Sisi uses Covid-19 to restrict freedom of research and expression

President Abdel Fattah Sisi has issued Law 152 of 2021 regarding measures to confront epidemics and health pandemics, an important law that addresses a legislative vacuum. The new law gives important powers to the prime minister in the event of epidemics or health pandemics, reflecting the response to many of the shortcomings that appeared in the face of the corona pandemic. But the Sisi regime refused to pass the law peacefully, and instead has threatened the freedom of citizens to express their opinions and the challenges they face in critical times such as epidemics.

What does the law provide?

The law allows the prime minister, after the approval of the Council of Ministers, in the event of an outbreak of epidemics or health pandemics, to issue a decision to take any of the necessary measures to confront these dangers in a manner that preserves public health and safety. Among these measures are placing restrictions on people’s freedom of movement, disrupting work partially or completely in ministries, departments, government agencies and the private sector, suspending studies in all educational institutions, setting dates for opening and closing public shops, and prohibiting public and private meetings, processions, demonstrations and celebrations.

The law allows the prime minister to regulate or prohibit the establishment of artistic, cultural and sports activities, as well as to prohibit the reception of people in places of worship and places attached to them, and to prohibit or restrict the use of public transportation and transportation owned by the private sector. The law also provides for allowing the prime minister to set treatment prices in private hospitals to prevent the exploitation of patients in the event of epidemics or health pandemics, to regulate or prohibit the export of some goods and products outside the country, to regulate or prohibit the import of some goods and products in whole or in part, and to place restrictions on the circulation of some goods and products, or their transfer, sale or possession, and setting the price of some services, goods or products.

So far, all of these texts are normal, and many of them are good, but the fifth article of the law is controversial, as it stipulates a penalty of imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year, and a fine of no more than EGP 10,000 for anyone who “deliberately broadcasts, publishes, or promotes news or false or malicious statements or rumours related to the epidemiological situation, and that would disturb public peace, stir panic among citizens, or harm the public interest.”

According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an Egyptian civil society organisation, the seriousness of this article stems from the fact that it gives official authorities the full and exclusive right to determine the “truth” and impose the narrative it deems appropriate, so that everything else becomes “a lie,” and even punishes anyone who disagrees. This completely contradicts the basic principles of freedom of expression and opinion, and the main pillars of the human rights strategy, which was published just weeks ago.

Anyone who doesn’t follow the government’s line could be imprisoned

The law excludes journalists from the penalties, with the exception that, “every person who follows up on the epidemic situation and publishes any news that contradicts the official narrative is liable to imprisonment, including research centres, according to Representative Maha Abdel Nasser, a member of the House of Representatives from the Egyptian Democratic Party, who rejected this freedom-depriving article. This penalty may prevent medical staff, researchers, and citizens from criticising, commenting, or even drawing attention to any of the possible deficiencies in the state’s procedures in dealing with any pandemic or health emergency that may occur in the future.

Sisi’s regime has previously used a similar legal text in the emergency law to arrest health workers and ordinary citizens, who expressed their concern or criticism of the state and the Ministry of Health’s handling of the corona pandemic, or those who complained about the lack of protective supplies on their personal pages on social media, or who expressed their concern about lack of oxygen, etc. During the first wave of the corona pandemic, the Sisi regime arrested at least eight doctors, and dozens of citizens, for asking questions about ways to contain the corona crisis, and for criticising some of the government’s decisions. Many of these people are still detained now.

It seems that the regime has not learned any lessons from the corona pandemic about the importance of transparency and announcing detailed information and data in case of health emergencies to gain the confidence of citizens. It seems that all that matters to the system is to ensure that everyone adheres to its narrative.