Coronavirus and the Middle East
Lessons not learned and opportunities missed: A roadmap to political and societal dysfunction.
- There is little indication that Middle Eastern rulers are learning the lessons of the coronavirus’ devastating effect.
- Iran has become the poster child of what happens when the public distrusts a government that has a track record of being non-transparent from the outset of a crisis.
- Embattled Middle Eastern governments see a political opportunity in the virus. However, holding back on street protests only provides a very temporary lid on what is a boiling pot.
- Throughout the Middle East, there is a distinct likelihood that handling the coronavirus exposes the authorities’ and the health system’s inability to cope.
- Unimpressed by the coronavirus, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman has rounded up opponents and also seen fit to launch an oil war with Russia at a time that the global economy can least afford it.
There is little indication that Middle Eastern rulers are learning the lessons of the coronavirus’ devastating effect.
Nor is there any suggestion that they are willing to see the pandemic as an opportunity to negotiate new social contracts, the need for which is glaringly obvious in almost every country in the region.
This is all the more deplorable as the fact that the onset of the virus actually represents a political opportunity. After all, it has temporarily taken the sails out of mass anti-government protests in various countries.
Case 1: Iran
Iran has become the poster child of what happens when the public distrusts a government that has a track record of being non-transparent from the outset of a crisis.
Responses such as limiting freedom of expression have adverse effects. Instead of serving as early warning systems that could enable authorities to take timely, pre-emptive measures are taken to avert such popular input.
No wonder the regime is perceived as corrupt. While this is ostensibly done to protect the regime, this approach could very well have the opposite effect.
In fact, Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saw himself forced last week to bring in the military to clear the streets. Iranians, already struggling under the impact of harsh U.S. economic sanctions, refused to adhere to public health warnings regarding large gatherings, social distancing and advice to stay at home.
Mr. Khamenei assigned the task to the regular armed forces after the Revolutionary Guards Corps failed to persuade Iranians to heed government advice regarding the epidemic. As of this writing it has infected some 14,000 people and caused 724 deaths and turned Iran into one of the world’s hardest hit countries.
The distrust has fueled reports and rumors that casualties exceed by far government figures and that mass graves were being prepared to cope with a much higher than stated death toll.
The coronavirus hit Iran, that was slow to acknowledge the severity of the crisis. This only weeks after large numbers took to the streets to denouncing Mr. Khamenei and the Guards in protest against the government’s initial reluctance to live up to its responsibility for the mistaken downing of a Ukrainian airliner that killed 176 people.
Case 2: Iraq
Iraq, with its close ties to neighboring Iran, is particularly exposed to the coronavirus. Like in Iran, many people defy advice to stay at home.
And, like their counterparts in Iran, Iraq’s political leaders have witnessed months of sustained mass anti-government protests.
Large parts of the population are demanding a complete overhaul of a political system. It is perceived as corrupt and, crucially, incapable of delivering public goods such as jobs, proper healthcare and other services.
Governments have, however, shown little incentive to capitalize on the temporary dwindling of protests to forge new social contracts using the need to confront the virus threat nationally as a wedge.
Fear of the virus coupled with government repression have seen the numbers of protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, where demonstrators initially insisted that Iraq’s political elite was a virus worse than Corona, drop from the thousands to several hundred at best.
Case 3: Algeria and Lebanon
The same is true for Algeria and Lebanon. These two countries are hit not only by the virus, but also by a financial crisis that is forcing them to default on its ballooning debt.
“You won’t be of much help to Algeria if you’re dead,” quipped one person on Twitter.
The embattled governments there do see a political opportunity in the virus. But holding back on street protests in observation of self-protection strategies such as social distancing only provides a very temporary lid on what is a boiling pot.
It not only risks exploding once again when the crisis is over, but possibly with even greater vengeance then. After all, there is a distinct likelihood that handling the coronavirus exposes the authorities’ and the health system’s inability to cope.
Case 4: Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s government pretty much operates in that same mold. The virus has so far infected 62 people in the country.
The health challenge has not stopped Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from rounding up potential opponents whom he suspected of plotting against him.
He has also seen fit to launch an oil war with Russia that has wreaked havoc at a time that the global economy can least afford it.
The risk is that rulers (ab)use the coronavirus crisis to serve their short-term political interests in further oppressing any opposition and protests.
But this does nothing for building the kind of national and regional resilience and cohesion that is desperately needed now to confront the coronavirus as well as the teetering political regimes.