For many regimes in the region the spread of COVID-19 has been somewhat of a blessing in disguise. Protests were stopped in Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon. But the impact of the virus is likely to fuel more instability in the region as governments struggle to deal with the economic crash, job losses and boiling public anger.
New waves of protest are expected to hit the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region when lockdowns are lifted, and the global coronavirus pandemic is brought under control.
According to Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House: “The coronavirus has exposed the fragility of the social safety-net systems across the region,” and the “Covid-19 has postponed the inevitable unrest to come.”
Her comments fuelled speculation in the Financial Times about the coming unrest in the MENA region, which many would say has barely recovered from the 2011 uprising that became popularly known as the “Arab Spring”.
With governments lacking legitimacy, restless populations, high youth population and rampant unemployment, the region was already under severe stress. Their lack of financial resources to be able to deal with the virus in the way wealthy nations have been able to, by providing large-scale rescue packages to support businesses and protect jobs, is expected to make their position even more untenable.
While trust between people and the regimes is said to be dangerously low, authoritarian measures adopted during the spread of the pandemic has exacerbated this endemic problem. The shuttering of news agencies and expulsion of foreign journalists that contradicted government handling of the pandemic were cited as just two of the ways in which mistrust has been deepened.
In states like Algeria activists are even accusing authorities of exploiting the crisis by cracking down on political opponents and detaining opposition politicians as well as journalists.
States like Iraq have suffered a double blow of the spread of the coronavirus and the collapse of the global oil market which resulted from a major drop in global supply and a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Baghdad is unlikely to be able to pay as much as half of its staff in the public sector, by far the largest employer, while Algeria, another country exposed to the oil price plunge, is said to be cutting state spending by 30 per cent.
Countries heavily reliant on tourism are also being hit hard. Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco have seen this key sector completely freeze over the past months. As revenues plummet, remittances, which is a major source of income for many countries in the region, have dried up. Lebanon, one of the countries already at breaking point due to economic meltdown, will face major challenges.
This weekend, two banks in southern, and two in northern Lebanon were damaged in separate attacks over the weekend, as public anger grows over the country’s economic crisis.
The real test, according to the FT report, will come after the pandemic begins to ease and the economic consequences of the global crisis are truly felt, particularly for the region’s most vulnerable.