BY Nana Abuelsoud
Image by Egyptian artist Yassin (IG:@yassindraws)
I scroll through Facebook posts and Twitter updates with a smirk. Here is a post applauding the government’s efforts in containing the virus and limiting its spread. There is another heralding doomsday. I’m not sure where to direct my anger anymore. I don’t know how to dilute my cynicism to swallow some of the Ministry of Health updates. All I know for certain is that my anger is uncontainable.
In crisis times like these we feel we have lost count of how many times some of us have been shouting: “social protection networks!” As more and more policies and national initiatives are implemented to avoid “promoting laziness”, we drown in online classist inquiries (divorced from reality) asking “why are there people on the streets?,” “why don’t they stay home?” Maybe because home is way too crowded? Possibly too, because they won’t have food on the table if they miss a day at work? Who will pay their bills? We fear the unknown, and it heightens with growling stomachs. Funny how this reminds me of the diplomatic masks we wear during negotiations over rights at advocacy spaces. I think of times when I witnessed tradeoffs unfolding before me; hearing phrases like: “at this point we drop X group to keep Y wording”. I witnessed policy tradeoffs being picked up by feminists, as a part of a strategic move. And I wondered why there is never enough anger in the room.
There are horrors of pandemic worldwide, but there are specifics for a pandemic behind bars.
Since 10 March, Egypt has responded to the COVID-19 alert by suspending visitations to prisoners and detainees as a preventive measure. On 18 March, four women got arrested for protesting against arbitrary prison updates, notorious for inhumane living conditions, in light of the pandemic. This comes amidst loud cries and campaigns for immediate release of prisoners, which later shrunk into a set of criteria of who should actually be set free; immunocompromised inmates, pregnant women, elderly, adolescents and children, debtors, and pre-trial detainees.
As of 24 March 2020, there have been cheers for the newly imposed curfew as a response to the public’s irresponsibility (i.e. the virus is contagious after office hours!). We watch the economy collapse with a shy smile to the potential fall of capitalism, surrounded by a real uncertainty as to how gig economy workers are going to make it. And while we acclimate to the new elbow shake and practice some physical distancing, some wonder what happens to inmates, detainees, and the disappeared. The World’s Health Organization has supported the Egyptian government adoption of preventive measures, and failed to call for the immediate release of prisoners. Its local office lectured us on some bold hygiene messaging highlighting social responsibility, but went radio silence in response to Twitter tags crying for immediate release of all prisoners. On 26 March, only 392 were released with a presidential pardon commemorating national Police Day, but not as a preventive measure to COVID-19.
I clutch onto some hope, I think perhaps this time they are running things right. Historically, it is painful to accept they are doing anything right; for they have been living off all the wrongs.
On other days, general and personal hygiene in prisons and detention centers in Egypt were questioned. With a pandemic spreading, negligence is much higher.
It’s predetermined if you live under an authoritarian regime, to have no access to information, corruption is local currency, transparency is for the reckless, and oppression is akin. It infers living in an endless cycle of cynicism while you squint for some facts. There is a daily update of the number of people testing positive and the number of those we lose to COVID-19. However, there is data missing/inaccessible, for instance how many tests are being run daily? A listing of areas and governorates where COVID-19 has hit (hard)? And beyond testing positive or dying (business as usual), we are definitely not getting any disaggregated data that tells a fuller story of those impacted by the virus. It is especially difficult with, Egypt blocking (1) many news outlet and zipped shut our mouths from public dialogues.
COVID-19 has once again highlighted the political and class divide of how we are being hit differently. It has also shown how some of us are pushed further to the margins, so long as the majority is comfortable with all that policing. COVID-19 brings in a great opportunity for a profound feminist reflection of why we should stop going back to business as usual. This is a pause to rethink social protection. This is a pause to ponder over justice under a military regime. It is a pause to stop imitating a diplomatic apolitical system that is alien to feminist organinzing, by copying UN approaches in analyzing community/world challenges. It is a pause to think of the policing we’re supporting over awareness and real engagement within communities.