Egypt’s disdain for transparency will backfire in this coronavirus crisis | Timothy Kaldas

During a public health crisis, a government’s credibility is a vital asset. To slow the spread of a virus, the government must convincingly inform and instruct the public. And to do this, it must inspire trust – trust that it is following the science, acting out of the interests of the population, and enforcing measures that will help to keep the public safe. Trust depends on transparency. If governments appear to be concealing the truth, or withholding information, their credibility can quickly crumble.

The Egyptian government has long seen transparency as a weakness, and guarded information as though it were a national security threat. Much like Donald Trump’s White House, Egypt’s leaders have responded to reports about the estimated number of coronavirus infections as though they were a personal attack, rather than a health crisis the entire world is struggling to contain.

Anyone found spreading “rumours” about the coronavirus now faces imprisonment and fines. Websites – such as the BBC and the US-based Arabic language Alhurra news channel – continue to be censored, and the government has sought to silence journalists. Egyptian officials recently expelled the British Guardian journalist Ruth Michaelson following her report on mathematical modelling that indicated Egypt’s number of actual infections may be far higher than the official figures.

At the time of Michaelson’s report, Egypt’s ministry of health claimed there were a total of 126 confirmed infections. Rather than respond to the study’s contention, Egyptian officials condemned the Guardian for reporting it, expelled Michaelson and rebuked the New York Times’ Cairo bureau chief, Declan Walsh, for deigning to even tweet about the study.

An environment of opacity and suspicion has made the Egyptian government into its own worst enemy, and aggravated what Egyptian officials seemingly fear: that the world could suspect they are covering up the real scale of infections. By expelling a journalist who reported on the country’s coronavirus cases, the government has invited others to wonder what it has to hide.

It may have nothing to hide at all. Thus far, there is no evidence of an orchestrated cover-up of infections. Egyptian authorities responded faster and more aggressively than their counterparts in the UK, shutting schools and universities weeks ago. The government has halted flights and pledged a coronavirus package of 100 billion Egyptian pounds to combat the virus.

Moreover, no country can claim a perfect response – the scientific consensus about the virus is still emerging, and nobody yet knows how much devastation it will ultimately wreak. Egypt could have acknowledged that most countries undoubtedly have more infections than confirmed numbers, because testing is still limited.

The UK itself is contending with two dramatically different models: one from Imperial College London researchers, who argue the country is still early in its fight with the virus, and another from researchers at Oxford University, which suggests that as much as half the population (over 30 million people) may have already been infected. In the absence of data about the virus, such models are partly reliant on assumption and speculation, as has been argued in the Guardian.

Rather than concede the complexity of the subject, debate the merits of these claims or explain their views on the matter, Egypt’s government lashed out at the reports, intensifying suspicions that it had something to hide.

Indeed, its persistent aversion to transparency has led many observers and foreign governments to view most official claims with a degree of suspicion. When Isis downed a Russian passenger jet over Sinai in 2015, Egypt spent several months denying what countless governments had already concluded was true: Isis’s affiliate in Sinai, Wilayat Sinai, was responsible. But Egyptian investigators pressed on, insisting there was no evidence of terrorism or foul play.

Several months after the attack, Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, casually acknowledged that the plane was brought down by terrorists in a speech about the economy. To this day, conclusions from the investigation have not been made public. The government’s strict insistence that nothing be said until its conclusions were published now seems like an effort to delay discussion until the matter was forgotten.

But terrorist attacks have plagued other countries. Fatal security failures are a regular feature of our era. Admitting to failures, and working openly with other countries to resolve them, would have helped to build confidence in Egypt’s government. Instead, by spending months denying and obfuscating, many countries questioned whether Egypt was truly committed to improving airport security.

Not only was the government’s response harmful – it was also unnecessary. After the Sinai incident, Egypt took steps to improve airport security, which has continued to be far more stringent than before the crash. But the damage to its reputation had already been done, and would last for years. Flights from the UK to Sharm el-Sheikh only resumed in February, and Russia still doesn’t permit flights to the Red Sea resort town.

It’s the same story with coronavirus. The government would do far better by responding transparently to concerns, and being open about the measures it is taking. During a pandemic, transparency is not a liberal luxury, but a vital feature of effective governance.

Timothy E Kaldas is an independent risk adviser and nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy

The Guardian

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