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Egypt Arrests Doctors Over Virus Info  07/06 06:35

   As Egyptian authorities fight the swelling coronavirus outbreak, security 
agencies have tried to stifle criticism about the handling of the health crisis 
by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.

   (AP) -- A doctor arrested after writing an article about Egypt's fragile 
health system. A pharmacist picked up from work after posting online about a 
shortage of protective gear. An editor taken from his home after questioning 
official coronavirus figures. A pregnant doctor arrested after a colleague used 
her phone to report a suspected coronavirus case.

   As Egyptian authorities fight the swelling coronavirus outbreak, security 
agencies have tried to stifle criticism about the handling of the health crisis 
by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.

   At least 10 doctors and six journalists have been arrested since the virus 
first hit Egypt in February, according to rights groups. Other health workers 
say they have been warned by administrators to keep quiet or face punishment. 
One foreign correspondent has fled the country, fearing arrest, and another two 
have been summoned for reprimand over "professional violations."

   Coronavirus infections are surging in the country of 100 million, 
threatening to overwhelm hospitals. As of Monday, the Health Ministry had 
recorded 76,253 infections, including 3,343 deaths --- the highest death toll 
in the Arab world.

   "Every day I go to work, I sacrifice myself and my whole family," said a 
front-line doctor in greater Cairo, who spoke on condition of anonymity for 
fear of reprisals, like all doctors interviewed for this story. "Then they 
arrest my colleagues to send us a message. I see no light on the horizon."

   In 2013, el-Sissi, as defense minister, led the military's removal of 
Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, after his brief 
rule sparked nationwide protests. In years since, el-Sissi has stamped out 
dissent, jailing Islamist political opponents, secular activists, journalists, 
even belly dancers.

   Now the clampdown has extended to doctors who speak publicly about missing 
protective gear or question the official infection count.

   A government press officer did not respond to requests for comment on the 
arrests of doctors and journalists but did send The Associated Press a document 
entitled "Realities defeating evil falsehoods," which details what it says are 
el-Sissi's successes in improving the economy and fighting terrorism.

   El-Sissi has said the virus's trajectory was "reassuring" and described 
critics as "enemies of the state."

   In recent weeks, authorities have marshaled medical supplies to prepare for 
more patients. The military has set up field hospitals and isolation centers 
with 4,000 beds and delivered masks to citizens, free of charge, at metro 
stops, squares and other public places.

   The government has scaled up testing within all general hospitals and 
ordered private companies to churn out face masks and gear for front-line 
health workers. El-Sissi has ordered bonuses for medical workers equivalent to 
$44-$76 a month.

   But health personnel are sounding the alarm on social media. Doctors say 
shortages have forced them to purchase surgical masks with their meager 
salaries. Families plead for intensive care beds. Dentists and pharmacists 
complain of being forced to handle suspected virus patients with little 
training.

   The pandemic has pushed the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, a non-political 
group of professionals, into a striking new role as the country's sole advocate 
for doctors' rights.

   Last month, the union released a letter to the public prosecutor demanding 
the release of five doctors detained for expressing their views about the 
government virus response. More syndicate members have been arrested than 
reported, said one board member, but families have kept quiet.

   Doctors' low morale sank further last week, following the arrest of board 
member and treasurer Mohamed el-Fawal, who demanded on Facebook that the prime 
minister apologize for comments that appeared to blame health workers for a 
spike in coronavirus deaths.

   In a televised briefing, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly criticized doctors' 
"negligence and mismanagement" for endangering citizens' health.

   Incensed doctors hit back, saying they're untrained, underpaid and 
under-resourced, struggling to save patients at crowded clinics. So far at 
least 117 doctors, 39 nurses and 32 pharmacists have died from COVID-19, 
according to syndicate members' counts, and thousands have fallen ill.

   After Madbouly's comments, the union scheduled a press conference in late 
June to raise awareness about doctors' sacrifices and discuss staff and supply 
shortages. But before anyone could speak out, security forces surrounded the 
syndicate and sent members home, according to former leader Mona Mina. A 
communications officer who promoted the event was detained and interrogated by 
security agents for hours, said a board member, before being released.

   In its latest statement, the syndicate said the accelerating detentions have 
caused "widespread anxiety" among health workers.

   "These doctors have no history of activism, they were arrested because they 
offered criticism of their very specific professional circumstances," said Amr 
Magdi of Human Rights Watch, which has confirmed the arrests of eight doctors

   and two pharmacists. Two have been released, he said, while the rest remain 
in pretrial detention.

