It is written in history that the year 2020, the year of the coronavirus pandemic, was one of the most difficult years in human history, after the black plague in the Middle Ages and world wars in the 20th century. Over the past millennium, the human genius challenged several global crises and turned them into opportunities.
This pandemic is no different. Several positive changes in various aspects of life are already being generated out of humans’ attempts to survive the fatal microscopic virus. This article lists only a few ways, in which the COVID-19 crisis positively changed the long-standing dynamics of political power, governance, and socio-political interactions in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
To limit the spread of the Coronavirus, each country had to close its borders and isolate itself from the rest of the world, while domestically forcing a curfew or a complete lockdown. Accordingly, every government, in every country, found itself forced to face the crisis alone in a tough battle to rescue people’s lives, while also preserving a stable economy and an unwavering system of governance. Ironically, the illiberal and non-democratic governments were the ones that performed better in this battle. Perhaps, because these governments have stronger control over private sector businesses and individual citizens and most of the wealth of the country is under the government’s control.
However, in the process of governments combating the virus, the relationship between the citizen and the state, in MENA countries, has been redefined, in a way that may positively affect the political future of the MENA region, if not the whole world. Here is how:
First: Citizens are becoming more active in filling the vacuum in government-provided services, rather than complaining or government failure by just waiting for the government to reform its bureaus.
Second: Civil society organizations are becoming more engaged with grass-roots citizens on issues that are immediately relevant to improving the quality of their lives, like economic reform and health care. Before, civil society organizations, especially in Arab Spring countries, were mostly focused on political rights and civil freedoms. As a result, they were seen by governments as an upsetting group of covert politicians, and by grass-roots citizens as the detached elite. The newly expanding role of civil society, after the pandemic, helped change this image. At least, it put civil society organizations in a new light in the eyes of the government, which started to see them as essential partners, rather than trouble-making groups of activists.
Third: The pandemic is redefining the way MENA citizens and governments are approaching the conversation on human rights. Since the Arab Spring revolutions, erupted in 2010, the focus has always been on political and civil rights as transnational human rights issues. In contrast, economic and social rights (such as healthcare, education, and housing) have always been viewed as internal issues that each country should work to reform on its own. But, thanks to the pandemic, economic and social rights are now becoming a transnational tans-border issue that countries can cooperate and work on together. As we have seen for example in the exchange of medical supplies and medical technology between countries, in the past few months.
Fourth: The pandemic redefined the role of the military within the civil government. It renewed the old debate on the “non-traditional role” (the political and economic role) of the armed forces, within the civil state. For long, the economic autonomy of the armed forces, in Egypt for example, has been criticized for its potential negative influence on market competition and the opportunities provided to the private sector to grow through an open market economy. But, the pandemic put this argument to the test. Since the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis, in Egypt, for example, the private sector hesitated to aid the government in managing the crisis. Rather, private sector leaders deliberately abused the state of panic among the people and attempted to increase their profits by practicing monopoly over basic food and medical commodities. At that moment, the armed forces and its affiliated food and medical factories intervened to provide a ‘parallel arrangement’ ready to satisfy people’s needs, and, thus, forced the private sector to cooperate.
Fifth: The Coronavirus pandemic helped with upgrading the government’s capacity in terms of using information technology. The pandemic accelerated the pace of technological transformation of public services and educational institutions. In Egypt, for example, we witnessed a technological revolution in both the education and judicial sectors. Also, the information technology tools were heavily used by candidates for parliamentary elections to manage their electoral campaigns and reach out to their potential voters. This indirectly contributed to limiting the corrupt practices that usually take place during pre-election public gatherings to influence the voters.
The aforementioned few observations are proof that the Coronavirus pandemic has positively changed the MENA region, and the whole world, for good, at least in the governance sector and on the level of state-citizen relationship. Keeping and building on these positive transformations is our next challenge.
Also, read it on The Levant