North Africa, West Asia

The Arab world between a formidable virus and a repressive state

What does the coronavirus pandemic spell for democracy in the Arab world?

Layla Saleh Larbi Sadiki
6 April 2020
Man shows an exit permit to a Tunisian police robot which monitors the enforcement of the lockdown aiming to curb the spread of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak in Tunisia.
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Photo by Khaled Nasraoui/dpa/PA Images. All rights reserved

How is the coronavirus pandemic forcing a rethinking of the configurations of power in the Arab world? And how could this impact on the quest for democratic politics in the region?

The global coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of abating, with over 1,100,000 cases and 62,000 deaths reported by WHO worldwide, upward of 12,500 are in Arab countries ,as of April 5. These numbers are likely underestimations that will increase as testing becomes more widespread. The Arab crescendo of infections is still unfolding, yet to peak. Three populous Arab states (Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco) seem to be understated. In Saudi Arabia, another country with a large population, the low number (2370) may reflect slow testing protocols; it is not clear whether it includes the Eastern Province Al-Sharqiyyah. One can expect these numbers to double or treble rather quickly. Some states are in full or partial war (Libya, Syria, Yemen). Neither adequate testing nor resulting numbers are likely to be at hand, let alone accurate.

We discover anew the ubiquity of international power players that shape and dictate policy. The Arab world has long suffered from external directives. The IMF and its 1980s structural adjustment gave way to the austerity-inducing Deauville loans of 2011.

Now it is the WHO. Whatever the pandemic – poverty, underdevelopment, radicalization, and now, coronavirus – western-led organizations seem to always have an axe to grind in the region. These acronyms of global power and control, from the IMF to the G8 to the UNDP to WHO, give the impression of lightness. In reality, their international assistance and aid heralds top-down, imperious, and intrusive edicts.

Arab states and societies are the underdogs of ‘WHO-ever’ is authorized to manage their latest crises. This is not to say that the WHO’s reign is ‘bad’ or ‘good’. Rather, this is more of a reflection on governance, state-society relations, and the distance from democracy that defines Arab states, Tunisia’s relatively successful transition included.

Rethinking Arab state ‘strength’

The postcolonial Arab states have long given the impression of control, influence, and penetration of society. As COVID-19 strikes, the same (mostly authoritarian) state is denuded. It finds itself limited in logistical capacity, infrastructure, expertise, and even decision-making protocols. Despite reported WHO praise for containing the virus, Tunisia has only 200 working hospital beds. This is no surprise, given the wider under-developed health sector across Arab states as noted in the 2016 UNDP Human Development Report. With an average of 1.5 hospital beds per 1000 people in 2005, Arab states on average lagged behind developing countries in East Asia and the Pacific (2.1), let alone developing countries in Central Asia and Europe (7.4). This is no small matter. Higher national healthcare capacity may be linked to a lower COVID-19 fatality rate, as the German example appears to suggest.

With an average of 1.5 hospital beds per 1000 people in 2005, Arab states on average lagged behind developing countries in East Asia and the Pacific

Public health points to the weakness, not strength, of Arab states. On full display instead, is the Weberian apparatus, obsessed with monopolizing coercion. It reifies the Arab state: 3 p.m. curfews in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, army helicopters circling overhead in Lebanon, arrests for spreading ‘fake news’ in Morocco, and 1600 arrested in Jordan for violating a stringent lockdown whose military has since sealed off the city of Irbid, one of the cities home to Jordan’s popular mobilization (al-hirak al-sha’bi).

Institutions of global governance seem to reinforce this state-ness as force. Northwest Syria, with its millions displaced by Assad and Russian bombing, is “not a country,” according to WHO spokesperson. The organization prioritizes government agencies as recipients of medical aid including test kits. Even when thousands may die in crowded refugee camps where many lack clean water.

Arab states are thus at the mercy of world medical experts, medical tests, and medical supplies. COVID-19 accosts human lives and national economies.

It is time for Arab political leaders to realize that state-building involves more than Dubai skyscrapers, US arms deals, or EU trade agreements. It requires developing the infrastructure tools, and socio-political environment conducive to knowledge production: medical expertise, public health know-how, crisis management ingenuity, and global economic proficiency.

A perfunctory search on international resources, viruses, and epidemiology produces limited results pointing to Arab expertise. Just as the gurus of global finance, from Christine Lagarde (European Central Bank) to Raghuram Rajan, (Bank for International Settlements), to Zhu Min, (formerly IMF), feature few if any Arab names.

