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Will Egypt's military corner the coronavirus market?

The Egyptian military has begun manufacturing and selling protective masks, which are in short supply through pharmacies.

Amid the novel coronavirus outbreak in Egypt, the military took the lead in disinfecting state institutions to contain the spread of COVID-19. In addition, the Ministry of Military Production announced on March 24 that the military would begin manufacturing and selling medical masks across the country. Announcement of the army’s decision to sell medical supplies came at a time when retail pharmacies and other businesses and, therefore, individuals were finding it difficult or impossible to procure them.

Mohammed Othman, a pharmacy owner in Cairo, told Al-Monitor, “The crisis suddenly emerged. The quantities we had had started to run out quickly, and when we asked suppliers for more, they told us that there was a shortage.”

“The increase in the price of ventilators and medical tools by a rate that sometimes reached 300% was the result of a shortage in pharmacies, and when we asked suppliers about this shortage, no one had an answer,” Othman added. “A few days later, we started seeing the army selling supplies, and although this solved the crisis, it increased the pharmacies’ losses.” 

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian military has greatly increased its economic involvement and investment in the private sector, as Al-Monitor has previously reported. For example, last year it entered the tourism sector on the Red Sea, leading small businesses there to doubt their ability to survive. The military has also staked out markets in the food and construction industries, pharmaceuticals and car tire manufacturing.

A member of the Chamber of the Sale and Manufacture of Pharmaceutical and Medical Supplies in the Federation of Egyptian Industries confirmed the plight of businesses like Othman's.

“When the army started selling medical supplies, it increased the losses incurred by pharmacies, private companies and factories that manufacture such products,” he told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The army is selling these products at low prices, and it is impossible for private companies to compete with the prices of the army, which is why citizens are opting to buy from military outlets.”

The army has deployed large, service vehicles to public spaces across Cairo and in several governorates to sell supplies from what are essentially “mobile stores.” A military-made mask costs up to 12 Egyptian pounds (less than $1), while a mask sold at a pharmacy goes for 70 Egyptian pounds ($4.5) because of the supply shortage. 

“The military is constantly joining various industries, and this will lead to more [private-sector] losses,” the source reiterated. “Under the current circumstances of the coronavirus, one cannot huff and puff in public, but we hope an end is put to the losses incurred, and we hope the army stops selling such products.”

Parliamentary deputy Khaled Mesbah, a member of the Daam Masr (Support Egypt) Coalition, which strongly backs Sisi, dismissed concerns about the military's actions.

“The army’s attempts to solve the problems facing the civil sector do not constitute a problem, especially in light of the real coronavirus crisis threatening the lives of Egyptians,” Mesbah told Al-Monitor. “I do not think it is normal to discuss profits and losses in light of the current crisis. We must all join hands to provide the necessary services citizens need and help save their lives and ensure their safety. We should commend the army’s role in such circumstances.”

The army had announced on March 17 on Facebook, “The Chemical Warfare Department has started sterilizing and disinfecting public universities, official institutions and administrative buildings of ministries and state agencies.”

According to the statement, the operation would “target universities, schools and some facilities frequented by large numbers of citizens. The plan starts with the disinfection of administrative areas, internal passages, classrooms, amphitheaters and laboratories of the Ain Shams and Al-Azhar Universities.” The army was also dispatched to Cairo University to disinfect facilities, hallways, walkways and labs.

In a video posted March 15 on Facebook, an army spokesman announced that the military had been stockpiling food reserves to distribute to the public in case of emergency, asserting that a single reserve unit could feed 20,000 people for 30 days. It was also reported that the military has the ability to conduct PCR testing to detect the novel coronavirus. It was unclear how the army secured the tests and equipment.

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