Every day, people in Egypt hold their breath as they follow the daily reports on the spread of the coronavirus. Currently, there are 3,659 cases of contagion and 276 deaths (as of 22 April). The country is facing widespread uncertainty.
The government is trying to convince the masses that it is in control of the situation, with a mixture of formal, procedural speeches combined with emotional rhetoric, focusing on the unity and cohesion of the nation. This rhetoric of national unity obscures the fact that working-class people are falling prey to poverty and unemployment, caused by greedy and selfish businessmen. The wealthy capitalist class is pushing for life to go back to normal and launching calls to restart the wheel of the economy: easy for them to say, isolated and secure in their luxury palaces. The millions of workers who are employed in the informal economy, as well as seasonal workers and in tourism and services are forced to keep working. Millions of others have been abandoned, left to fall into the abyss of unemployment as a result of the restrictions on movement and the decision to close cafés, restaurants and places of service and entertainment. Those who have jobs, aside from being heavily exploited by the capitalists, are being exposed to the risk of infection in order to "save the national economy.”
The ruling class is trying to portray matters as if we are in the same boat and that the crisis will be paid for by the of whole society. They say that we must all accept that we will get poorer or become unemployed and that we all risk losing our lives or the lives of our loved ones. But this is a dirty lie, the truth is that this crisis will only be paid for by the poor and the workers. This is because they are unable to implement social distancing even in their homes, due to their limited size and densely populated urban centres. This is in addition to millions of homeless people and residents of shantytowns who are estimated to number more than 12 million people, or exist at the economic level with which the masses of workers are now threatened through reduction of their salaries or unemployment.
This crisis clearly highlights the class differences in society. Its victims will be the most vulnerable groups in the society, those at the bottom, while the capitalist class are not only not affected, but they are working to take advantage of this crisis to increase their wealth. They are relatively safe from the pandemic, hiding in their palaces away from congestion and mixing, they implement the rules of social distancing and prevention in order to preserve their lives. If the rest of society perishes, it doesn't matter for them.
What we are facing is not only a healthcare crisis, but a total social crisis. A crisis of the capitalist system. As the contagion spreads, and the indifference of the ruling class towards the lives of the masses is further exposed, we will see a sharpening of class contradictions. In this article, we will attempt to explain some of the features of the criminal tragedy that Egyptian society may face in the coming months.
The state of the healthcare system
Let's start with the healthcare system, which is foremost in the Egyptian public’s thinking at the present time. The deplorable conditions facing the healthcare sector are no secret to most Egyptians: the country’s health system is ranked 103rd out of 141 states around the world.
Figures that show the deterioration of the public health system over time can give us an idea of its readiness (or lack thereof) to respond to the peak of the coronavirus epidemic. No one, not even the government, knows exactly when that peak will come.
In Egypt, we have 691 general hospitals, with 36,000 beds: this amounts to an average of 1.5 beds per thousand citizens, which is a far lower ratio than the global average, which ranges from 10 to 15 beds per thousand citizens. There are also hospitals equipped for acute care, but they are by nature far fewer than the general hospitals. The state has established 26 such hospitals in parts of the Republic: in total there are 395 beds set aside for acute care (according to statistics issued by the Ministry of Health on 7 March). However, figures show that 211 beds out of 395 are already occupied on a regular basis, i.e. that there are only 184 beds available for intensive care. Of course, information about hospitals remains incomplete because the state refuses to divulge it, as they want to cover up the seriousness of the situation. For example, we do not know the number of pulmonary ventilation devices present in hospitals, but according to a statement by an official at the Ministry of Health, there are 4,000 ventilators across all hospitals in the Republic (public, private and university hospitals). If this is true, this statement tells us the details of the tragedy that will occur when we reach the peak of the spread of the epidemic. Even the most optimistic estimates show that we only have 5,000 ventilators for the entire country!
