Introduction: The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa

This piece is from a collection of essays – POMEPS Studies 39: The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa.

Marc Lynch, POMEPS

The COVID-19 pandemic swept through a region already struggling with the effects of a decade of uprisings, failed or struggling political transitions, state collapse, civil war and international conflict.  As the magnitude of the pandemic’s global impact became clear, the Project on Middle East Political Science issued a call for short papers assessing the response to the pandemic and its likely effects.  The response was overwhelming.  This special issue of POMEPS STUDIES collects twenty contributions from a wide range of young scholars writing from diverse perspectives, which collectively offer a fascinating overview of a region whose governance failures, economic inequalities and societal resilience were all suddenly thrown into sharp relief.

Several themes run across the essays: the importance of variations in state capacity; the securitization of the pandemic response and the potential for increased repression; the profound challenge to war-torn areas, conflict zones, and refugee concentrations; and the prominence in international relations of soft power, battles over narrative, and non-military interdependencies.

State capacity:  The pandemic response has revealed, perhaps more than any other event in recent history, the variation in state capacity across the region. State capacity involves more than wealth or coercive capacity, though both help. State capacity can be observed in the ability to identify virus cases across the population, to impose and enforce lockdowns in a sustainable way, to acquire testing and medical supplies, and to keep people fed and healthy during an economic freeze. It can also be observed, as Justin Schon notes in this collection, in the state’s ability and willingness to credibly communicate its policies to its citizens and prevent the spread of destabilizing rumors and false information. In Jordan, as Elizabeth Parker-Magyar shows, regular and clear governmental communication has made a positive difference, in stark contrast to the disastrous efforts to control information in Iran (Sally Sharif) and Egypt (Lucia Ardovini).

The highest capacity states in the region, by pre-crisis metrics, have, for the most part, responded more quickly, more efficiently, and at larger scale.  As Elham Fakhro, Kristin Diwan, Diana Galeeva and Matthew Hedges demonstrate in their essays, the small Gulf states could draw on their vast resources, omnipresent surveillance systems, and relatively competent autocratic technocratic rule to acquire medical and food necessities, identify outbreaks quickly, and deploy the repressive capacity as needed to enforce dramatic societal closures. The GCC states have more than sufficient reserves for an immediate response; Saudi Arabia has already launched a $32 billion stimulus package and the UAE $34 billion. But an extended collapse of oil prices – along with air travel, religious pilgrimages, and construction – could prove more difficult to manage.[i] The migrant labor community represents a significant hole in this state capacity, however, as those migrant workers face conditions ideal for the spread of the virus and enjoys far fewer state protections against it. The role the small Gulf states play as global air transport hubs also makes them vulnerable as vectors for global pandemic transmission.

Other states have demonstrated relatively high capacity to respond, even where they lack the Gulf’s financial resources. Jordan, as the essays by Elizabeth Parker-Magyar and Allison Hartnett, Ezzeldeen Al-Natour and Laith Al-Ajlouni show, moved rapidly towards one of the most draconian national shutdowns based on emergency law and rigorous enforcement;[ii] so did Tunisia and Morocco, as Yasmina Abouzzohour and Yasmine Zarhloule argue in their essays.  Lebanon, never known for high state capacity, faces the COVID-19 pandemic at precisely its weakest moment. As Carla Abdo-Katsipis observes, Lebanon’s pandemic response had to grapple with a massive financial crisis and political paralysis already crippling the country and leaving the state virtually incapable of mustering an adequate medical or coercive response.[iii]  Sudan, in the midst of a precarious political transition, lacks even the basic capacity to deal with the pandemic should it spread.[iv]