It is time for Arab political leaders to realize that state-building involves more than Dubai skyscrapers, US arms deals, or EU trade agreements

Which facility in the region is up to the task of standing up to COVID-19? None. Arab research and development remains wanting. It has not produced experts, institutions, research hospitals and laboratories, or pharmaceutical companies in the running to produce a vaccine, for instance. This begs the question: who decides what research is promoted, what projects are funded? When medical research has been emphasized in the region, it seems to have been pernicious. We all recall Saddam’s biological weapons.

Enter the WHO, with its regional and country representatives, its medical kits, its warnings and guidelines and multi-lingual messaging. Its unilinear directives, from hand-washing to social distancing, are presented as a one-size-fits all approach. But contexts differ. Many in poor countries may not have clean water, let alone hand sanitizer or the luxury to avoid crowds.

Shrinking democratic space

The corona pandemic seems to facilitate the dismantling of elements of democracy. Drastic measures abound: executive overreach (even in Tunisia), ad-hoc coronavirus task-forces, ‘public [army] mobilization’, states of emergency, lockdowns, and arrests are measures on full display in varying degrees across the Arab geography. The state-enforced ‘self-quarantine’ means citizens and residents of Arab states are now prisoners in their own homes.

The corona pandemic seems to facilitate the dismantling of elements of democracy

As they struggle to preempt or treat the corona menace, Arab states seem to take back all the ‘space’ wrested from them by mobilized publics during the ‘Arab Spring’: beaches and parks, public squares, even mosques. As if corona is conspiring against the state, lurking around every street corner. For the first time ever, public prayers have been suspended in the mosques in Mecca and Medina. Corona has prompted dictators to publicly band together, like the UAE’s Muhammad bin Zayed’s promise of ‘humanitarian solidarity’ to Syria’s Assad. This new world of lockdowns is anti-movement, anti-activism, anti-assembly. The virus and its incubation have been securitized. But this is a worrying trend, as war-making works against democracy and inclusiveness. ‘Counter-corona’ may be the new ‘counter-terrorism.’ It underwrites the return of the (authoritarian) state. Draconian measures will only increase—to fight the coronavirus, of course!

This new world of lockdowns is anti-movement, anti-activism, anti-assembly

It will be left to the creativity of dissenting publics across the Arab geography to invent new modes of resistance to a tightening authoritarian grip on power. It is not too far-fetched to expect that people across the Arab world can and will exhibit steadfastness, solidarity, and altruism. Tunisian factory workers, for instance, have self-quarantined, working round the clock to fashion masks for local doctors facing a shortage. In the Arab world, WHO knows what? WHO oversees crisis management? WHO decides on matters of public interest, including health?

A lack of transparency and inf0rmation-sharing is common, as in Egypt’s likely underreporting of cases. Publics are left dependent on policy-makers’ briefings, or announcements by officials leading emergency task forces. Daily, they hear or read of new measures by decree. Expert and policymaker deliberations (including with the WHO) take place behind the scenes, not in the public purview. Arab states seem to be toeing the WHO line. In the absence of public health capacity to dispense tests, project the spread, choose prevention and treatment protocols, and offer adequate emergency treatment for patients, ‘rule by the experts’ prevails..

South of the South: compounded inequality

Coronavirus additionally highlights issues of national, regional, and global inequality. The global South comes in layers. The ‘South of the South’ includes remote and rural areas from Morocco to Egypt. It includes conflict hotspots from Libya and Syria to Yemen, refugees and the internally displaced are ‘least prepared’ and most vulnerable, as the WHO confirms. The Arab world’s marginalized will suffer most profoundly from COVID-19, sometimes in silence as the UN and great powers have proven incapable or unwilling to halt the grinding violence in the wake of the 2011 uprisings.

It will be left to the creativity of dissenting publics across the Arab geography to invent new modes of resistance to a tightening authoritarian grip on power

Global hierarchies also manifest in the dispensation of aid. The EU pledges 450 million Euros to Morocco. Italy promises 50 million euros to Tunisia. Turkey has reportedly sent test kits to the US. A recovering China has been delivering aid across the world. WHO is giving what to whom? We see hints of regional solidarity, as Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE send aid to Iran, and Qatar pledges $150 million to Gaza. Yet at this critical moment, Arab states are on the receiving end. They are not even in the running as the Germans, the Americans, and the Chinese as they race to develop treatments. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Israeli scientists may claim to be working on solutions. But no Arab state is even close.

Arab states seem to have invested in one type of (hard) power, of militaries and security forces. Perhaps today is the time for the region’s leaders to take stock. When confronting the coronavirus, all the armaments, military equipment, tanks, missiles, and jets accumulated in the Middle Eastern arms bazaar mean nothing at all. From the Gulf states to Morocco to Egypt: none of these shiny weapons will beat the coronavirus.