The complete picture of the miserable state of the health sector is that we do not only suffer from a shortage of medical equipment, but also of medical personnel. We have 8.7 doctors per thousand citizens, far lower than the average for the Mediterranean region, which is 23 doctors per thousand citizens. But 8.7 is the number we get if we divide the total number of doctors in Egypt by the number of citizens, but there are doctors who do not work in public hospitals: if we only look at doctors in public hospitals, we will find that there is one doctor for every 1,330 citizens.
Decades of privatisation and opening up the health system to private investment, both domestic and foreign, means that the number of private hospitals are almost the number of public hospitals (1,157:691). And decades of cuts and austerity in public services have brought us to a situation where healthcare occupies only a small portion of the state budget. In the 2019/20 budget, it did not exceed 2 percent of total spending (4.7 billion USD), while in the fiscal year 2015/2016, healthcare spending was at 7.8 billion USD. This shows that the budget for healthcare decreased by 36 percent over five years.
The decades-long neglect of the health sector and the low wages of medical staff have led to a shortfall in human resources. As a result of the weakness of government funding for healthcare, medical staff find themselves forced to migrate in order to find a decent existence elsewhere. There are 100,000 Egyptian doctors who live outside the country: just in Saudi Arabia, there are 65,000. In the period 2016-2019, 10,000 doctors left the country. In 2019 alone, 3,500 Egyptian doctors emigrated. This is logical in light of the meagre salaries they can expect: the average income of a doctor in a public hospital ranges between E£1,800-£2,700 (USD115-170). New nurses can expect a maximum of E£1,300; while elder care nurses get E£3,000 (USD85-190).
This epidemic is placing a double burden on medical workers. Firstly, they have to work additional hours as a result of the lack of human resources, for which they are not being paid enough, despite the wage increase announced by the dictator Sisi, which does not exceed E£400. Secondly, they still face a shortage of prevention and sterilisation tools. 15 percent of contagion cases, amounting to 500 people, are medical staff. It is worth mentioning that a doctor working with coronavirus patients in Deyerb Negm spoke out publicly about the lack of prevention and sterilisation equipment in the hospital.
It is necessary to secure enough medical personnel to contain the epidemic. Equally, equipment is needed in order to carry out periodic testing to detect the spreading of the virus amongst healthcare workers. They should not have to work in hazardous conditions! The state is capable of providing them with enough resources: the government is currently giving billions of pounds to export businesses that have been affected by the slowdown of international trade. Meanwhile, medical staff are left without the basic means to protect themselves.
The Ministry of Health announced that it will transform empty buildings such as student housing and university facilities into hospitals, but not hotels and facilities owned by the army, even though these have also been left empty.
This is outrageous. We demand that all private hospitals be nationalised without compensation and placed under the control of the healthcare workers. The hotels owned by rich capitalists and buildings owned by the army should also be requisitioned and used as places for people to self-isolate, which will be more effective than confining them to student houses, which are small and cramped like prison cells, aslo the homeless, shantytown and nest city residents must be accommodated in these hotels. Factories producing and distributing pharmaceuticals and medical equipment should also be nationalised and placed under the control of the workers, in order to provide all the necessary medical equipment in the quickest possible time and at the lowest possible cost.
- Nationalisation and workers’ control of private hospitals!
- Requisitioning of hotels to be used as sanitary isolation sites!
- Nationalisation of pharmaceutical and medical equipment manufacturing!
- Healthcare workers to be given the necessary protective equipment!
- For a living wage for healthcare workers!
Economic and social consequences
The destructive consequences of the policy being pursued by the state have no limits. They’ve gone from leaving the working class to be preyed upon by greedy businessmen and slaughtered on the altar of profit, to crushing the workers and their families under the economic weight of the epidemic. Millions who worked in sales and seasonal jobs are now reeling from unemployment and destitution. An alliance of the two wings of the ruling class – big business and the army generals – is clearly being forged in this crisis. The dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi decided to sacrifice four million construction workers to continue the building of projects of "national significance" such as the New Administrative Capital (NAC). This vanity project of Sisi’s will create a new capital city 45km east of Cairo where the rich can live in safety from the poor and hungry masses. Thus, the government is sacrificing millions and letting them work in unsanitary conditions, without taking any health precautions, in order to build up the glory of the dictator. Of course all of this aligns perfectly with the interests of the big construction companies: for example, Orascom Construction, owned by the family of billionaire Naguib Sawiris, is working on the construction of the NAC.
