Authoritarianism and the Middle East in the Time of COVID-19

All over the world, the novel coronavirus outbreak is challenging the ability of governments to provide health care and other basic services, stressing some societies to the breaking point and bringing out the best in others. It is also changing politics as usual. In the United States, some Democratic Party primary elections have been postponed. A nationally televised debate between the two remaining contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, was conducted without a studio audience; it also featured the two candidates using elbow bumps instead of handshakes to enforce, and model, “social distancing.” The Trump Administration’s fumbling response has confused the American public and cast new doubt on the upcoming presidential race, which many thought—until a few short weeks ago—President Donald Trump was sure to win.

The pandemic has upended politics as usual in many other parts of the world, too. Shutdowns of public spaces, religious sites, and large gatherings have tested the ability of governments to maintain order and a simulacrum of normal life.

The countries of the Middle East are facing challenges similar to those seen in the rest of the world. Several are taking certain cues from China and have used the developing crisis as an excuse to crack down on dissent and reinforce authoritarian norms. It is up to democratic societies to lay down red lines on erosion of liberty and human rights while encouraging a communal response to this global disaster.

The countries of the Middle East are facing challenges similar to those seen in the rest of the world. Several are taking certain cues from China and have used the developing crisis as an excuse to crack down on dissent.

The China Syndrome

The government of China, where the novel coronavirus originated, set the standard for the authoritarian response system. Initial reports of the seriousness of the virus were downplayed; the doctor who heroically warned the world of the disease’s severity was disciplined by the authorities before dying of COVID-19 himself. In a tit-for-tat infowar with the United States, the Chinese government began casting blame and stoking conspiracy theories, including the idea that the United States was responsible for originating and spreading the virus. Elements of this pattern have been readily adopted by some Middle Eastern governments over the past month, with variations specific to each country’s circumstances.

Middle Eastern Cascade in Coronavirus Crackdowns: Some Examples

Algeria. The Algerian government promptly turned the virus to its own political ends. Authorities demanded that protesters, who have been in the streets daily for more than a year calling for sweeping change in the system of government, to “reduce the tendency to make demands” and end the daily demonstrations that will “only aggravate the current situation more.” True to its word, the Algerian government has continued to jail protesters at an alarming rate.

Egypt. Cairo turned to China early on for tips on how to handle the crisis, primarily, it seems, from a political standpoint. Egypt’s health minister Hala Zayed flew to Beijing on March 2 to “exchange expertise” and express “solidarity” with Chinese officials and praise Beijing’s efforts to contain the crisis. At a Chinese-Egyptian conference in Cairo three days later, Hassan Ragab, head of the Confucius Institute at Egypt’s Suez Canal University, claimed China had “tackled the ordeal with transparency and credibility,” while other speakers heaped praise on China’s role in the world.

Cairo soon reverted to a familiar ploy in the regime’s playbook, launching another crackdown on foreign reporters who had written accurately about the coronavirus outbreak there. On March 17, the Egyptian State Information Service (SIS) pulled the credentials of the correspondent from the UK newspaper The Guardian and issued a warning to The New York Times resident journalist for having reported higher numbers of infections than officially estimated (19,300 vs. 126 at the time, according to the Canadian study the reporters cited). The SIS accused the Guardian reporter of “repeated intentional defamation” of Egypt and lambasted alleged “professional misconduct” by the New York Times correspondent. Cairo has needed no particular excuse to crack down: its severe anti-demonstration laws and repression of press freedoms have provided the regime ample powers to deny free expression of many kinds. But the novel coronavirus has furnished yet another justification to control information as well as the Egyptian people.

The novel coronavirus has furnished yet another justification to control information as well as the Egyptian people.

For example, at least seven persons have been arrested for spreading false information and rumors about the virus. Accusations against them include “claiming far from the truth that [the coronavirus] spread widely in Egypt, [and] the state’s inability to confront it,” as well as “sarcasm on the measures the state is taking to combat the virus with the aim of raising public angry opinion.” Egypt’s Minister of Endowments (waqf) openly accused the Muslim Brotherhood of attempting to spread the virus among the military, police, judiciary, and members of the state media. This provoked widespread mockery and accusations that Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s regime was simply creating a diversion from its numerous failures of governance. Nevertheless, the accusation furnished another excuse for the government’s continued crackdowns on accused or suspected members of the organization as well as for the ongoing detention without charges of tens of thousands of the group’s members. Appeals by international human rights activists for the release of Egyptian prisoners to halt the spread of COVID-19 among prison populations—already held under inhumane conditions—have so far been ignored.

News of Egypt’s own complicity in the spread of the virus was also suppressed, including the fact that certain Nile cruise ships, some of whose crews and passengers had been exposed to the coronavirus, were still allowed to set sail for more than a month after the first infection was reported, completing at least four more voyages before international attention forced a halt. A group led by exiled former presidential candidate Ayman Nour issued a statement accusing the government of imposing “a blackout on the reality of the spread of coronavirus” in the country.

Iran. The hardest-hit country in the Middle East, Iran has more than 50,000 cases of infection and over 3,100 deaths as of April 2. The regime has responded with conspiracy theories and, in a strategy reminiscent of President Donald Trump’s, indicated restrictions on economic activity and social distancing would be reduced within weeks. President Hassan Rouhani blamed economic difficulties on “counter-revolutionaries.” In addition, the regime has recently gone on a propaganda counteroffensive, accusing the United States of spreading the coronavirus as a specially designed “ethnic weapon” aimed at targeting Iranians. As in Egypt, the regime has stoked such outlandish theories in order to draw attention away from its own shortcomings, not only in dealing with the virus itself but also its unsuccessful efforts to address the many governmental failings that led to massive protests in late 2019 and again in January 2020, after the mistaken shootdown of a passenger plane.

