Because of the many foreign visitors brought in by its large tourism industry, Egypt was vulnerable to potential carriers of COVID-19 from the start of the pandemic. After initially denying and downplaying the impending crisis, the Egyptian government has since responded by implementing a number of restrictive policies designed to contain the virus. Policies that restrict economic activity threaten to create major difficulties for the country’s many impoverished citizens—yet these challenges are unlikely to generate serious opposition to the government in the short to medium term. In fact, despite its negative economic impact, the crisis may boost support for the authorities. However, over the longer-term, President Sisi is poorly positioned to avoid public anger if economic problems increase.
Egypt reported its first COVID-19 case on February 14, 2020. The government had already suspended all flights to and from China by January 27, but it took until March to implement a more comprehensive approach. The government closed all schools and universities on March 15, and religious institutions agreed on March 21 to halt all religious gatherings. By March 24, authorities imposed a two-week nationwide curfew, with movement on public roads banned between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., during which most shops, service centers, cafes, gyms, clubs, and even central and provincial government services would be closed. Anyone in violation of these rules can be fined up to 4,000 Egyptian pounds ($253) or even imprisoned. Several measures have been implemented as part of an effort to counteract the economic impact of the crisis: for instance, the Central Bank cut interest rates by three percent, the government has attempted to shore up the stock market by injecting billions of pounds, and state agencies are providing limited financial support to lower income families.
Despite these steps, the government faces several obstacles in mitigating the impact of the pandemic. Its political institutions are designed to protect the interests of a narrow military elite and are poorly positioned to respond to a massive public health crisis effectively. The health system is fragile at the best of times. Furthermore, in recent years the government has implemented a series of fiscal reforms to reduce its deficit, but these policies have contributed to rising poverty in the country. As of April 2019, the World Bank estimated that up to 60 percent of Egyptians were poor or vulnerable. Reductions in tourism and declining remittances due to COVID-19 will hit these impoverished Egyptians particularly hard. Policies that limit economic activity in order to enforce social distancing will worsen this impact.
Even as this negative economic impact begins to unfold, there are few signs of widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s policies. Some Egyptians have criticized the government’s response for burdening the poor, while others have argued that the authorities have not done enough to contain the virus. But these sentiments are unlikely to generate significant discontent against the government anytime soon. In fact, public opinion data from recent years suggests that a majority of Egyptians trust the state institutions most active in responding to the virus. In a nationally representative survey of Egyptians conducted in October 2018, more than 70 percent said they had “a great deal of trust” or “quite a lot of trust” in both the cabinet and President Sisi. Nearly 90 percent said the same of the military, which has played a visible role in the government’s response. While respondents’ concerns about repression likely inflate these figures, research accounting for this problem has also found high levels of support for the regime.
This trust may not be deserved, as there are indications that authorities have downplayed the severity of the outbreak. In early March, a Canadian research team estimated that between 6,000 and 19,310 cases of COVID-19 were present in the country, compared to the three cases Egyptian officials claimed at the time. After a journalist for the Guardian reported on these numbers, authorities promptly expelled her from the country. The government has also proclaimed its intent to prosecute anyone spreading “fake news” about the pandemic on social media, and there are already reports of such arrests. These repressive acts are nothing new for Egypt’s deeply authoritarian government, but they raise questions about whether the authorities have something to hide, even as the government now acknowledges more than 3,000 cases across the country. This lack of transparency could weaken the government’s ability to contain the virus by reducing Egyptians’ willingness to comply with social distancing policies. Yet it also serves its purpose, because many Egyptians are not well-positioned to access skeptical information about the quality of the government’s response. More than half of the country receives most of its news from television and newspaper sources. This information is heavily manipulated by the authorities, and it can be effective at persuading Egyptians of the government’s views.
Given these high levels of trust and the controlled information environment, the public is likely to accept restrictive policies to combat COVID-19, even if they create hardships in the short term. If anything, the crisis may generate an increase in support for the authorities. Rising approval rates have been observed in polling data from other countries, where governments and political leaders—both democratic and authoritarian—have benefited from increasing public goodwill during the pandemic. While the public rallies around the flag, the Egyptian government may face fewer protests or other forms of unrest as it tries to contain the virus.
However, the government must worry about the longer-term economic consequences of the crisis. According to the IMF, Egypt is particularly vulnerable to the economic shock of COVID-19 because of its heavy reliance on external funders and its overstretched budget. If the crisis drags on for months and the costs continue to rise, whatever boost the government receives from its initial response could wither into a loss of public support.
In these circumstances, President Sisi would be particularly exposed to the public’s anger. Since seizing control of the political system in 2013, he has increasingly concentrated power in his own hands. Dictators with such personalized powers tend to be more vulnerable to blame when their countries struggle. In fact, Sisi is accumulating even greater authority during the crisis. The parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee recently approved amendments to the emergency law that give the president an array of new powers related to public health and the economy. These include the ability to suspend the school year, shut down government bodies, stop the payment of utility bills, distribute cash to individuals and families, postpone tax payments, and provide financial support for struggling sectors of the economy.
Several of these powers position Sisi to claim all of the credit for much-needed and likely popular economic relief measures in the coming months. Yet, if these measures ultimately prove insufficient and many Egyptians become frustrated by inadequate state assistance, the president’s direct connection to the implementation of these policies may undermine his popular support over the longer-term.
Renu Singh is an incoming postdoctoral fellow focusing on the politics of science and health policy at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at the Georgetown Law Center. Scott Williamson is an incoming postdoctoral fellow focusing on authoritarianism and migration in the Middle East at New York University Abu Dhabi.