CAIRO — Egypt’s leaders have lately managed to make themselves punchlines in the national conversation. First, police arrested the so-called “spy stork,” a bird suspected of being a foreign agent. Then the authorities questioned a cell phone service company about puppets in one of its commercials that were accused of transmitting secret codes to a banned political group.
But even with a history of outlandish promises, the current military-backed government’s latest claim has prompted rage and disappointment, especially from prominent satirist Bassem Youssef, known as Egypt’s John Stewart: Military officials say they have somehow managed to cure AIDS and hepatitis C.
Famous for his punchy wit and biting political criticism, Youssef returned to the screen in early February after his show was canceled for openly mocking Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is widely assumed to be considering a presidential bid. But back on the air on a different channel, Youssef yet again launched into diatribes against the Egyptian government and its security forces.
“I’m not going to talk about the difference between a theory and an actual cure that has been created and tested,” Youssef, a former cardiac surgeon, said on his show Friday. “I’m only going to talk about the promise and what it means to promise people something.”
Youssef then played a series of military clips boasting inventions that would eradicate deadly viruses by June 30th, the same date millions of Egyptians poured into the streets last summer calling for the ouster of controversial Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
The announcement of the medical inventions comes at a critical time for the Egyptian military, as it prepares for presidential elections that are supposedly around the corner. It has recently faced accusations of incompetence after it refused to send helicopters to rescue a group of Egyptian hikers, and after a slew of high-ranking Egyptian officials resigned from the interim government. While some Egyptians — confident in Sissi and his army — wholeheartedly believe in the medical miracle, the announcement has made the country a laughing stock among many people, both in Egypt and abroad.
“It’s one thing for bloggers, commentators, and satirists to make fun of political events,” Brookings Institution’s Egypt analyst H.A. Hellyer said in a recent op-ed in Al Arabiya. “Because, as the aforementioned satirist reminded viewers on his last episode, everyone knows they’re just making fun of things. When certain entities, however, via national state television … declare that cures for AIDS and hepatitis C have been found, it’s not funny at all.”
Dr. Essam Heggy, a scientific adviser for interim President Adly Mansour, called the army’s medical claims a “scientific scandal for Egypt.”
Prominent Egyptian blogger Zeinobia applauded Youssef’s show, saying he was “the only doctor who had the guts to speak about this matter publicly with no fear.”
While Egypt is not known for a high HIV/AIDs rate — with 2012 statistics from the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS placing the number of HIV-infected Egyptians at 6,500 — the country suffers from one of the highest rates of hepatitis C in the world. According to the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in ten Egyptians have hepatitis C.
Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Abdel-Atti, who claims he invented the device, explained how it works at a press conference last week. “I take AIDS from the patient and nourish the patient on the AIDS by giving him a skewer of AIDS kofta,” he said, referring to a meat dish commonly eaten in Egypt.
On Twitter, hundreds of people began using the hashtag #KoftaGate, poking fun at the army’s “kofta cure.”
Following Youssef’s show, Atti reportedly told the Egyptian media outlet Youm7 that he would be seeking legal action against the comedian in a military court. Atti maintains that his device is fool-proof, curing 100 percent of people with AIDS who use his machine and 95 percent of those with hepatitis C.
“If this promise that was made by the strongest institution in Egypt does not come true by June 30,” Youssef said gravely on Friday,” then all the doctors and all the media people who supported them should face trial.”