Novel Threats is a series of brief conversations with fellows and affiliates of the Reiss Center on Law and Security exploring the intersection of the coronavirus pandemic and key national security challenges.
Michael Wahid Hanna on Coronavirus and the Middle East
July 8, 2020
Michael Wahid Hanna is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at NYU School of Law, focusing on Middle East politics. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation in New York, where his work focuses on international security, international law and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia. Full bio
In a public health pandemic where transparency is particularly crucial to resolving the crisis, how much visibility do we actually have into whether and how the virus is impacting countries in the Middle East region?
It is undoubtedly the case that the initial impulse of many of the autocratic regimes in the region is obfuscation. But the standard approaches to information and transparency have come up against a crisis that cannot simply be manipulated through the usual means of lying and propaganda. The spread of the virus and the severity of the disease mean that sickness and death are a societal phenomenon that are readily evident through the lived experience of citizens.
Iran was the first regional hotspot and one of the first countries to deal with a major outbreak that stressed its healthcare system. Despite Iran’s restrictive approach to social media, the current information environment is such that the outside world largely understood what was transpiring in the country. That in turn informed how Iran dealt with this novel public health crisis, which required a degree of transparency about the scale and scope of the unfolding health disaster. Of course, citizens and the outside world, having become accustomed to the traditional manner of repression and restrictions on speech, were understandably wary of the information emerging from regional governments. This was seen very clearly with Egypt, where the Sisi regime’s initial, defensive posture suggested that they were much more concerned about protecting their vulnerable tourism sector than dealing honestly with the crisis. But that approach shifted as the virus spread within the senior ranks of the establishment and resulted in the deaths of two senior military officers. There had been a similar and even more severe such situation in Iran, with senior regime ranks being directly impacted by COVID-19. While Egypt was never in a position to undertake a full lockdown, it was still nonetheless clear that it was now coming to grips with a crisis situation that could not be avoided or ignored. Like other low-income countries, Egypt could not bear the economic costs associated with the lockdowns undertaken in much of the rest of the world. With a higher share of extreme poverty, large informal sectors and minimal social safety nets, such countries have been forced by necessity to improvise and tailor their responses.
Public health information is of course limited by a lack of capacity and testing, so there is no question that the information presented by regional governments represents an undercount—but in this respect, the countries of the region are no different than the vast majority of countries dealing with the pandemic. And while the Middle East has so far avoided some of the worst-case scenarios that were initially contemplated in the earliest stages of the pandemic, transmission is increasing region-wide. There was some initial speculation that a variety of region-specific factors might temper the spread, but those hopes have come to seem misguided.
To go back to Egypt, we see a country struggling to deal with the health, economic and social impact of expanded transmission. And while it has been forced by circumstance to divulge the basic public health information it has collected, it has also begun to resort to more traditional forms of repression to deal with rising criticism of its public health response, particularly from physicians and the doctors syndicate, who have been raising the alarm over the lack of sufficient personal protective equipment for front-line healthcare workers. Those deficiencies can be seen in the rising toll that the disease has taken on Egypt’s healthcare workers, and the Sisi regime seems intent on squelching that kind of public criticism. Lastly, it should also be noted that Egypt has otherwise continued along with its standard approach to governance and political life. There have been no course corrections, no preemptive release of detainees or modulating of political repression more generally. In fact, Egypt has seen a recent wave of morality arrests tied to young women and TikTok videos. Apart from their absurdity, these arrests are also indicative of a regime that is wholly unwilling to modulate its approaches to governance even in the midst of a set of overriding crises.
How do you predict this will affect governance in individual countries?
I do think the particular challenge posed by COVID-19 is different from the usual forms of criticism and dissent that governments throughout the region have become adept at dealing with. And this is also magnified by the repercussions of the health crisis, most notably in terms of economic impact. Even those countries, such as Syria, which appear to have fared somewhat better than initially expected in terms of public health, cannot escape this moment of globalized economic recession. When combined with increased transmission and spread of disease, it becomes much more difficult to imagine business as usual. In that setting, criticism of public health response takes on a different import than standard political opposition.
