Why coronavirus clampdown is proving risky for Arab regimes

Why We Wrote This

How politically destabilizing is this pandemic? The economic downturn poses a risk to any government. But across the Arab world, the segment of society most vulnerable is a pillar of regime support.

Hussein Malla/AP
A driver argues with police after being fined for violating strict Lebanese measures, based on odd and even plate numbers, to limit traffic, part of a plan to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, in Beirut, Lebanon, April 7, 2020.

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Just weeks ago, Arab regimes appeared to be in a strong position. Egypt had silenced all opposition; monarchies were secured; insurgencies seemingly defeated. But a misreading of the pandemic allowed the coronavirus to spread undetected for weeks in many countries. Delayed government responses have exposed mismanagement, deteriorating health services, and widening inequality.

Now, as Arab regimes roll out their armies to tackle the crisis, the toll is threatening their claim to legitimacy, rooted in stability and security. Many of the problems that sparked street protests over the past decade, analysts agree, are likely to become more acute.

Abu Mohammed, forced to shut the Amman spice shop that supported his family of seven, is a month behind on rent and has reduced his groceries by half. “We cannot get bread. We cannot see a doctor. We cannot get medicine,” he says. “We reach a point where we ask: What is the point of this security?”

“When the government is seen as incompetent and unable to manage a crisis, that changes the political equation,” says an Algerian analyst. “You now have not only the people in the streets, but people who supported the system beginning to see it as illegitimate. It is a legitimacy crisis.”

Abu Mohammed has played life by the rules.

The 45-year-old merchant has worked hard, paid his taxes, stayed out of politics and protests, and been a loyal supporter of a government that promises security and stability.

Yet amid a COVID-19 lockdown, he was forced on March 19 to close his East Amman spice shop, which generated $900 a month to support his family of seven. He is now a month behind on rent and has reduced his weekly groceries by half.

“We cannot get bread, we cannot see a doctor, we cannot get medicine. We reach a point where we ask: What is the point of this security?” he says via telephone.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Such sentiments are bad news for leaders across the Arab world, where people just like Abu Mohammed comprise a core of popular support for regimes that are less than democratic.

A misreading of the COVID-19 pandemic as a “foreign problem” allowed the virus to spread undetected for weeks in many Arab countries. Their delayed response has exposed mismanagement, deteriorating health services, and widening inequality.

As Arab regimes roll out their armies to tackle the crisis, the virus’s toll is threatening their claim to legitimacy. Many of the root problems that sparked street protests over the past decade, analysts agree, are likely to become more acute. Citizens say it is “inevitable.”

Mismanagement

Just a few weeks ago, Arab regimes appeared to be in a strong position. Egypt had silenced all opposition and had a near-complete control of the media; monarchies were secured; terrorist insurgencies seemingly defeated.

Even where recent waves of protests had threatened to upend nondemocratic political systems – the so-called Arab Spring 2.0 – the status quo was prevailing.

Elites in Algeria formed a government despite elections marred by a boycott. In Lebanon, the protest movement was fizzling. Iraqi protesters who had braved gunfire for months were overshadowed by a brewing conflict in Iraq between the United States and Iran.

Yet the regimes’ COVID-19 responses have been marked by confusion and desperation, undermining stability. 

In Egypt, where 95% of the population lives on 5% of the land, Cairo spent much of its initial weeks suppressing reports about the pandemic rather than tackling it head on.

Since then, Cairo has quarantined a dozen villages, closed several hospitals due to transmission among medical staff, and transformed schools into makeshift hospitals as confirmed cases rose past 1,000.

In Iraq, where rival political and sectarian factions have struggled to form a new government, the Health Ministry spent weeks attempting to receive a mere $5 million from the Treasury.

Ramzi Boudina/Reuters
Algerian police officers with protective face masks stand guard during an anti-government protest in Algiers, March 13, 2020.

Health care systems

Algeria, home to the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in North Africa, with more than 1,600 as of Thursday, has the highest virus mortality rate in the entire Arab world at 13%.

The crisis has revealed hollowed out public health care across the region.

Italy, whose health sector was overwhelmed by the virus, has 30 hospital beds per 10,000 residents. In comparison, Egypt has 15.6 beds per 10,000, Jordan 14, Iraq 13.8, and Morocco 11, according to World Health Organization figures. Algeria’s hospitals host only 400 ICU units for 40 million people, experts say.