The capitalist class
The Egyptian capitalist class is rotten to the core. Its gangsterism, selfishness and lack of purpose makes them willing to reap profits today, at the expense of the destruction of the country tomorrow, with millions of victims. They have decided that this is a necessary price “in order to save the economy." Simply by looking at the statements of some of these criminals, we get an idea of their hatred towards the working masses and their willingness to spend their lives in order to sustain the flow of profits and increase their wealth. This- in turn makes it clearer than ever that we need a plan to expropriate these parasites and break the grip of capital on society.
Raouf Ghabbour, the CEO of the Ghabbour Group (an Egyptian auto manufacturer) – the 10th richest man in Egypt with an estimated fortune of 440 million USD – said in an interview on television: “if I let thousands of workers stay at home, this would result in the destruction of the economy, and businessmen are already suffering the effects of this situation”. Thus, Raouf Ghabbour thinks protecting the lives of thousands of human beings is less important than losing a few thousand dollars.
The billionaire Hamed El Chiaty, owner of the Travco tourism and construction company, reduced the salaries of all employees in the company by 20 percent at the beginning of the crisis, and discharged all workers from a series of his Jaz luxury hotels (a subsidiary of Travco), as well as cutting the salaries of engineers and administrators in the construction branch by 50 percent. Did El Chiaty resort to this because he does not have enough money to pay the workers’ salaries? Of course not! At the beginning of the month of March, he acquired 3.4 percent of the shares of the Anglo-German TUI Group: a travel and tourism multinational, after a decline in the price of its shares as a result of the coronavirus crisis stopping the movement of tourism and aircraft. Thus, the billionaire El Chiaty threw dozens of workers into the chasm of unemployment and poverty to increase his own assets and wealth. This shows that the increase of wealth at one pole of society leads to the concentration of poverty and misery at the other.
Naguib Sawiris, the richest and most famous businessman in Egypt, and so-called supporter of the Egyptian Revolution, with wealth exceeding 3 billion USD – an owner of gold mines and defender of liberalism both politically and economically – said:
"Coronavirus is causing the layoffs of a large number of workers and reducing the wages of others, and the private sector will go bankrupt if it continues to pay salaries without production, and the government will not be able to compensate everyone... Whoever gets sick will not necessarily die, there are people will lose their work, in which many people will have no source of income this month, these people after month or two will commit suicide... I am thinking of an economy and a country that has not yet reached rock bottom, within the next week or two will be economic bleeding. "
Thus, the billionaire Sawiris warns of mass suicide in the country as a result of the unprecedented rise in unemployment rates that we will witness in the coming months and years.
This person who talks about the bankruptcy of the private sector is the second biggest gold mine investor in the world. What Sawiris is showing is his point of view. He fiercely defends the interests of his class, which subsists on sucking the blood of the working class. From the safety of his palace, he calls for workers to keep working on the grounds that not all of them will contract the virus, and not everyone who contracts the virus will die. Not only this, but he also recently suggested setting up housing for workers in their workplaces, in order not to mingle with people on the outside. So Sawiris would like a return of serfdom, or slaves in the Americas. This is the person who was and remains the focus of admiring liberal Egyptians.
This is the capitalist class in Egypt, which does not offer any solutions to the health crisis that millions are facing, but merely preaches the need to return to work. This class, whose 10 richest members boast wealth of 24 billion USD, is talking about bankruptcy!
In reply, we demand the immediate stoppage of all work in non-essential sectors, with full compensation for lost wages. Any boss who tries to force their workers to work or lower their wages must have their business expropriated and placed under the control of the workers themselves. The same must happen for any business that declares bankruptcy.