Indeed, we are seeing that now in Egypt and the response of the Sisi regime to criticism over its handling of the pandemic. While criticism of any sort in an autocratic environment is inherently political, the more narrow focus on a crisis that impacts all of society has a different and deeper resonance than the standard political contestation of divided societies. The virus does not differentiate among political groups or spare regime supporters. For that reason, I do think we will see continued efforts to squelch those critiques, but the repression of doctors and health care workers in the midst of a pandemic is a potentially risky approach that may trigger resentment and backlash even among the apolitical and regime supporters.
Further, the globalized nature of this crisis means that managing the virus is not only a matter for domestic governance, but also requires regional and international cooperation and collaboration. The state of global response is not encouraging in the least, and the Middle East lacks the institutional infrastructure to deal with this crisis on a regional basis. This kind of cross-border phenomenon highlights the institutional gaps in the region and the lack of regional security structures in position to help coordinate a regional response.
Of course, fundamentally, much of this will continue to be a function of the course of the disease. We are seemingly in the early stages of this global public health crisis, and we remain fairly ignorant about what is yet to come and its severity.
How will the virus shape U.S. strategy and goals in the region?
It’s hard to even begin to grapple with this particular question when thinking through the various contingencies at play. I mentioned previously the scope and severity of the pandemic as perhaps the most salient factor in terms of shaping the region’s outlook, and that remains the case in terms of what kind of region the United States will be responding to and interacting with. While domestic governance and international cooperation will have a major impact on shaping that outcome, the most obvious contingency relates to the United States, namely our upcoming presidential election. It is essentially impossible to speak of the United States as a consistent and predictable presence when evaluating U.S. foreign policy under Trump. While a return to the status quo ante is impossible at this stage—the unipolar moment of the post-Cold War years is long behind us at this point, littered with the unforced errors and blundering that characterized that era—it is not unreasonable to imagine vastly different approaches depending on the outcome of the November election.
But setting aside future U.S. politics, it is also clear that the region itself is undergoing a series of concurrent crises, some of which preceded the pandemic and have been further exacerbated by it. The financial and economic crises in Lebanon and Iraq, for instance, are such that the very ability of these governments to undertake the most basic of public services is genuinely in question. These stresses are further impoverishing the societies of the region and creating a host of new governance and development challenges that will eventually spill over and focus the attention of the United States and other interested parties.
Is there any hope this crisis could have a pacifying effect on various conflicts in the region?
At the outset of the pandemic, at a time when many analysts were contemplating potential worst-case outcomes, there was a great deal of commentary and analysis about how the pandemic might affect conflict dynamics. So far, we haven’t seen major changes in the intensity of conflict in the region. Those conflicts have continued, impervious to the global crises unfolding around them. It’s very possible that that trajectory will continue.
There were some initial thoughts that the stresses of the pandemic might temper Iran’s regional adventurism, but we have not seen any material changes to Iran’s behavior. The U.S. approach to Iran has represented one of the very few consistent areas of policy focus for the Trump administration and at this point the two countries are locked in this phase of mutual suspicion. It’s difficult to imagine any major change on Iran in the coming months, and this is another problem set that will likely require a change in administration for there to be any kind of diplomatic opening.
We have seen the continuity of conflict in Yemen as well, where an impoverished, war-impacted country is now dealing with increasing disease while also continuing along its current path of conflict along multiple axes. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated recently that COVID-19 is spreading rapidly and now has a 25% fatality rate, which is five times the current global average. Those are staggering figures and are a clear demonstration of the catastrophic impact of this pandemic on vulnerable conflict societies. Yemen was the Arab world’s poorest country even before the war and the pandemic, so the public health risks are frightening. We are oftentimes drawn to the possibility of rupture or major change, but it’s quite possible to envisage a future in which the countries of the region are sicker and poorer but continue their grinding and intractable conflicts. That being said, the disease will also have its say. If transmission expands rapidly and produces public health outcomes approximating the worst-case scenarios considered at the outset, it’s very difficult to imagine that the region’s wars would be unaffected.