The coronavirus spells manifold socio-economic disaster and political uncertainty in the Arab world. This is no US-style ‘recession,’ with its $2 trillion stimulus rescue package. Rentier economies (namely the Gulf countries) with export capacity are best situated to bear the economic onslaught. Kuwait announced early in its lockdown that its Red Crescent Society would be delivering 30,000 meals to the needy. Saudi Arabia is now building 25 new hospitals. Still, the Riyadh-Moscow oil debacle may threaten their liquidity. The pandemic will force a rethinking of countries reliant on selling the ‘3 S-s’: sunshine, sea, and sand. Tourist economies (e.g. Morocco and Tunisia) will be hit hard as international travel screeches to a halt. The domino effect on other small industries will be keenly felt.

When confronting the coronavirus, all the armaments, military equipment, tanks, missiles, and jets accumulated in the Middle Eastern arms bazaar mean nothing at all

Tunisia: is democracy coronavirus’ first victim?

For Tunisia, the ‘Arab Spring’s’ only sustained democracy-in-the-making, unemployment portends instability. Reliance on currency reserves and foreign aid (with pending loan payments), means that it faces the WHO on one side and the IMF on the other. A toxic mix, as local pressure of the hungry, the sick, and the unemployed builds up.

The coronavirus crisis reveals not just people’s vulnerability, but also systemic weaknesses enshrined in the 2014 democratic constitution. A 3-headed pilloried presidency (President of the Republic, Prime Minister, and Speaker of Parliament) is a recipe for unclear domains of executive authority. An unknown president, Kais Saied, seems to be calling the shots. Most alarming has been the recent enactment of Article 70. By a vote of 178, with 2 abstentions and 17 opposed, Tunisia’s parliament more or less voted to emasculate itself. This new sweeping legislation grants Elyes Fakhfakh’s government—a five party coalition hammered out in the absence of a clear majority after the October 2019 elections—the power to “issue decree-laws of a legislative character” for sixty days, in order to contain the coronavirus pandemic. The powers handed over are expanded, covering finance, taxation, social affairs, civil rights and liberties, criminal law, public health, education etc…

There’s an irony to this. These measures are assigned to a head of government who came in last as a presidential candidate with a miserly 11,500 votes. By dint of the powers invested in him as of April 4, he becomes almost the most powerful man in Tunisia. This comes atop of existing armor such as the country’s state of emergency, criticized by international human rights groups and local civil society extended by President Kais Saied until April 29. The tafweedh (authorization), a clear democratic regression, came courtesy of Rached Ghannouchi, who gave a double endorsement, as party leader and one of the country’s three executives. This is despite him being a victim of similar laws in the past under Ben Ali.

Neighboring Mediterranean consolidated democracies, heavily inflicted with the coronavirus, did not go nearly this far in curtailing the powers of elected legislatures.

All this comes on the back of attempts by MPs to ‘gag’ society and roll back free speech. Public outcries prompted Tahya Tounis’s MP Mabrouk Kourshid to retract a bill criminalizing ‘fake news’ , for now.

Particularly in the absence of a Constitutional Court—a deferred but key democratic institution—these moves toward suspending democracy are particularly worrying.

Tunisian citizens and civil society should continue to pay heed, lest the coronavirus becomes a catch-all excuse for curbing civil freedoms and expanding executive power.

The coronavirus crisis reveals not just people’s vulnerability, but also systemic weaknesses

Coronavirus raises important moral conundrums. The impressive Chinese management of the crisis brings us back to the classic question of order vs. stability. How does social distancing courtesy of the coronavirus measure up to the (im)morality of forced ‘social distancing’ in the 2 million-populated Gaza Strip? What of the arms, money, and diplomacy poured into the ‘Responsibility to Protect’? Is the basic welfare of Arab publics, neglected by authoritarian regimes, bolstered by global capitalism and war-mongering, also a responsibility worth protecting?

For Tunisia, reliance on currency reserves and foreign aid (with pending loan payments), means that it faces the WHO on one side and the IMF on the other. A toxic mix, as local pressure of the hungry, the sick, and the unemployed builds up. Democracy must come with distributive justice. The 2011 revolutions called for freedom and dignity. Leveling the playing field through the vote will not be enough when public goods (e.g. healthcare) remain out of reach for so many. Arabs have known plagues before: the Justinian Plague, the Black Death, and the Spanish flu of 1918. In this globalized, connected world of ‘corona-ctivity’ in 2020, will Arabs suffer twice, at the (unseen) hands of a formidable virus, and the returning state? Neither health, nor freedom: for how long? Will we see more protest activity (physical or virtual) in the coming months? Only time will tell.

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

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Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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