Coronavirus and the Middle East's ongoing state of emergency
Although it is widely accepted that transparency is key in confronting the spread of coronavirus, the pandemic has seen most of the MENA states taking, for the first time, political decisions to counter this public health issue as a question of national security.
There has been a shift from ordinary measures to emergency measures that restrict freedom of movement, as well as the closure of cities, industries and economies. In many countries, this has uncovered serious inequalities within Middle Eastern societies. The vast majority of unskilled workers, shopkeepers and other tradespeople have simply stopped earning money – increasing poverty and their inability to pay rent or feed their families.
The drift towards a state of emergency, the application of draconian measures, the deployment of surveillance technologies and the implementation of new techniques to restrict, follow, and manage individual citizens may have serious political consequences. Many Middle Eastern states have worrying records when it comes to human rights.
With the COVID-19 pandemic indicating the use of such technology (and states negating any criticism), these tools may well continue to be used in public health or even security – justified or otherwise – once the pandemic has passed.
This raises a question about post-coronavirus regimes. Those regimes looking to intensify security and surveillance measures will persist. A state of emergency where special measures prevail will thus continue to be seen as a potential draconian measure capable of demonstrating the state's capacity to restrict and control people.
Feeding sectarian tensions
Against a background of political volatility, the lack of transparency has intensified sectarian tensions in the region, at both a state level and throughout the wider population. There has been a failure to source reliable coronavirus data and specialist state institutions are still being slow to release information. Yet nothing could be more important during a regional epidemic.
As information concerning about the rate of infection in Iran seeped out, many Lebanese accused Hezbollah of covering up the spread of the virus in Lebanon and called for a halt to flights from Iran. This fed into sectarian tensions in Lebanon and the region as a whole, leading the former to accuse Iran of misleading the public and threatening the region’s public health. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain strongly condemned Iran for its reckless response to the virus, and in particular, for not stamping the passports of GCC citizens who had been in Iran.
The virus also highlighted a high volume of prejudice towards others. One Kuwaiti actress even called for the deportation of foreign workers. Hundreds of Saudi Twitter users made generalisations that the Sunni response was civilised and rational, while the Shia Irani response was idiotic. Some have even claimed that the virus and its spread were being funded by Qatar in order to undermine Riyadh's Vision 2030.
Deep internal polarisation has also increased across political lines as a result of the pandemic. In Lebanon, sectarian political parties’ elites saw the virus spreading as an opportunity to reconnect with their grassroots and reconcile some of their lost support, especially after October 2019.
In the Palestinian Territories, the spread of coronavirus added a new layer of division when the Hamas de facto administration refused to apply new emergency measures in the Gaza Strip implied by the state of emergency announced by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The political rift deepened further when it became clear that the Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip was being less than upfront about its health measures, needs, and quarantine arrangements.
Some are more equal than others
At a socio-economic level, the pandemic has uncovered very deep inequalities in Middle Eastern societies. Without familial and societal solidarity, millions would be suffering from food shortages and homelessness. Though many argue that the virus has affected everyone equally, in reality, it is affecting the poor and the middle classes more than the rich and the politicians.
Patchy hygiene infrastructure, immune systems weakened by poor nutrition, and unequal access to healthcare all stem from economic inequality. In 2018 one study found the MENA region to be the most unequal region in the world. Moreover, inequality within a single country can be extreme. For instance, in Egypt, more than 32% of the country’s 100 million people live in poverty. In Lebanon, more than 40% of the population live in poverty.
While the middle-class population and rich people live in their apartments, houses and villas, have a secure income and are able to practice social distancing, the majority of people who live in poverty and refugees camps cannot afford not to work and cannot apply the distancing measures. Unless they receive support from the local community or an NGO, many of them will not even be able to stay at home as they have to work to feed their families. Staying at home is a luxury for many, but for some, it is simply not an option. One Syrian refugee self-immolated because he was unable to pay the rent.
No universal safety net
The pandemic has hit people with jobs in tourism and services hard. As the lockdown, curfews and regional isolation continue, more people will lose their jobs and their savings; the impact could go on for months, if not years. In Egypt, the tourism industry alone accounts for 15% of GDP. In Jordan the figure is 14%, in Tunisia 12% and Morocco 8%. In other words, millions of people’s livelihoods are being shut down and these people are waiting for something to happen.
Not all states in the Middle East have developed a universal programme to support those people in such an emergency. Moreover, although there have been a variety of state-initiated economic responses, no country is in a position to manage the socio-economic consequences of millions of people losing their income.
States in the Middle East did not prepare for the pandemic, yet they have responded to it with the same draconian measures adopted by the Chinese, despite the fact that an enormous number of people will lose their jobs. Moreover, there is also the impact on their impoverished populations to be considered. Most of the economic response to the pandemic is to try and save the big companies and the economy at a national level, while forgetting those who rely on a daily income.
Many Middle Eastern states will see this pandemic and the uniqueness of the situation as an opportunity to extend their power, relying on surveillance, a domestic restriction of movement and mass tracing. Such measures will further undermine what democratic principles are in place, empowering governments to exercise increasing authority over people’s lives and their freedoms.
The current pandemic finds the Middle East at yet another crossroads – how states in the region will act once it is over remains to be seen. The lack of transparency in some countries, the failure to put together an economic response favouring the poor, grievous inequalities and the new draconian measures introduced to fight coronavirus are all indications that the state of emergency in the region is likely to be ongoing.
© Qantara.de 2020
Abdalhadi Alijla is post-doctoral fellow for the Max Weber Stiftung at the Orient Institute in Beirut (OIB) and co-leader of Global Migration and Human Rights at Global Young Academy.