Let us not wait for the disaster to occur, for thousands to die. We must learn from the experience of our comrades amongst the Italian working class, who have been the victims of a ruling class that is no less vicious and selfish than their Egyptian counterparts. The same weapon that the Italian workers used must be used in Egypt: a strike.
- Strike to stop all non-essential production!
- Strike for full pay in non-essential sectors!
- Strike for a minimum wage in the private sector equal to the public sector!
The government’s actions
We can also see the thought process of the other wing of the ruling class: the representatives of the state. Packages of financial aid and generous tax exemptions are being given out to benefit big business and import/export companies, at a time when millions have lost their jobs as a result of the total or partial closure of the service and tourism sectors.
The junta decided to save the capitalists’ profits by reducing the price of natural gas and electricity for industry; saving one billion pounds that exporters will no longer have to as pay part of their dues to banks; postponing the payment of real estate taxes on factories and companies for a period of three months; reducing the stamp tax on the stock exchange; reducing the capital gains tax for Egyptian companies by 50 percent to be 5 percent and postponing their due date until 2022; and exempting non-residents (who are primarily foreign capitalist investors) from taxes on their profits.
All of these measures, which solely favour the rich and big business, come at a time where the state claims to not have sufficient financial resources to fill the gaps in the healthcare system. These measures will generate profits for the capitalists at the same time as thousands of workers are losing their jobs. The state is willing to give billions to a group of export/import companies to save them from debt, while simultaneously washing its hands of responsibility for the masses of workers who are already unemployed or will lose their jobs in the near future. What will happen after the end of the crisis is that the state will come back to the working class and say: “We have spent all our resources on confronting the epidemic and now it's time for more austerity, to begin a series of cuts and privatisation of services.” Public borrowing today will be dearly paid for by the masses tomorrow.
And all this in the name of maintaining the economy. The state misleadingly announced it would give out an unemployment benefit, estimated at E£500 for those who have been affected, i.e. a wage below the poverty line, the level of which is decided by the state itself! They keep claiming that they do not have enough money to pay everyone and that they are doing all they can.
Instead of concessions for businesses and the wealthy, progressive taxes must be collected immediately on wealth and deposits that exceed one million pounds. At the same time, the major banks should be nationalised and their wealth and resources put at the disposal of society as a whole. This way, the state can raise enough money not only to support infrastructure and the dilapidated health system to protect the lives of the masses, but also to set up a social security network. This would also ensure the provision of a decent standard of living for the masses, rather than supporting the profits of big business and leaving the working masses to choose between death from the coronavirus and death from poverty and hunger. Those capitalists who resist, or attempt to escape taxation, must have their wealth and capital expropriated and their companies nationalised under workers control. Meanwhile, all industries must be requisitioned and directed to meet the needs of society and not to satisfy the greed of businessmen.
- For immediate progressive taxation!
- Nationalise the banks!
- Expropriate the tax dodgers!
- For unemployment benefits equal to the minimum wage!
- For the provision of prevention and sterilisation kits for free!
- For a bill freeze!
- For a home rent freeze!
The political scene
This general crisis comes at a time when the country is witnessing a temporary period of reaction. A number of attacks on political activity has taken place claiming the lives of thousands and leading to the arrest of more than 60,000. This has slowly suffocated political activity throughout the country. Under the guise of fighting the Muslim Brotherhood – which is justifiably hated by the people – and “fighting terrorism”, the ruling military dictatorship has tried to drown all types of opposition, including labor strikes. But as we could see in the September 2019 protests, it appears that this argument and other types of systemic propaganda are no longer fooling the masses.
Egyptian prisons are notorious for being overcrowded, dirty and unhygienic.— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) March 16, 2020
A #COVID19 outbreak could be devastating. Egypt's government needs to act now: https://t.co/d6lk1dV17E pic.twitter.com/4DubnH3lgN
Today, the epidemic gives the dictatorship the perfect opportunity to tighten their iron grip on the country under the pretext of "fighting the epidemic”. In March, the security forces arrested two left-wing militants, forcibly disappeared them for a period of time, and then after they reappeared they were investigated on false charges of “spreading false news and belonging to a terrorist group”, and other charges for which thousands are currently in prison.