Iraq. A surprising outlier, Iraq is witnessing more people joining protests against the government each day. Chants in public squares have linked the virus with official corruption: “Listen to us Corona, come and visit the thieves who stole our wealth, come and take revenge from [those] who stole our dreams.…” Populist firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, originally a supporter of the protests until he was apparently suborned by the Iranian government, tried to use the viral outbreak to shut down protests, to no particular effect. Iraqi government efforts to do the same have failed so far. This could change as perceptions of COVID-19 evolve and protesters come under greater pressure from the government to stay home.

Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial has been postponed at least until May due to his government’s decision to effectively shut down the courts, citing coronavirus concerns. (By April 2, Israel had reported 6,360 cases of infection and 33 deaths.) Netanyahu also called on Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz to join him in a government of “national emergency” because of the pandemic, the main intent of which, apparently, was to prevent Gantz from forming a coalition with the Israeli Arabs’ Joint List, whom Netanyahu has slurred as “supporters of terrorism.” In a surprise course reversal, Gantz agreed, which allows Netanyahu to remain as prime minister for 18 months, with Gantz as foreign minister, before Gantz takes over the premiership himself in 2021. Gantz was elected with the Likud Party’s support as speaker of the Knesset. Netanyahu has also called for the use of special surveillance tools to track victims of the viral outbreak, alarming civil rights supporters and political opponents of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

Lebanon. Using the threat of QOVID-19 as excuse, Lebanon’s security services torched tents manned by protesters in Beirut. The government of Hassan Diab––now practically dominated by Hezbollah and its allies––had declared a state of emergency on March 15 to facilitate the issuing of official decrees governing restrictions on movement and shutdowns of public spaces.

Morocco. The country has halted public gatherings under a state of emergency decree issued on March 20, which many protested due to its political implications. (The government’s action has many supporters too.) The emergency declaration is scheduled to last until April 20.

While Saudi Arabia’s handling of the emergency has been widely praised as a model of effective response, measures such as these, if expanded and extended (perhaps for months or years), could deepen the kingdom’s already considerable architecture of repression.

Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has suspended its court system, allegedly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but it has the additional effect of delaying trials of activists such as women’s rights advocate Loujain al-Hathloul, who was due in court March 11. While Saudi Arabia’s handling of the emergency has been widely praised as a model of effective response, measures such as these, if expanded and extended (perhaps for months or years), could deepen the kingdom’s already considerable architecture of repression. Given Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s concurrent campaign to consolidate his power within the Saudi royal family, the COVID-19 crisis could provide enough of an excuse for completely shutting down due process, freedom of expression, criticism of the government, and accelerated arrests of opponents.

Long Term Effects … and Maybe Some Solutions

Overall, however, the coronavirus pandemic has helped to drive down political protest by keeping many off the streets. It has also provided talking points for repressive governments in their quest to delegitimize dissent and keep it out of the marketplace of ideas. Authoritarian governments may be sorely tempted to leave in place draconian political measures they imposed to confront the coronavirus, deepening their hold on political power under the guise of safeguarding public health and safety. It should not be forgotten that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak instituted a state of emergency that lasted 31 years before being lifted briefly in 2012; it has since been extended repeatedly under the Sisi government to “fight terrorism.”

Autocrats are also likely to tout their ability to confront the crisis as proof of the superiority of their government model, as Saudi Arabia is implicitly doing today, just as China has pointed to its ability to lock down its citizens, force quick construction of medical facilities, and bend an entire society to its will in an effort to defeat the disease. At the same time, authoritarian strategies in this instance also expose the flaws of dictatorial regimes. An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Walter Russell Mead, which highlighted the problems of China’s response, got three of the paper’s journalists thrown out of the country in February, perhaps inspiring Egypt’s actions against The Guardian and The New York Times in March.

Such self-defeating moves only served to highlight the Chinese government’s flaws, just as they drew international attention to the Egyptian government’s failings. These incidents also underscored the fact that the authoritarian response model—which prizes secrecy and tight top-down government authorities to keep control of the narrative and not lose it to activists and political opponents—may actually hamper effective action to end this and similar crises. Thus, it may prove to be a poisoned chalice, once the immediate threat of the virus passes, by having cast a spotlight on government failures and inadequacy. Governments in the Middle East may very well be the next to sweat under the hot lights of public attention as the flaws of their COVID-19 response strategies, including the inadequacies of their crumbling health care systems in many cases, are exposed.

It is important to note that none of these countries are to blame for the crisis now facing them, and every country on Earth must be part of the solution. Some old battles should be cast aside. New battles—namely the fight for medical resources and effective antiviral drugs—should be sought in concert with others.

The United States must encourage cooperation among international actors to develop a coordinated response to the pandemic while avoiding isolationism and scapegoating.

The United States must encourage cooperation among international actors to develop a coordinated response to the pandemic while avoiding isolationism and scapegoating. With respect to US Middle East policy, this means a concerted diplomatic effort to build cooperative strategies and suspend ongoing conflicts—such as the Qatar-Saudi-UAE standoff. An easing of sanctions on Iran and offers of assistance should also be considered. In addition to helping with the immediate crisis, such strategies may pay longer-term diplomatic dividends.

The judicious application of foreign aid resources, either directly or through international organizations, would be of immense help. To remain unopposed and accepted, democratic countries should not allow repression and authoritarian crackdowns under the cover of a pandemic response. Social distancing is one thing, but permanent political distancing—which authoritarian governments in the Middle East may well seek to make an even more entrenched feature of civil life—is quite another. If the United States hopes to foster more politically and socially liberal governments in the region in the interest of greater stability, it cannot afford to ignore the threat of this new virus to the body politic.