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Egypt arrests activists including Ahdaf Soueif over coronavirus protest | World news

Egyptian security forces arrested the Booker-shortlisted novelist Ahdaf Soueif and three other women after they staged a protest demanding the release of prisoners over fears of a coronavirus outbreak in the country’s overcrowded jails.

Soueif, her sister Laila Soueif, the activist Mona Seif and Rabab El-Mahdi, a political science professor, held a small demonstration in central Cairo on Wednesday afternoon.

“We are in front of the cabinet, asking for the state to take serious steps regarding corona in prisons. As we know, at any time Egypt’s prisons are clusters for disease,” Mona said in a Facebook live video, according to Ahdaf Soueif’s son, Omar Robert Hamilton.

Three of the group are relatives of one of Egypt’s most prominent bloggers and activists, Alaa Abd El Fattah, who was imprisoned last September after rare, small-scale protests erupted demanding the toppling of the president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

What is Covid-19?

It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals, and was first encountered in November 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

What are the symptoms this coronavirus causes?

The virus can cause pneumonia-like symptoms. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties.

In the UK, the National Heath Service has defined the symptoms as:

  • a high temperature – you feel hot to touch on your chest or back
  • a new continuous cough – this means you’ve started coughing repeatedly

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

Medical advice varies around the world – with many countries imposing travel bans and lockdowns to try and prevent the spread of the virus. In many place people are being told to stay at home rather than visit a doctor of hospital in person. Check with your local authorities.

In the UK, NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days. If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

Yes. China’s national health commission confirmed human-to-human transmission in January.

How many people have been affected?

As of 18 March, more than 195,000 people have been infected in more than 80 countries, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

There have been over 7,950 deaths globally. Just over 3,000 of those deaths have occurred in mainland China. 81,000 people have recorded as recovering from the coronavirus.

There have been increasing concerns among supporters of Abd El Fattah and his family about conditions in Egyptian prisons, where human rights groups have repeatedly warned about overcrowding and lack of hygiene.

Seif, El Fattah’s sister, had been active on social media calling for prisoners to be released, and on Tuesday, Laila Soueif, his mother, wrote to Egypt’s attorney general urging him to free prisoners.

“The only way to prevent detention centres becoming hubs for spreading the pandemic and endangering the entire population of the country is to release as many prisoners as possible,” she wrote.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, jails have been sealed off, fuelling concerns about conditions inside, Hamilton added.

“Prisons have been shut off for two weeks now. Families have had no contact at all and they are increasingly nervous,” he said on Twitter. Egypt so far has 196 confirmed cases of coronavirus and six deaths, but there are fears the virus could have spread further.

Human Rights Watch also said this week that Egypt could “spare disaster” if it organised conditional releases from jails “notorious for being overcrowded, dirty and unhygienic”. It called on Sisi to “put reason before punishment”.

The four women face possible charges of unlawful protest, illegal assembly and obstructing traffic, the independent, and were taken for questioning by prosecutors, the Mada Masr news site reported.

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