Instead of releasing prisoners to reduce the chances of an outbreak of the epidemic in the overcrowded prisons, the state is now exploiting the public’s fear of the epidemic to attempt to liquidate the left in particular, and the opposition in general. A campaign of arrests continues in all governorates. From the beginning of March until now, over six activists have been arrested, some of whom have been disappeared.
Egypt has 68 prisons and 382 police department detention centres. More than 60,000 political prisoners are jailed in these places, where they are more vulnerable than criminal prisoners. When we are talking about the total number of prisoners – both on pending charges of a political or criminal nature – this amounts to 180,000 to 200,000 people. They are all kept in filthy cells, deprived of proper ventilation in most cases and lack clean water or any sort of medical care. In 2019 alone, 14 prisoners died as a result of medical negligence, as they are deprived of the tools for personal hygiene and sterilisation. What is especially noteworthy is that prisons have suspended visits since 15 March for an indefinite period: this in light of the frequency of reports from inside the prisons of coronavirus cases amongst the prisoners. These prisoners are not only unable to implement social distancing, but their conditions are aggravated by the severity of overcrowding. The percentage of overcrowding in prisons is 160 percent, and 300 percent in police departments.
The military dictatorship that governs us is preparing a catastrophic humanitarian crisis inside Egyptian prisons, exposing 200,000 people crammed together to the risk of infection.
- All political prisoners to be released immediately!
- Older prisoners and those with chronic diseases must be released!
- Test for the virus in prison!
- Prisoners who show symptoms must be given the necessary medical care in unarmed civilian hospitals!
- Sterilization and protection devices must be provided to prisoners!
The next few months will be full of events, many of which will be tragic. We are moving at a fast pace towards a disaster whose proportions no one can predict in detail.
The military dictatorship is seeking to benefit politically from the crisis. The capitalist class only cares about increasing its wealth. The masses are in a fragile situation where they can easily fall into unemployment and poverty. And workers (and their families) being exposed to deadly peril in order to increase the wealth of rich capitalists.
We must prepare for the upcoming events. A strike of the construction workers building the NAC (with the demands for sterilisation resources to prevent contagion, as well as paid leave for those who have symptoms) is only the embryo of what the months ahead carry. We will see a surge in the consciousness of the working class when they realise that they are being sacrificed by their employers and the state in order to increase their wealth.
The capitalist system is incapable of solving the problems faced by society. Instead of finding a cure for the virus, it is making more people sick. Instead of helping people survive during the pandemic, it is pushing them into the deepest poverty and desperation.But all this, in turn, will not go unnoticed and will have an impact on the consciousness of the masses and the working class. The whole world, and Egypt at his heart, sits atop a barrel of gunpowder that could explode at any moment under the weight of successive, cumulative and all-encompassing social crises.
We must work to prepare for this moment. Only by organising our ranks, by studying the revolutionary theory of Marxism can we understand the causes of our misery and poverty, and find the prospect of salvation. Only through building a revolutionary organisation, which aims to eliminate the capitalist system, can we be ready to meet the coming events.
Our rallying cry is this: if the ruling class cannot afford our health, safety and general wellbeing, then we cannot afford them! It must be overthrown: its wealth – the banks, factories and big businesses – must be nationalised under the control of the working class and set to work for the benefit of all of society. That is the only way out of the barbarism we witness today.
Revolutionaries must prepare and organise themselves to be able to stand with the masses of the working class to organise and prepare for a momentous milestone: the demolition of the capitalist system.
- Build revolutionary cells in every school, university, neighbourhood and workplace!
- Down the ruling military dictatorship!
- Fall down the forces of repression of the masses (the police and the army)!
- Down with the capitalists’ government!
- There is no solution but the victory of the socialist revolution and the establishment of a workers' government!