COVID-19 has offered regimes in the region the opportunity to end popular protest. The squares of Algiers, Baghdad, and Beirut – all packed with protesters over the past few months – are now empty due to the pandemic, and political gatherings have also been suspended. In Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon, COVID-19 has achieved what snipers, pro-regime propaganda, and even the economic crisis, could not.
Moreover, political regimes have taken advantage of the crisis to expand their control over the political sphere by arresting their opponents, such as in Algeria where the authorities have cracked down on a number of active voices of the Hirak movement. Similarly, in Lebanon, security forces have used the pandemic as an excuse to crush sit-ins held in Martyr’s Square in Beirut and Nour Square in Tripoli.
However, despite the challenges that the pandemic has brought, it also offers opportunities for protest movements in the region. While the crisis has put an end to popular mobilization in the streets, it has created new forms of activism in the shape of solidarity initiatives to help those affected by its consequences.
In Iraq, for example, protest groups have directed their work towards awareness-raising and sharing essential food to help mitigate the problem of food shortages and rising prices across the country. In Algeria, Hirak activists have run online campaigns to raise awareness about the virus and have encouraged people to stay at home. Others have been cleaning and disinfecting public spaces. These initiatives increase the legitimacy of the protest movement, and if coupled with political messages, could offer these movements an important chance to expand their base of popular support.
Exposes economic vulnerability
Economic grievances, corruption and poor provision of public services have been among the main concerns of this recent wave of protests. This pandemic only further exposes the levels of economic vulnerability in the region. COVID-19 is laying bare the socio-economic inequalities in MENA countries; this is particularly evident in the numbers of people engaged in the informal economy with no access to social security, including health insurance and pensions.
Informal employment, approximately calculated by the share of the labour force not contributing to social security, is estimated to amount to 65.5% of total employment in Lebanon, 64.4% in Iraq, and 63.3% in Algeria. The crisis has underscored the vulnerability of this large percentage of the labour force who have been unable to afford the economic repercussions of following state orders to stay at home.
The situation has also called attention to the vital need for efficient public services and healthcare systems. According to the fifth wave of the Arab Barometer, 74.4% of people in Lebanon are dissatisfied with their country’s healthcare services, as are 67.8% of people in Algeria and 66.5% in Iraq.
Meanwhile, 66.2% of people in Lebanon believe it is necessary to pay a bribe in order to receive better healthcare, as do 56.2% of people in Iraq and 55.9% in Algeria. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the need for more government investment in public healthcare systems to render them more efficient and less corrupt, strengthening the protesters’ case for the need for radical socio-economic reforms.
On the geopolitical level, the crisis puts into question the stability-focused approach of Western powers towards the region. For years, Western powers have directed their aid towards security forces in the interests of combating terrorism but COVID-19 has proved itself to be a much more lethal challenge to both the region and the West.
Facing this new challenge requires international actors to reconsider their approach to include supporting health and education initiatives, as well as freedom of expression and transparency. As argued by Western policymakers themselves, it was China’s lack of transparency and slow response that enabled the proliferation of the virus, when it could have been contained in Wuhan back in December 2019.
This crisis therefore offers regional protest movements the opportunity to capitalize on this moment and push back against the policies of Western powers that have invested in regional stability only to the extent of combating Islamic jihad.
But crises do not change the world, people do. The COVID-19 pandemic will not in itself result in political change in the MENA region. Rather, it brings opportunities and risks that, when exploited, will allow political actors to advance their own agendas. While the crisis has put an end to popular mobilization and allowed regimes to tighten their grip over the political sphere, behind these challenges lie real opportunities for protest movements.
The current situation represents a possibility for them to expand their popular base through solidarity initiatives and has exposed more widely the importance of addressing socio-economic inequalities. Finally, it offers the chance to challenge the stability-focused approach of Western powers towards the region which until now has predominantly focused on combating terrorism.
Dr Georges Fahmi, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.