The responses by lower capacity, higher population states which have long been viewed as deficient in key areas of state capacity have been predictably less effective. Egypt’s military-led response was slow and inadequate, as Lucia Ardovini demonstrates, focused more on controlling information and policing the public sphere than on pandemic response.  Similar trajectories can be seen or expected in comparably large, lower capacity states such as Algeria, as Abouzzohour shows, especially where the sudden collapse of oil prices also cut into state resources. Iran fits in this category as well.[v]  The rapid, unchecked spread of the virus in Iran came in large part due to the tight control over the flow of information, as Sally Sharif shows. The Iranian regime sought to minimize knowledge of the pandemic in order to go forward with politically important elections and to reduce knowledge of any potential regime-threatening problem.[vi]  While Iran in ordinary times might have had the financial resources and state capacity to respond more effectively, the sanctions imposed by the United States after its departure from the nuclear deal have crippled Iran’s economy and its ability to import medical and humanitarian goods from abroad.

Finally, the shattered states of the region struggle to demonstrate any capacity whatsoever in terms of a virus response.[vii] As Jesse Marks and Eleonora Ardemagni each argue, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Gaza have little ability to respond to rapid, devastating contagion once cases of the virus enter into those spaces. In many of these countries, non-state actors such as the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon have stepped up to fill in gaps left by weak states.  Refugee populations have virtually no protection from the transmission of the virus or ability to treat those infected.[viii]

One critical point here concerns diffusion effects.  The COVID-19 pandemic cannot be contained within borders.  Refugee concentrations are not only at risk themselves, but also serve as vectors for wider virus transmission. Where many in the region may be quietly delighted to see Iran suffer from the weight of one of the worst pandemic crises in the world, they also understand that the pandemic cannot be contained within Iran’s borders.  This may be felt the most profoundly in Iraq, where the border is porous and the communities are tightly integrated, and where the combination of pervasive governance failure and collapsing oil prices make a competent state response unlikely.[ix]  Thus, while the U.S. remains bent on imposing maximum pressure and maximum pain on an already suffering Iran, as Elham Fakhro points out, many of its regional rivals such as the UAE have instead offered humanitarian assistance.

Securitization and the potential for increased repression:  Many of the essays in the collection express well-grounded concern that autocratic regimes will use the powers deployed against the pandemic to also repress political opposition. The pandemic response has legitimated escalated state control over society in ways which are necessary to slow virus transmission but which incorporate all the tools and modalities for future repression. Emergency laws once put in place are unlikely to retreat, especially in the highly security-conscious regimes of MENA.  The lessons about the ability to clear the streets, the technology to track citizen movements, the legal authorities to implement lockdowns – all of these are equally useful against political opponents as they are against the virus.

Regimes will seize this opportunity to shut down what had been a robust regional protest wave and seek to prevent any recurrence.  Movements in Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon, which had demonstrated great resilience by staying in the streets despite state efforts at repression or co-optation, will likely find it difficult to restart protest movements of the same magnitude and focus after the period of closure. The curfew and closures meant clearing the streets, ending protests in actively mobilized societies.  Once these autocratic regimes have regained control over the streets, they will fight hard to retain it. Even small protests will likely be met with severe repressive force, as in the case of Egypt’s arrest of Alaa Abdelfattah’s relatives protesting virus vulnerability for political prisoners.  The inability to return to the streets will also cripple the power of activist movements attempting to prevent autocratic backsliding in countries such as Sudan and Tunisia.

In some higher capacity states, as Matthew Hedges and Adam Hoffmann point out, enforcement of the shutdown involves new surveillance technologies which will again likely remain in the toolkit of police and security forces after the crisis passes.  Ehud Eiran notes that Israel’s use of smartphone tracking, for instance, to identify close contact among potentially infected citizens, could easily be extended to surveillance of potential political dissidents – and almost certainly will be in high capacity MENA states as the concept is proven during shutdown enforcement.

