By James M. Dorsey
There is little indication that Middle Eastern rulers are learning the lessons of the Coronavirus’ devastating effect.
Nor is there any suggestion that they are willing to see the pandemic as an opportunity to negotiate new social contracts at a time that the virus has temporarily taken the sails out of mass anti-government protests in various countries and discontent continues to simmer in others.
On the contrary.
Iran has become the poster child of what happens when the public distrusts a government that has a track record of being untransparent from the outset of a crisis, limits freedom of expression that often creates early warning systems that could enable authorities to take timely, pre-emptive measures to avert or limit the damage, and is perceived as corrupt.
Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saw himself forced last week to bring in the military to clear the streets after Iranians, already struggling under the impact of harsh US economic sanctions, refused to adhere to public health warnings regarding large gatherings, social distancing. and advice to stay at home.
Mr. Khamenei assigned the task to the regular armed forces after the Revolutionary Guards Corps failed to persuade Iranians to heed government advice regarding the epidemic that as of this writing has infected some 14,000 people and caused 724 deaths and turned Iran into one of the world’s hardest hit countries.
The distrust has fuelled reports and rumours that casualties exceed by far government figures and that mass graves were being prepared to cope with a much higher than stated death toll.
The Coronavirus hit Iran, that was slow to acknowledge the severity of the crisis, only weeks after large numbers took to the streets of Iranian cities denouncing Mr. Khamenei and the Guards in protest against the government’s initial reluctance to live up to its responsibility for the mistaken downing of a Ukrainian airliner that killed 176 people.
Multiple Middle Eastern states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and Israel have ordered closures of educational facilities, quarantines and taken steps to curtail, if not halt travel to and from Asian and European nations badly affected by the virus or temporarily interrupt all travel to their countries.
Nonetheless, an exponential spread of the virus could stress test the national health systems in both energy-rich countries that have invested in state-of-the-art medical facilities as well as war-ravaged nations like Syria, Yemen and Libya where hospitals have been prime targets of devastating air strikes.
Potential stress tests that fail could prove risky.
Countries like Iraq, which is particularly exposed with its close ties to neighbouring Iran, Algeria and Lebanon, where many like in Iran defy advice to stay at home, have witnessed months of sustained mass anti-government protests demanding a complete overhaul of a political system perceived as corrupt and incapable of delivering public goods such as jobs, proper healthcare and other services.
Governments have, however, shown little incentive to capitalize on the temporary dwindling of protests to forge new social contracts using the need to confront the virus threat nationally as a wedge.
Fear of the virus coupled with government repression have seen the numbers of protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, where demonstrators initially insisted that Iraq’s political elite was a virus worse than Corona, drop from the thousands to several hundred at best.
The same is true for Algeria and Lebanon, hit not only by the virus but also a financial crisis that is forcing it to default on its ballooning debt.
"You won't be of much help to Algeria if you're dead," quipped one person on Twitter.
Embattled governments see opportunity in the virus, just not one that will prevent the temporary lid on what is a boiling pot from exploding again once the crisis is over, possibly with greater vengeance if Corona exposes the authorities’ and the health system’s inability to cope.
"In Algeria, the government's calls for cancelling the protests are not motivated by sanitary concerns as it is the case in France, the US or elsewhere,” said Riad Kaced, a US-based activist who flew to Algiers almost every second week to take part in the protests.
“The Algerian regime wants to seize this opportunity to strangle the Hirak and kill it off," Mr. Kaced said, referring to the protest movement by its Arabic name.
In that mould, the virus, which has so far infected 62 people in Saudi Arabia did not stop Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from rounding up potential opponents whom he suspected of plotting against him and launching an oil war with Russia that has wreaked havoc at a time that the global economy can least afford it.
Another clear indication that Middle Eastern autocrats and discredited elites see no reason to use the virus crisis as a monkey wrench to reduce regional tensions and create political and social structures that would make their societies more resilient is their failure to crackdown on opinionmakers, influencers and rumour mongers that seek to weaponize Corona on tightly controlled mainstream and new media.
The Saudi and United Arab Emirates governments remained silent while pro-government voices came to the defense of Saudi-based journalist Noura al-Moteari who tweeted that the virus and its spread had been funded by Qatar in order to undermine Prince Mohammed’s plans for social and economic reform and the UAE's upcoming Expo 2020.
They also looked the other way, despite a Saudi government warning that rumour mongers could face jail terms of up to five years and a fine of up to USD 800,000, after analyst Zayed al-Amri claimed on Saudi television that Turkey and Iran were using the virus to target Arab tourists and attack countries across the globe.
Said social media scholar Marc Owen Jones: ´Coronavirus is being opportunistically weaponised through disinformation and propaganda tactics aimed at demonising political opponents, while exposing latent prejudices.”
The Coronavirus crisis is taking its toll, including the lives of many that good and transparent governance possibly could have saved. Ultimately, authorities will get a grip on it.
However, Corona wasn’t the first such crisis and won’t be the last. The risk is that weaponization serves rulers’ short-term interests but contributes little to building the kind of national and regional resilience and cohesion needed to confront the next one.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture