Introduction: COVID-19 in the MENA: Two Years On – What have we learned?

Marc Lynch, George Washington University

The political ramifications for the Middle East and North Africa from the COVID-19 pandemic were difficult to predict when the virus swept through the world in early 2020. The region was already grappling with the aftereffects of a decade of failed uprisings, state failures and civil wars, and economic decline. It was unclear whether the virus would decimate already overburdened health systems, leading to mass death and uncontrollable spread.  It seemed likely that autocratic regimes would take advantage of public health measures such as lockdowns and contact tracing to snuff out protest movements and entrench their domination over society.  The economic impact seemed likely to hit certain sectors such as tourism especially hard, as well as the poor struggling in the informal economy.

Early in the pandemic, POMEPS convened an online workshop with a diverse group of scholars working across the MENA region to discuss the initial impacts and to think through possible trajectories.  That workshop resulted in a POMEPS STUDIES collection of twenty-one essays ranging across the MENA region.  Several major themes ran across those essays, as I highlighted in my introductory essay.  We collectively expected regimes to securitize the pandemic, using the excuse of lockdowns to crack down on a protest wave that had reached multiple countries in 2019 and to further entrench authoritarian rule. We expected variation in state capacity to be a critical variable in terms of the ability of states to effectively respond to the pandemic.

And several essays anticipated soft power international competition, as great powers used vaccine diplomacy to sway public attitudes their way.

Two years on, how did those predictions hold up?  POMEPS Assistant Director Prerna BalaEddy suggested that we convene a follow-up workshop with some of the same scholars and a number of new contributors to assess how well those early projections panned out, and to assess the actual impacts of COVID on the region after two years. We are delighted to now publish the results of that workshop and ongoing conversations among a diverse group of scholars of the region.

First, there is little question that the response to COVID did have some of the anticipated effects on accelerating authoritarian retrenchment. As Abouzzohour argues in this volume, “the global health crisis empowered autocratic regimes to take on extraordinary powers, their response exacerbated existing autocratic practices, thereby amplifying authoritarianism.”  Most regional countries did experience a decline in public freedoms after COVID hit.  Yerkes and Youssef in this volume argue that a massive spike in COVID cases in the summer of 2021, after relatively effective management in the first year, helped Kais Saied launch his coup against Tunisian democracy. While Tunisia is an exemplary case of democratic backsliding, Abouzzohour pushes us to also focus on autocratic regimes becoming more autocratic.   Abedini shows how Iran’s hardliners used the pandemic to undermine support for moderate politicians, including then-President Rouhani, and consolidate their political control.

That said, the effects may have been somewhat overstated. It is difficult to separate out causally how much COVID drove this resurgent authoritarianism as opposed to other possible drivers: a permissive international environment with little external pressure for democratization or respecting human rights, support for autocratic governance from powerful Gulf states, regime survival instincts for governments facing polarized publics with mounting economic grievances.  Some of the effects proved relatively temporary: Algeria used lockdowns to silence the Hirak weekly protests, but eventually they returned to the streets. Harb, et al, show in this collection that the Lebanese government took advantage of COVID to deflect the energies of the 2019 uprising, though new crises such as the explosion at the Beirut Port would soon intrude.  Like many political shocks, the novelty tends to wear off and become incorporated into a new normal. And in particularly high capacity states, such as Ardemagni documents in the UAE, the pandemic response was framed in terms of a collective nationalist response and a call to service – a way of building trust between state and society rather than undermining those fragile bonds.

Second, the COVID response revealed the extreme variation in state capacity across the region more than almost any other single event in memory, as anticipated by the earlier collection. As Kubinec argues in this volume, “On the whole, MENA governments have pursued a robust response to the pandemic when and where they have had the capability to do so.”  As El-Hayek points out, effective pandemic response requires a highly competent state with both the resources, the will, and the administrative capacity to identity virus outbreaks and effectively respond with vaccinations and targeted non-pharmaceutical interventions. Wealthy, high capacity states such as the UAE, Qatar and Israel took the lead globally in vaccinations, lockdowns, contact tracing, and other interventions which allowed a relatively rapid return to normal life. Relatively high capacity but poor states such as Jordan and Morocco managed to impose lockdowns and curfews but struggled with formulating sustained vaccination and other campaigns.

Lower capacity states such as Egypt’s proved unable – or unwilling – to even count the number of cases; a recent report showed the actual death count in Egypt was 12 times the officially reported number. It is not clear, as Ali points out in her contribution, whether Egypt was unable to know these things, or if it preferred to suppress information about them in the interests of political stability and keeping the tourism sector afloat.  Downplaying the pandemic, as Schulhofer-Wohl and Koehler argue, could serve regime survival interests even where it put citizens at greater risk.  In failed war-torn states such as Syria or Yemen, only limited international organization interventions offered any COVID response at all.  Perhaps the most glaring example of these inequalities could be seen in Israel and the West Bank, where Israelis (including settlers) enjoyed near universal vaccination while state-less Palestinians living in close proximity initially received none at all – a clear example of political will, rather than capability, driving the variations.