    

   Last week, Dr. Ahmed Safwat, an intensive care doctor in the Cairo suburb of 
Nasr City and syndicate board member, disappeared, according to social media 
posts from fellow doctors. Because he had experienced virus symptoms, many 
assumed he was self-isolating at home until his family filed a complaint to the 
syndicate, saying they hadn't heard from him in days. A lawyer representing 
several detained doctors confirmed that he had been taken by state security and 
accused of terrorism activities. His last Facebook post also criticized the 
prime minister's comments, adding, "The government says that everything is fine 
and under control, but you enter hospitals and find the opposite."

   In another case, security agents burst into the home of Hany Bakr, an 
ophthalmologist north of Cairo, according to his lawyer and Amnesty 
International, over his Facebook post that criticized the government for 
sending coronavirus aid to Italy and China while its own doctors were 
desperately short of protective equipment. He remains in detention on terrorism 
charges, his lawyer added.

   In March, public prosecutors accused 26-year-old Alaa Shaaban Hamida of 
"joining a terrorist group" and "misusing social media" after she allowed a 
colleague to call the Health Ministry's coronavirus hotline from her phone 
instead of first reporting the case to her managers, according to Amnesty 
International. Three months pregnant, she remains in pretrial detention.

   Doctors in three different provinces say their administrators have 
threatened to report them to the National Security Agency if they expressed 
frustration over working conditions, walked off the job or called in sick.

   In one of several voice recordings obtained by The Associated Press, a 
health deputy in the Nile Delta province of Beheira can be heard telling 
workers, "Even if a doctor is dying, he must keep working ... or be subjected 
to the most severe punishment."

   In another message sent to staff, a hospital director in the same province 
describes those who fail to show up to work as "traitors," adding, "this will 
be treated as a national security matter ... and you know how that goes in 
Egypt."

   A doctor in Cairo shared WhatsApp messages with the AP from his manager, 
alerting staff that their attendance sheets were monitored by state security. 
He said two of his colleagues received a pay cut when administrators discovered 
their complaints on social media. In two other hospitals in the capital, 
workers retracted letters of collective resignation over working conditions for 
fear of reprisals.

   The suppression of criticism in Egypt is hardly unusual, analysts say, but 
the government has become even more jittery as the pandemic tests its 
capabilities and slows the economy.

   Although el-Sissi resisted a total lockdown because of the economic impact, 
schools, mosques, restaurants, malls and clubs were closed early in the 
outbreak and a nightly curfew imposed.

   With borders shut and cruise ships docked, Egypt's critical tourism revenue 
has disappeared, among other sources of income. The country secured a badly 
needed $5.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in June, on top 
of a previous $2.8 billion arrangement.

   Last week, fearing further economic fallout, the government reopened much of 
society and welcomed hundreds of international tourists back to resorts, even 
as daily reported deaths exceeded 80. Restaurants and cafes are reopening with 
some continued restrictions, and masks have been mandated in public.

   "Because of Egypt's constant attention to its image as a place open for 
tourism, open for business, open for investment, authorities appear 
particularly sensitive to divergent perspectives during the pandemic," said Amy 
Hawthorne, an Egypt expert at the Project on Middle East Democracy. "They want 
to project an image that everything is fine, they're in control."

   Those who spread "false news" online about the coronavirus could face up to 
five years imprisonment and steep fines, Egypt's top prosecutor warned this 
spring.

   The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights voiced concern in late March 
that 15 individuals had been arrested for broadcasting alleged false news about 
the pandemic. Four Egyptian journalists who reported on the outbreak remain in 
prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has labeled 
Egypt one of the world's worst jailers of journalists, along with Turkey and 
China.

   Security forces have also taken aggressive action against foreign reporters. 
In March, Egypt expelled a reporter for The Guardian who cited a scientific 
report disputing the official virus count. Egypt's state information body has 
summoned The Washington Post and New York Times correspondents over their 
critical coverage during the pandemic.

   Despite growing human rights abuses, the international community counts on 
Egypt as a bulwark against regional instability, said a Middle East-focused 
rights advocate at the U.N., speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss 
policy matters.

   "There is no appetite," the advocate said, "to address what is going on in 
Egypt, let alone sanction them in any way for what the government is doing to 
their own people."

 
 
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