Arab regimes have recently resorted to launching public fundraisers to finance their responses: Morocco has raised $3 billion from businesses, royalty, and wealthy citizens; Tunisia $3 million; and Jordan and Egypt have gathered tens of millions in pledges.

Yet even these pledge drives have ignited frustrations.

“Billions in our tax dollars and natural resources have been stolen by the elites, and they think by giving a few thousand dollars back while we die at home they become patriots,” says Mohammed Mustafa, an Egyptian shop owner, via a messaging app.

Middle-class squeeze

Since March 20, Arab states have imposed a range of restrictions, from night curfews in Egypt to full lockdowns in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. All have restricted movement among towns, villages, and provinces.

Yet these lockdowns have placed the burden of the crisis on the middle class and working class – traditional pillars of support for autocratic regimes.

And most Arab states do not have unemployment benefits. As of 2019, only 5% of the unemployed across the Arab world qualify for some form of benefit, the International Labour Organization estimates.

Small-business owners, small farmers, day laborers, and vendors – the so-called informal sector – do not receive a set salary, have no protections, and rely on daily and weekly commercial transactions for their survival.

In Egypt, 50% of all workers are in this informal sector. In Morocco it’s 75%, Algeria 57%.

With their travel curtailed and unable to work, this large segment of society is seeing their savings dwindle as they enter their third or fourth week under curfew, analysts and officials say.

“This vulnerable segment is losing out completely: They are not poor enough to qualify for state assistance and not rich enough to escape the consequences of this crisis,” says Tarik Yousef, director at the Brookings Doha Center and an expert in development economics.

“The COVID crisis exposes these inequalities, which not only become glaringly clear, but will influence how fast people will recover.”

Already there are signs that communities are chafing at the curfews and restrictions. Protests have erupted in villages under quarantine in Egypt and in impoverished neighborhoods in Tunis. Scattered rallies were reportedly held in Morocco.

In Lebanon, a taxi driver set his car afire and fruit vendors threw their goods in the streets in protest.

“Governments around the world decide on social distancing,” says Carmen Geha, a Lebanese activist and assistant professor at the American University of Beirut. “But here social distancing means … you’re not going to sell your crops for the day. You are not going to feed your kids. That’s it.”

Morocco has gotten out in front by designating part of its COVID fund to support workers in the informal sector with $80 to $100 stipends. Jordan has enacted an emergency law preventing layoffs and obliging most employers to continue salaries for March and April.

Yet Western diplomats voice concerns for social unrest in the region should COVID-19 restrictions stretch for months. And Jordan and Gulf security sources say they fear a prolonged shutdown, saying, “We cannot let the virus spread or despair spread.”

Hassan Ammar/AP
Lebanese police arrest an activist who tried to set himself on fire after security forces asked protesters in Martyrs Square to dismantle their tents and go home in line with a nighttime curfew that Lebanon imposed to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, in Beirut, March 27, 2020.

Oil, tourism woes

The collapse in oil prices has deepened the crisis.

Iraq’s oil revenues dropped from $5.5 billion in February to $2.99 billion in March. Government officials say they need oil revenues to stay at $5 billion a month to cover costs and pay salaries.

“For now, the government is just trying to stave off multiple crises and prevent total collapse,” says Sajad Ziyad, a political analyst in Baghdad.

“It needs to pay citizens. It needs to make sure coronavirus doesn’t spread. It needs to stop a war going on between Iran and the U.S. in its territory. It needs to try to find some agreement to form the next government.”

Meanwhile, the loss of travel and tourism has dealt a blow to several states. Tourism accounts for 19% of Morocco’s GDP, 15% in Tunisia, and 12% in Egypt and Jordan, employing hundreds of thousands.

Despite deploying armies to the streets and imposing curfews, Arab strongmen are suddenly appearing powerless in the face of the virus, with their image as guarantors of stability shattered.

“When the government is seen as incompetent and unable to manage a crisis, that changes the political equation,” says Algerian analyst Zine Labidine Ghebouli. 

“You now have not only the people in the streets, but people who supported the system beginning to see it as illegitimate. It is a legitimacy crisis.”

Compounding the regimes’ fragility: world and regional powers, from the Gulf Arabs to Iran, cannot bail them out.

“In the short term this crisis snuffs out a lot of activism,” says Julien Barnes-Dacey, Mideast expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

“But once the health situation becomes manageable, this potentially unleashes a wave of challenges for incumbent elites.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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