“A plague has occurred that is unprecedented and the likes of which we have never heard of before … it has spread throughout the country, east and west, and we have seen wonders from it in its phases and conditions for it has annihilated most of the people in the country … and the markets were closed … and the call of prayers from mosques has been disrupted … and crops have been left unharvested and dried up on the face of the earth because there was no one to harvest it.”
These words came in a letter describing the impact of the plague on the city of Asyut sent on May 11, 1801, from Sheikh Hassan al-Attar, a future Sheikh of Al Azhar, to his friend the famed Egyptian historian, Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti and reproduced in the latter’s magnum opus The Marvelous Composition of Biographies and Events.
Today, despite the spread of Coronavirus around the world and in Egypt which has seen around 16,000 cases and over 700 deaths, the impact of the virus pales in comparison to the picture al-Attar paints of the plague that hit Egypt in 1801. Even acknowledging that testing in Egypt has been limited (Egypt ranks 151st worldwide in the number of tests per million, while ranking 92nd in deaths per million), as well as the possibility that the country has not seen the worst yet, the situation remains mild in comparison of that of two centuries earlier. And yet, diving back through time and following the tale of how the commanders of the invading French attempted to juggle through the complicated health, economic and political challenges at the time of the plague, offers us a clearer picture of the challenges the Egyptian government is facing today as it confronts Corona and its similarly nearly impossible juggling act.
Al-Jabarti, in his book, chronicled for us in detail the plague’s progress. “The plague began, and the French were disturbed by that. They stripped their assemblies from carpets, cleaned them and washed them and proceeded to make quarantines,” he wrote in his entry for February 15, 1801. But no effort by the French could succeed without involving Egyptians, and the French turned to the natural community leaders; the ulama and leading civil servants for their cooperation on February 22. “Members of the council must follow the road that leads to the end of this disease, for we want for them and others what is good. If they answered positively, good. If not then they will be obliged to do so, even by coercion.” And yet the task was easier said than done. “The council dissolved by agreeing that the deputy shall negotiate with the French commander about this issue and then they will arrange a way in which the comfort of the locals and the French is maintained, for (the request) would be difficult for the locals because they are unfamiliar with these things (quarantine).”
If the French acted quickly in adopting fast methods to contain the plague (after all a plague two years earlier had in part cost Napoleon his dreams of establishing an empire in the east), while facing resistance from the ulama, the Egyptian government has done the reverse. As world leaders scrambled to attempt to contain the virus through lockdowns, Egypt took only half measures. Schools, some government agencies, though only temporarily, were closed and air travel stopped. Egypt’s version of a lockdown was in the form of a curfew during the night, with life largely proceeding as normal during the day. Even today, as countries stress the importance of wearing masks, the practice has become a joke in Egypt, with very few wearing them and people setting up shop in front of government agencies offering masks for rent by the hour, transmitting Corona be damned.
In the religious sphere, the government was more active. Unlike the French commanders, the current Egyptian regime has a cooperative Islamic and Christian religious establishment. Despite this, the government hesitated for a while in closing churches, and more importantly mosques. The regime is engaged in an ongoing battle with the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, and an accusation of closing God’s houses is a useful tool for the regime’s enemies. In the end, the government coordinated with both Islamic and Coptic leaders and both issued statements announcing the closures, as if by themselves. Of course, this did not stop Brotherhood agitators from their bases in Turkey and Qatar from utilizing the issue and inciting against Christians by claiming that only mosques were closed while churches remained open. Painting the regime as controlled by Copts has always been in the Brotherhood’s DNA.
In 1801 and despite the seriousness of the plague, the French did not have the luxury of giving it their undivided attention. On March 4, rumors began to spread that British ships had appeared off the coast of Alexandria. Two days later, goods disappeared from the markets and prices skyrocketed. Attempts to enforce the quarantine were often ignored. On March 10, rumors spread which the French had to counter as al-Jabarti writes: “they called in the markets with safety, and for people not to be disturbed by the quarantine, and that only the clothes worn by the dead person will be burned. For it had been rumored amongst the people that the house in which he died would also be burned and that (the French) intended to do a quarantine for the whole country.”
Today, the Egyptian government finds itself in a similar quandary attempting to juggle different challenges. The economic impact of the corona virus has been tremendous on the country. The three main sources of foreign currency have been heavily affected with tourism coming to a halt, the Suez Canal impacted by the decline in world trade, and foreign remittances declining as the economic situation in the Gulf worsens. Nor can Egypt hope for Gulf financial support that would save it from collapse as it did in 2013. In the face of these challenges, the government’s decision to avoid a lockdown is less puzzling. It is not that the regime is not aware of the health risks, but instead it has made the simple calculation that a lockdown would lead to a complete economic collapse and has to be avoided.
Similarly, on the political front, the virus has done little to limit the challenges that Egypt faces. The battle with the Islamic State’s branch in Sinai remains ongoing despite recent success by Egyptian security forces. To the West, Turkey’s involvement in Libya has shifted the balance in favor of its preferred clients in Tripoli further complicating Egypt’s geo-political situation, and to the south, Ethiopia’s ongoing dam construction on the Nile remains the most important long-term challenge to Egypt. Nor has the virus limited internal challenges. As the virus began to spread in the country, a New York based Brotherhood activist suggested in a video to his followers that anyone with symptoms should pay a visit to government offices in an attempt to infect them. “Perhaps Coronavirus will topple al-Sisi,” he mused, “our Lord is capable of doing anything. But you have to make proper use of this,” he suggested. For the regime, those internal and external challenges are simply more deadly than a virus.
But if the French had limited options to utilize the crisis, the Egyptian government has today found an opportunity. As the virus started in China, the regime sent its health minister to that country with medical supplies in a show of solidarity with a key ally. A similar step was undertaken with Italy, a leading trade-partner and one with whom relations had been rocky following the gruesome murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni. Next came planes with medical supplies to the United Kingdom and the United States. It, of course, did not escape Egyptian humor that Egypt was sending medical aid to the United States on a military plane it had received from U.S. aid, or that Egypt itself lacked adequate medical resources (Rich Egyptians have taken matters into their own hands buying private ventilators). But these efforts should not be judged by their medical value, but rather by their symbolic one, both internationally and domestically. Egypt is sending a message to those countries that it is a friend and ally, hoping the support would be returned soon in an economic form, as well as giving its citizens the perception that their country is now a leading player in world affairs. A message that has been utilized by the regime’s propaganda machine to spread conspiracy theories claims that Egypt is finding a cure for the virus.
In the end, the French were simply fighting on too many fronts. On March 21, they were defeated by the British and three days later Ottoman forces began their march through Egypt. By the end of June, the French were forced to surrender Cairo and by September they were finally forced to evacuate from Alexandria, ending their short adventure in Egypt. As to the plague, Egypt got lucky as the disease receded by the summer. Today, the Egyptian government is left hoping for a similar outcome for the corona virus, though certainly not in their battle with their enemies. If not, the regime’s pragmatic approach, attempting to balance health risks with other economic and political ones, could prove quite costly; on the health front as well as the political one.