Egyptians blame film festival as virus rates rise

As a small number of attendees of the El-Gouna Film Festival report coming down with COVID-19, many Egyptians demanded that organizers Naguib and Samih Sawiris be held accountable.

al-monitor Egyptian actress Basma Hassan poses prior to walking the red carpet for the screening of the film "Mica", on the fourth day of the El-Gouna Film Festival in El-Gouna, Egypt, on Oct. 26, 2020. Photo by AMMAR ABD RABBO/El Gouna Film Festival/AFP via Getty Images.

Topics covered

egyptian film, covid-19, coronavirus, film festivals, film festival

Nov 21, 2020

CAIRO — Nine Egyptian artists have recovered from the novel coronavirus as of Nov. 15 after having contracted it during the El-Gouna Film Festival, held in the city of el-Gouna on the Red Sea coast from Oct. 23-31.

Social media users accused the producers, brothers Naguib and Samih Sawiris and other business people, of risking a second wave of the virus for the sake of profit and fame.

From Nov. 3 to Nov. 6, 10 attendees of the festival announced that they tested positive: actors Nashwa Mustafa, Basma, Zainab Gharib, Ola Rushdie, Ahmed Daoud, Asir Yassin and Salma Abu Deif, designer Reem al-Adl, producer Mohammad al-Adl and rapper Ahmed Ali, aka Wegz.

Egyptian journalist Mohamed Mansour wrote on Facebook Nov. 5 that the Sawiris family was responsible for the outbreak of the coronavirus in el-Gouna and must be held accountable. He said that the wave will not only affect businessmen and artists who can afford treatment, but hurt many other people who do not have the same resources, such as the drivers and workers who were in contact with the artists during the festival and others infected by attendees.

According to the Health Ministry, on Oct. 22, one day ahead of the festival, 178 new cases of the virus were recorded, and by Nov. 8, 239 cases were registered, the highest in more than three months and a 35% increase across the country.

Some Twitter users echoed that opinion and called for holding the Sawiris accountable with the Arabic hashtag for #CoronaFestival. They warned that the festival heralds the spread of the virus across Egypt.

London-based Egyptian critic Amir al-Emari wrote privately on Facebook Nov. 6 that millions of Egyptian pounds were spent on the festival's opening ceremony, but precautionary measures were not respected. He said that festival director Intishal al-Tamimi and the actress known as Bushra, a co-founder, had been informed of the procedures that must be followed. According to Emari, during the Venice Festival, where he was also present, the two had told him that they would inform the Red Sea governor about these measures and coordinate on their implementation.

Emari wondered if Tamimi and Bushra had failed to convince the Sawiris brothers of the necessity of implementing such measures and whether the state and the governor offered any help.

The el-Gouna International Film Festival was established in 2017 by the Sawiris brothers, who own el-Gouna Tourist Resort. Their goal was to promote the resort, which has become the most popular and one of the most expensive in Egypt since foreign tourists and wealthy Egyptians started to frequent it as the festival's popularity grew.

A.H., a doctor near El-Gouna, told Al-Monitor that the numbers did not significantly increase in the Red Sea governorate after the festival, though he did say it was possible that people contracted the virus without reporting their illnesses.

“When symptoms are mild, many Egyptians prefer not to go to the hospital, especially considering that the home treatment protocol for mild symptoms is known and available in pharmacies, so they are not officially counted,” he added.

The festival’s director told Al-Monitor that reports about the spread of the virus at the festival and in el-Gouna have been “blown out of proportion.” Tamimi pointed out that the number of cases amounts to less than 1% of the total number of invitees, journalists and workers in the festival. He said that the festival adhered to all precautionary measures, suggesting that a limited number of cases most likely occurred during private parties or informal gatherings on the sidelines of the festival. Neither the festival nor the Sawiris brothers are to blame for such cases, he said.

Out of more than 1,500 invitees, 280 journalists and 135 workers at the festival, only 10 artists, one worker and one journalist tested positive for the virus. However, the public anger went beyond the festival and its founders.

Costume designer Reem Al-Adl, an attendee who wound up infected, told Al-Monitor that the organizers were not careless. She said, "The measures were taken and supervised by the Ministry of Health, whose spokesman attended the festival," adding, "Not all the events or concerts that were held in el-Gouna during the festivals days were the responsibility of the organizers of the festival, and those events can be the source of infection if they weren't adhering to the precautionary measures.

Khaled Megahed, a spokesman for the Egyptian Ministry of Health who attended the closing ceremony, praised the organizers and staff for their adherence to precautionary measures in an Oct. 30 press statement. 

Many Twitter users criticized Egyptian business people for mobilizing voters by bribing them. A large number of businessmen ran in the recent parliamentary elections, including such notables as Muhammad Abu al-Enein, Sherif al-Jabali, Abeer Essam and Hala Abu al-Saad. They also cited the August elections, which featured a number of business people such as Ahmed Abu Hashima, Ahmed Sabour and Hani al-Assal.

Saad Makki, undersecretary of the Health Ministry, told Al-Monitor that the Egyptian legislative elections are being conducted under the supervision of medical teams from the Health Ministry to ensure that all precautionary measures such as masks, sanitation and social distancing are followed.

He said that no violations have been reported among the voters or those supervising the elections, including the police, military forces and election judges. He stressed that no infections have been reported among any of them.

Meanwhile, Tharwat Ali, a professor of political sociology at Mansoura University, told Al-Monitor that the legislative elections are unlikely to cause a surge in cases. The low turnout, he said, suggest that not many voters could have been paid to participate.

Ali said that the public anger is due to stereotypes that say business people do not care about the lives of citizens and only think of profits or power. He explained that this image is a remnant of the regime of former President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak, under whom affiliates often used their positions to advance their personal interests.

The National Elections Commission announced Nov. 1 that the turnout in the first round of the parliamentary elections was only 28%. Turnout in the Senate elections was even lower at 14%, according to a statement by the same commission in August.

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