There were also some intriguing differences in the type of interventions. Kubinec’s data, which includes both global and MENA countries, shows that “the areas we see noticeable discrepancies are business and mask policies, where the MENA region was somewhat higher than the regional average, and health monitoring, where it was somewhat lower than the global average.” Enforced closures and masking represent the coercive power of the state, what Michael Mann would call its “despotic” power.  Health monitoring, by contrast, reflects the ability of the state to render its population legible, what others have called its “informational capacity.”  Ghinwa El-Hayek similarly shows that governments often failed to use available digital tracking technologies. A response by MENA states to COVID which reflected high coercive capacity but limited informational capacity would be well in line with prevailing understandings of the unbalanced strengths of Arab states.  At another level of analysis, Harb, et al, show in their contribution that the response varied geographically as well, with pockets of high state response and other zones of near total government absence, allowing sectarian parties and NGOs to step in to fill its absent role.

Third, the impact of COVID proved to be highly gendered, as Stephan, Youssef and Yerkes, Meler, Youakim and Abdallah, and others in this collection show. The economic impacts have been real, and profound. A 2021 World Bank report concluded that the pandemic could “result in a major setback on the poverty front in the MENA region,” with economic closures disproportionately affecting the welfare of poor households.  It also disrupted global migration flows, with significant impact on the vast numbers of migrant laborers in the Gulf, as Nazir shows in his contribution to this volume. But women faced some of the worst effects.

Women disproportionately found themselves losing jobs and educational opportunities as lockdowns and the demands of care forced them back into the homes. They suffered dramatic increases in domestic violence and abuse.  Palestinian female college students from marginal communities in Israel struggled with the shift to online education, as Meler shows in her contribution. Youssef and Yerkes, in this volume, report a five-fold increase in gender based domestic violence in the first year of Tunisia’s lockdown.  Rita Stephan documents the disproportionate effects of COVID on women’s employment, healthcare, and access to information.  At the same time, as Youakim and Abdallah stress, those women who did continue working were disproportionately “on the frontline of the pandemic response, primarily working in healthcare and social services, and taking on a significant increased amount of unpaid carework.”

Fourth, there were some intriguing trends in terms of societal receptivity to vaccination and other pandemic interventions. Trust in the state, as Koehler and Schulhofer-Wohl show in this volume, had a significant impact in receptivity towards the vaccine or towards acceptance of conspiracy theories. As Abedi shows, Ayatollah Khamenei’s public endorsement of the vaccine inhibited the religious sector from spreading skepticism towards vaccination, blunting a very real possible source of resistance. But trust generally proved short lived as the crisis dragged on. State policies and societal responses in MENA, as in much of the rest of the world, tended to go in waves.  A common pattern characterized several countries, such as Jordan and Morocco (see Drhimeur in this volume). Initial broad societal acceptance of a draconian shutdown which seemed appropriate to the threat of the virus and which the authorities imposed in a largely effective way was the early response. But with each cycle of easing up of restrictions followed by resurgence of the virus, and mounting economic impacts especially on the poor, societal frustration and opposition mounted.  Information and social media also took its toll. Middle Eastern societies are as vulnerable to social media disinformation as any others, and as much conspiracy theory surrounding the vaccines as in the United States and elsewhere.

Fifth, at the international level, COVID did not seem to generate a great deal of regional cooperation, whether through formal institutions or through informal practices, or lasting effects of vaccine diplomacy.  Altunisik, in this volume, finds little evidence of any effective collective response through regional international organizations such as the Arab League, the Arab Maghreb Union, or the Gulf Cooperation Council.  International NGOs did play a quite significant role in providing COVID vaccines, treatment and relief in countries with large refugee populations, such as Jordan, and shattered states such as Yemen and Syria. Their access to those populations was limited by the war, though, leaving many of these highly vulnerable populations dangerously exposed.  The vaccine diplomacy and soft power competition anticipated by the earlier collection did manifest but seems to have had relatively limited effects compared to other systemic trends (growing Chinese investment and presence) and crises (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine).  China and Russia certainly sought to make diplomatic gains through vaccine diplomacy, but the initial goodwill was likely compromised as evidence mounted of the relative ineffectiveness of those vaccines.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for a long time to come. The deaths and hospitalizations may have faded into something like background noise in much of the region, as elsewhere in the world, but the pandemic continues and so many families have already been impacted. The economic effects have been devastating, with the gendered impact and the disproportionate effects on the poor heightening social divides. The incremental increases in state repressive capacity will not likely be easily scaled back – though the variations in state capacity revealed by the responses may offer political scientists an intriguing new window into thinking about the actual strength of MENA states.  POMEPS is proud to publish the rich and diverse set of reflections in this new collection.