At the end of last month, the Egyptian armed forces announced the “latest Egyptian scientific and research breakthrough for the sake of humanity.” They unveiled two devices, in fact. One (which resembles a staple gun with an antenna attached to it) they said can detect Hepatitis C and AIDS in patients, at a distance of up to 500 meters -- the rod jerks in the direction of an infected person. The other device can purify a patient’s blood of the diseases. The technology for both has something to do with electromagnetic waves. Scientists and journalists immediately called into question the science on which these devices are based.
Egypt has quite low rates of AIDS but the highest incidence of Hepatitis C in the world (due to a botched bilharzia inoculation campaign in the 1980s, in which needles were not properly sterilized). The disease affects an estimated 15% of the population. There are hundreds of thousands of new cases every year.
At the event announcing the invention -- with Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah El Sisi and interim prime minister Adly Mansour sitting in the front row -- an army officer announced the country had “vanquished” the diseases and promised the new cure would be available in military hospitals starting June 30. In a 14-minute documentary broadcast on state TV, a doctor tells a patient: “You had AIDS, but now it’s gone.”
General Ibrahim Abdel Atti , the seeming inventor of the devices (although when, where and how they were developed remains murky) has turned out to be quite a character. He said he had been offered $2 billion to sell his treatment but declined when the buyers refused to specify that it was the work of “an Arab Muslim scientist;” he also said he had been kidnapped by the Egyptian intelligence services (he seemed to take this as a compliment). He acquired instant fame by explaining the way his device supposedly cleans the blood of the patient of disease and turns it into nutrients, by saying it is as if “I take AIDS from the patient, and give him back a kofta (ground meat) skewer.”
The incident has been labelled Kofta-Gate on the Egyptian web. Egyptian newspapers have dug into Abdel Atti’s past. His military title turns out to be a recent honorific. His speciality is in alternative medicine. Two clinics he ran were closed by the authorities; several of his past patients have accused him of chicanery; and he has been prosecuted for impersonating a doctor. This has not prevented many from rushing to his defense, saying doubts cast on his work are part of a conspiracy by Western pharmaceutical companies. (The army has said it will not share its secret cure with the West).
One of the president’s science advisors, Essam Haggy -- a young Egyptian currently working at NASA -- has called the announcement a scandal.
The army has not responded to the skepticism surrounding its invention or to the allegations against Abdel Atti -- let alone to the question of how someone with his background could have ended up in a senior scientific positions in the army.
The announcement, which was clearly intended to reflect positively on the army and on General El Sisi (who is still predicted to announce his presidential run any day now) has had the opposite effect, making the institution look delusional and inept. It is truly terrifying to think that this is the level of scientific knowledge, critical thinking and political judgment in those running the country. Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef has promised to bring the issue up on every segment of his satirical news show until there is an official response that proves the authorities aren't the ones "kidding around."
Egyptian commentators have drawn parallels between Kofta-Gate and the fanciful announcements, back in the 1960s, that Egypt had built the first Arab-made airplane and developed missiles that could reach the moon. Others have noted that Egypt joins a long list of African countries whose leaders have at one point or another -- often with devastating effect on public health-- claimed to have a “cure” for AIDS.