There is also a political dimension to treating the pandemic response as a war. It is telling that so many MENA states have approached the pandemic through such a security lens. As Hoffman lays out in his essay, there is a logic to securitization, by which the deployment of rhetorical tropes of security justify a range of state and societal responses. Hoffmann, Eiran and Brent Sasley each show how Israeli framing of the pandemic in security terms reshaped its political field, likely keeping Benjamin Netanyahu in office after his seeming political demise.  Ardovini and Yasmine Zarhloule trace similar rhetorical practices in Egypt and Morocco.  Lebanon’s political elite, as Carla Abdo-Katsipis show, similarly re-emerged from months of challenge by protestors to reassert the traditional rules of the game.

The longer term political impacts may be less friendly towards regime survival, however. One could imagine an inverse U shape to political dissent, with the current pandemic moment marking the lowest point. While the pandemic response will strengthen the state over society, the economic effects of the pandemic will likely exacerbate many of the drivers of political unrest.  It is difficult to even begin to calculate the economic implications of this global shutdown at this point.  It is difficult to see any society in the MENA region emerging from this pandemic more satisfied with the quality of governance or economic life, or less alienated from the political system. The pandemic will more likely impose severe costs on societies already facing extreme levels of precarity, poverty, and political alienation, while constraining the ability of regimes to mobilize resources to offset those grievances.  While the pandemic lockdown will therefore likely mean lower levels of political protest mobilization in the short term, the building of pent-up grievances and nigh-inevitable perceptions of regime failures in meeting the challenges will likely set the stage for the next round of regional protests.

Soft power and international competition:  Finally, the pandemic has offered opportunities as well as challenges, especially in the realm of foreign policy. As Diana Galeeva and Elham Fakhro each show, the UAE and other wealthy Gulf states have sought to take advantage of the pandemic to demonstrate soft power, win narrative battles, or shape outcomes through the selective provision of relief.  China, as Guy Burton argues, has been especially active in seeking to define a favorably narrative, deflecting blame for its own initial shortcomings while actively pushing alternative narratives and trying to win support through the highly visible provision of aid.   The United States has been far less visible, with the Trump administration’s shambolic domestic response inspiring more derision than admiration.  This could have enduring effects on what remains of the American-led regional order.

The pandemic has had mixed effects thus far on the active wars.  As Ruth Hanau Santini notes, the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire during the pandemic response has had mixed reception in the Middle East.  Saudi Arabia did announce a two week ceasefire, ostensibly due to the pandemic risk, but there has been little movement towards any more comprehensive peace settlement.  The fragile ceasefire in northern Syria has thus far held, as international agencies struggle to find ways to protect refugee encampments from the impending disaster.  But in Libya, the conflict has actually escalated on both sides.

State capacity, securitization, transformed repression, and soft power battles are only a handful of the themes which run across this rich set of essays. Download and read them all today.

  • Marc Lynch, Director of POMEPS


[i] Simeon Kerr and Andrew England, “Gulf economies rocked by coronavirus and oil price war.” Financial Times 24 March 2020

[ii] Michael Safi, “Home deliveries and Humvees: life under Jordan’s harsh virus lockdown.” The Guardian 23 March 2020

[iii] Human Rights Watch. “Lebanon: COVID-19 worsens medical supply crisis.” 24 March 2020

[iv] Mark Weston. “Coronavirus reaches Sudan, one of the countries least equiped to deal with it.”  The Guardian, 24 March 2020

[v] Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, “The Coronavirus is Iran’s Perfect Storm.” Foreign Affairs 19 March 2020

[vi] Jon Gambrell, “Virus at Iran’s Gates: How Iran Failed to Halt the Outbreak.” Associated Press 17 March 2020

[vii] Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer, “The Next Wave,” Foreign Policy 23 March 2020

[viii] Kristyan Benedict, “Death by coronavirus – the latest fate awaiting Syrians.” Amnesty International 21 March 2020

[ix] Qassam Abdul Zahra and Samya Kullab. “One-two punch of new virus, falling oil prices threatens Iraq.” Associated Press 20 March 2020


This piece is from a collection of essays – POMEPS Studies 39: The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa.