Series of calamities casts pall over Egyptians

Pandemic, storms and terrorist attacks take toll on nation's outlook

A combination picture shows residents of Ezbet Hamada in Cairo's Mataria district gathering to eat Iftar, the meal to end their fast at sunset, during Ramadan in Cairo, Egypt, May 20, 2019 and the same area seen during the holy month as mass iftars were cancelled due to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) May 1, 2020. Picture taken May 20, 2019 and May 1, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
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It has been a tough stretch for Egypt, with diverse misfortunes leaving the most populous Arab nation struggling to cope.

First there was a mid-March rainstorm so furious that it caused millions of pounds worth of damage.

The coronavirus outbreak struck soon after and gradually worsened, claiming hundreds of lives among the thousands of people infected.

Then a sandstorm cast a shadow over the majority Muslim country’s joy on the first day of Ramadan.

Making things worse during the holy month is the indefinite closure of mosques, the heart of Ramadan’s spirituality and rituals, to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Measures to contain the outbreak have hit the economy so hard that the government has asked the IMF for financial support to avoid a meltdown.

The restrictions also made clear the sad fact that the chances of surviving the pandemic could be largely dictated by social and economic differences.

Millions of Egyptians cannot afford to leave their jobs and isolate themselves to avoid infection, unlike the wealthy or professionals who can work from home.

Those who must commute to work put themselves at risk every day in packed public transport such as the Cairo metro or communal taxis that ply the streets of the capital and other cities.

And when it seemed like things could not get any worse, they did.

A roadside bombing claimed by ISIS killed 10 soldiers on Thursday in the deadliest attack in months by the extremists fighting security forces for years in northern Sinai.

“The forces of evil are still trying to hijack this nation,” President Abdel Fattah El Sisi wrote on Facebook after the attack.

The high death toll and the fact that the bombing was carried out during Ramadan renewed calls to permanently crush the insurgency.

The attack was followed by a police raid on a militant hideout nearby in which 18 extremists were killed, the government said.

Moving images of the soldiers’ funerals prompted grief and anger in the nation of 100 million, which was already tired and frustrated by the rapid succession of misfortunes.

Mourners carry the coffin of Alaa Emad, an Egyptian soldier who was killed in an explosion targeting an armoured vehicle near Bir al-Abed in North Sinai, during his funeral in the vilage of Abwan in the Minya province on May 1, 2020. Egypt's army said Thursday that 10 soldiers, including an officer, were killed or wounded in an explosion that day targeting an armoured vehicle near Bir al-Abed in North Sinai. The Egyptian army killed two suspected jihadists Friday in restive North Sinai, a day after a blast targeted an armoured vehicle, a military spokesman said.
 / AFP / Mohamed Hakim
Mourners carry the coffin of Alaa Emad, an Egyptian soldier who was killed in an attack claimed by ISIS in North Sinai on April 30, 2020. AFP

“The recurring pains of Sinai present many questions,” prize-winning novelist and columnist Basma Abdel Aziz wrote.

“The grief over those who died today and over years past require serious answers, and not just words of sadness and eulogies.”

The nation's mood was perhaps best summed in a Facebook post that read: “So much to sadden us and so very little to make us happy. No dreams of any kind are left.”

The coronavirus outbreak and its fallout are likely to be the greatest calamities to befall Egypt this year and remain etched on the national psyche for years to come.

The 436 deaths and 6,813 infections reported until May 4 are relatively low for a country of Egypt’s size, but the numbers have been rising steadily.

This would suggest that the outbreak has yet to peak, and raise fears that it could spiral out of control given the fragility of the health sector.

“Egypt has been very lucky and we just don’t know why,” said Michael Hanna, a Middle East expert at the Century Foundation in New York.

"There is a big mystery about what’s going on in Egypt and other countries in a similar situation.

“But it might just be a question of time because, after all, Egyptians are like any other people. They don’t have anything special to protect them.

“Egypt has been buying time but it does not have the capability to take advantage of that time. At the end, everything depends on what the virus does.”

Workers of the Egyptian Food Bank fill boxes with food and aid for needy families and people who have lost their jobs due to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Cairo, Egypt April 29, 2020. Picture taken April 29, 2020. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Workers of the Egyptian Food Bank fill boxes with food and aid for needy families and people who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak. Reuters

The country’s chances of containing the outbreak are not helped by the fatalist attitude adopted by many Egyptians who adhere to the minimum of preventive measures.

They count on an immunity supposedly inherited from generations who survived hardship, disease and unhygienic living conditions.

“This is a country that lived with bilharzia [a disease borne by parasitic worms] for so long, where thousands die every year in road accidents and entire apartment towers collapse on their tenants,” rights lawyer and commentator Negad El Borai said.

“It won’t shock us if 3,000 to 5,000 of us die but it’s another story, of course, if 500,000 do.”

Sociologist and political commentator Ammar Ali Hassan said the coronavirus would affect society long after the last victim of the outbreak was buried.

While the upper crust would change the way it interacts with others and perhaps even develop an obsession with hygiene, the rest of society would happily go back to lives of struggle they once considered a burden.

“The life that some people have complained about as cruel and inevitable has now become a hope to them,” Mr Hassan said.

He said most wanted to return to their old ways and see their “pre-coronavirus days as a dream played out in packed cafes, large gatherings and busy metro stations”.

“As soon as the pandemic is defeated, they will go back to the old story,” he said. "But a small minority will be careful and insist on social distancing.”