February 26, 2014
Kareem Fahim and Mayy El Sheikh
CAIRO — At a news conference late last week, an Egyptian Army doctor confidently announced that the country’s military had developed a cure for the virus that causes AIDS, as well as hepatitis C, one of Egypt’s gravest public health threats.
The doctor, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Abdul Atti, said the cures were the result of 22 years of his own study. At some point, he added, military intelligence had taken on his research as a secret project.
Now it was being revealed to the world.
“Defeating the virus is a very easy process, but God grants wisdom to whoever he wants,” said the general, who boasted that the treatments had cured 100 percent of AIDS patients and more than 95 percent of hepatitis C cases.
An Army video played at the news conference showed the devices used in the treatments at work. Some patients were hooked up to boxlike machines. Others were monitored by doctors holding what looked like a hand exerciser attached to an antenna that swiveled, following the patients as they walked.
Independent experts were skeptical about the inventions and treatments. In recent days, as news of the discovery spread, it seemed easy to dismiss as the latest embarrassment imposed on Egyptians by their leadership, like the episode a few months ago, when the authorities opened an investigation into a puppet accused of aiding terrorists.
There was fatigue at another round of absurdity.
“I was an analyst,” H. A. Hellyer, an Egypt expert with the Brookings Institution, wrote on Twitter. “And then I had to explain terrorist puppets, spy storks and AIDS cures in koftas,” he wrote, referring to part of the Army treatment that somehow involved ground meat.
This was potentially more damaging, though, to public health as well as the reputations of Egyptian scientists and doctors; Egypt reportedly has the highest prevalence of hepatitis C, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. In the reactions to the announcement, there was anger at what some saw as political opportunism by the military — the video opened with heroic scenes of soldiers at war — as well as a familiar disregard.
This week, Egyptians had other reasons to feel ignored. On Monday, without warning or explanation, the prime minister announced that the government was resigning.
By Wednesday, a new prime minister had been named, leading a government that was beginning to look very much like the old one. As Egyptians were left to ponder the reasons for the change, one political party leader said the public was being treated like a child.
In the news conference, General Abdul Atti and other officials insisted that the research was sound, saying it had been reviewed by top academics. Clinical trials had yielded “spectacular results,” a health ministry official said, and plans were in place to start producing more devices.
Some of the backlash came from unexpected quarters. Dr. Essam Heggy, a planetary scientist and an adviser to Egypt’s interim president, told a newspaper that it was a “scandal for Egypt” that “hurts the image of scientists and science” in the country.
“The real achievement is to realize our problems and resolve them together,” he wrote on Facebook, “not to invent illusionary solutions to real problems.”
Others complained that General Abdul Atti’s announcement, which praised the army, seemed connected to politics and the expected presidential candidacy of Egypt’s military chief, Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, who was sitting in the audience when the presentation was made.
Dr. Gamal el-Ebaidy, a prominent surgeon and hepatologist, said he doubted the reported discoveries and was concerned that they might have been announced for “the sake of the elections.”
“Medicine has nothing to do with politics,” he said.