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Egyptian authorities arrest doctors and silence critics amid pandemic

At least 10 medics and six journalists have been arrested since the coronavirus first struck in the country, according to human rights groups.

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A health worker wearing protective gear prepares to take swab samples from people lining up in their cars to test for the coronavirus at a drive-through screening center at Ain Shams University in Cairo (AP)

A health worker wearing protective gear prepares to take swab samples from people lining up in their cars to test for the coronavirus at a drive-through screening center at Ain Shams University in Cairo (AP)

A health worker wearing protective gear prepares to take swab samples from people lining up in their cars to test for the coronavirus at a drive-through screening center at Ain Shams University in Cairo (AP)

Egyptian security agencies have tried to stifle criticism over the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s handling of the rising coronavirus crisis.

At least 10 doctors and six journalists have been arrested since the virus 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 reprimanded over “professional violations”.

The coronavirus is 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.

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Rights groups say at least 10 doctors and six journalists have been arrested since the virus first hit Egypt (AP)

Rights groups say at least 10 doctors and six journalists have been arrested since the virus first hit Egypt (AP)

AP/PA Images

Rights groups say at least 10 doctors and six journalists have been arrested since the virus first hit Egypt (AP)

One doctor in greater Cairo said: “Every day I go to work, I sacrifice myself and my whole family. Then they arrest my colleagues to send us a message. I see no light on the horizon.”

In 2013, Mr el-Sissi, as defence minister, led the military’s removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, after his brief rule sparked nationwide protests.

Since then, Mr el-Sissi has stamped out dissent, jailing Islamist political opponents, secular activists, journalists, and even belly dancers.

Now, the clampdown has extended to doctors who speak out about their working conditions.

In recent weeks, authorities have marshalled medical supplies to prepare for more patients.

The military has set up field hospitals with 4,000 beds, scaled up testing and ordered companies to churn out face masks and other supplies.

However, health workers are sounding the alarm on social media. Doctors say they are forced to purchase surgical masks with their meagre salaries, while families plead for intensive care beds.

The pandemic has pushed the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, a non-political professional group, into a new role as the sole advocate for doctors’ rights.

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The outbreak is surging in the country of 100 million people (AP)

The outbreak is surging in the country of 100 million people (AP)

AP/PA Images

The outbreak is surging in the country of 100 million people (AP)

Last month, the union released a letter to the public prosecutor demanding the release of five doctors detained for expressing opinions about the virus response.

Another syndicate member, Mohamed el-Fawal, landed in jail last week, after demanding an apology from the prime minister over comments that appeared to blame health workers for a spike in deaths.

Incensed doctors hit back, saying they are under-trained, under-paid and under-resourced, and struggling to save patients.

So far, 117 doctors, 39 nurses and 32 pharmacists have died from Covid-19, according to syndicate members’ counts. Thousands have fallen ill.

Security forces shut down a syndicate press conference that was set to respond to the prime minister’s comments and discuss supply shortages, according to former leader Mona Mina.

“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 pre-trial detention.

Doctors in three provinces say administrators threatened to report them if they publicly expressed frustration toward authorities or failed to show up for work.

In one voice recording obtained by The Associated Press, a health deputy in a Nile Delta province can be heard saying: “Even if a doctor is dying, he must keep working … or be subjected to the most severe punishment.”

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

With borders shut and flights halted, Egypt’s critical tourism revenue has vanished.

Last week, fearing further economic fallout, the government reopened much of society and welcomed hundreds of international tourists to resorts, even as daily reported deaths exceeded 80.

PA