The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities contains many important pieces of ancient Egyptian history, and is a strong tourist attraction in normal times. Photo: Dave Makichuk / Asia Times

It is widely understood that education, freedom and political maturity, which are well developed and functioning in Western nations but lacking in autocratic ones, are essential components that empower rapid economic growth and the ability to deal with a crisis such as the current Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, an autocratic nation such as Egypt that faces significant difficulty dealing with the pandemic adequately is obliged to soften the crisis’ impact on its citizens by announcing that the total number of confirmed cases is quite small in proportion to our large population and low level of “health-consciousness.”

The basic protective measures against the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 are simply incompatible with Egyptian social norms. We are a nation that almost literally lives in the streets because of small, crowded homes in poor areas that, on average, house a family of six. Additionally, a large number of families depend on informal jobs to obtain limited daily incomes and are unable to make sufficient use of hygienic materials, while our culturally undisciplined society is prone to resist government guidelines. “Stay home, stay safe” is not a valid option for the vast majority of Egyptians. 

Meanwhile, for the Egyptian state, keeping the population calm and under control is more important than containing the pandemic per se. As an autocratic nation, we must apply a very narrow ruling mechanism: using the state’s iron grip to manage a population of nearly a hundred million, constituted of many poor and illiterate citizens who could easily be persuaded to riot, while offering people superior education that could eventually empower them to demand their basic political rights.  

Nevertheless, the state persistently argues that it is doing its best to serve its population, convinced that only gradually conveying to citizens the true magnitude of the crisis serves to avoid any impulsive massive negative reaction. The state is oblivious to the fact that dismissing skilled citizens from key positions and preventing them from producing new ideas, among other strict autocratic rules, are the true obstacles to Egypt’s progress, which would obviously further empower us to deal competently with the pandemic.

Egypt is not a nation that favors following a scientific method in any sphere; we are, by nature, a chaotic society that devalues proficiency. Moreover, our society is driven by fake news, produced equally by the state (to mobilize its citizens) and by individuals, who offer opinions on topics they know nothing about, producing continuous disputed narratives on social media that are often far removed from reality (the true effects of the pandemic, for example) and that drain our national energy. 

Religion in Egypt is one of the very effective tools that the state uses to mobilize its people; it was happy to maintain Friday prayers in mosques and church ceremonies that entail hundreds of citizens standing shoulder to shoulder to satisfy preachers who are often employed by the state to convey its political messages. In an attempt to reduce society’s anxiety about the pandemic, preachers are saying that Egypt is protected and blessed because it is mentioned in the Koran, but they don’t mention that the same Holy Book contains strong calls for justice and mercy, both of which are lacking in Egypt. 

Meanwhile, social-media activists have been running a campaign to pressure the government to release some of the political prisoners who from our overcrowded jails and among whom the infection could spread. The state responded by discharging no more than a couple of dozen of the estimated 60,000 political prisoners.

Furthermore, the pandemic has stimulated Egyptians to advocate for reallocating the money earmarked for constructing the infeasible mega-projects favored by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the provision of better medical care for less fortunate citizens.  

Since we Egyptians enjoy conspiracy theories and tend to blame Western nations, the United States in particular, for our failures – and, obviously, for the universal pandemic – a large segment of the population believes that Western nations already have a drug that can cure Covid-19, but are delaying its release until the number of cases worldwide grows, so as to optimize profitability.  

The Egyptian pharaohs, who were tremendously successful in their era, made full use of scientific knowledge to achieve innovations that have lasted for 5,000 years. Meanwhile, their descendants, who rule over large numbers of citizens relying on the income generated by the millions of tourists who come to Egypt to visit the temples of the pharaohs and the Pyramids, have for decades been neutering science. 

The severe panic surrounding the pandemic in advanced nations happens because their respective governments are accountable for each single life, a philosophy that does not exist in autocratic nations like Egypt. Thus many ordinary people have developed a reckless attitude toward the pandemic, knowing that thousands of their fellows lose their lives every year in road accidents due to the lack of traffic regulations, while operating machines carelessly, or even in the course of arguments among families and friends that lead to deadly assaults.

Egypt has become a perfect nation for the less informed, immoral citizens who believe in the state’s claimed achievements, while citizens who want to maintain their moral integrity and are aware of the growing performance gap between us and advanced nations are truly suffering. The chronic deficiency of our country’s ruling mechanism, along with the absence of basic justice, are preventing us from handling this tragic crisis professionally. Under these harsh circumstances, deceiving ourselves, and the rest of the world, by claiming that the pandemic has only minimally affected our country might be our best option.

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Mohammed Nosseir

Mohammed Nosseir is an Egyptian liberal politician who advocates political participation and economic freedom. Nosseir was member of the higher committee at the Democratic Front Party from 2007 to 2012, followed by being a member of the political bureau of the Free Egyptian Party until 2013.