How the Coronavirus Pandemic Exposes and Exacerbates the Middle East’s Long-Standing Governance Problems

An artist paints a mural in Gaza City on April 20, 2020.

As the novel coronavirus spreads across the globe, journalists, policy analysts, and international institutions within and outside of the Middle East have raised the alarm about what the pandemic will mean for the already-troubled region. Long-term violent conflicts, persistent economic crises, and ongoing political unrest across the Middle East will likely magnify the effects of the pandemic. Weak governance and poor transparency make it difficult to get a clear idea of the extent to which the virus has already spread, but almost every country in the region has now reported infections and deaths—unsurprising given the region’s proximity to the hotspot in Italy and close economic ties with China.

Some countries such as Iran and Egypt have attempted to deny and downplay the scope of the problem. Iran, for instance, hosts more than half of the region’s total reported cases. The country is consumed by a national outbreak that, according to lowball government statistics, has killed nearly 5,200 people and infected another 83,500. The Egyptian government likewise downplayed the scope and scale of the coronavirus spread, claiming in February that Egypt had just three cases when it likely had more than 6,000 cases. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, implemented comprehensive preventive measures almost immediately. Even so, many members of the vast Saudi royal family appear to have contracted the virus, including the governor of Riyadh.

Other countries such as Syria, Libya, and Yemen remain wracked by violent conflict and have been unable to implement any public health measures at all. Yemen has the lowest reported infection rate in the region—not because it lacks infections but because the five-year civil war makes widespread testing all but impossible. Halting attempts at a ceasefire in Yemen might clear the way for more testing, but the large populations that this conflict has displaced are ill-equipped to implement public health measures such as physical distancing or frequent hand-washing that could slow the spread of the virus.

Similarly, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza adds a further complication to implementing effective coronavirus containment measures. Conflicts continue to rage in Syria and Libya, and the combination of the global economic downturn and an oil price war means wealthy Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia will not be able to backstop strategically important but economically underdeveloped nations such as Jordan and Lebanon. Faltering government responses to the virus itself will increase popular discontent with ruling regimes, even if curfews and lockdowns prevent that discontent from materializing in the short run.

Large prison populations are at high risk

On top of these concerns, hundreds of thousands of people remain detained in prisons across the Middle East. These squalid, under-resourced, and overcrowded prisons will almost certainly prove impossible to completely sanitize or enforce effective physical distancing, either for those they hold—many of them activists and journalists—or those employed as guards and administrators. Making matters even worse, rampant torture and poor nutrition in many of these prisons compromise immune systems and leave prisoners highly susceptible to complications from COVID-19.

The potential for outbreaks in prisons is not a problem just in the Middle East. Some of the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus—China, South Korea, and Spain among them—have had to contend with massive outbreaks of the virus in their prisons. To head off the potential disaster, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called for the release of low-risk offenders in addition to every person imprisoned without sufficient legal basis, and several countries have begun to commute sentences or temporarily release prisoners.

The scale of the releases varies across the Middle East. On March 17, Iran—which hosts one of the largest prison populations in the world—pardoned 10,000 prisoners and temporarily released another 85,000 with no date set for reincarceration. Iran’s judiciary estimates 50 percent of those released were political prisoners. For its part, Egypt’s government neither allows independent inspections nor reports how many people it incarcerates, although estimates range up to 60,000. Some Egyptian prisons do not provide personal hygiene products of any kind. Still in the midst of a civil war, Syrians are unable to practice physical distancing or restrict their travel, increasing the likelihood of rapid transmission. Syria is infamous for its packed detention centers and horrifically brutal torture methods, with 1 in 18 Syrians having been detained since the civil war started in 2011. The Assad regime announced on March 22 that it would release some prisoners who were jailed for murder, kidnapping, theft, and desertion—but not political prisoners or nonviolent government protesters.

Other countries in the Middle East have also released prisoners. Bahrain released 1,486 prisoners via royal pardons and noncustodial sentences on March 17, with 300 of those released being political prisoners—many from the 2011 pro-democracy protests. Israel moved 500 prisoners who were close to completing their sentences from prison to house arrest on March 29. And on March 30, Tunisian President Kais Saied authorized the release of 1,420 prisoners.

It is critical that governments develop a humane, effective plan for managing prisoners and prison staff. Immediately reducing overcrowded prison populations in the Middle East is a necessary measure to prevent a catastrophic spread of the coronavirus. Nonviolent and political prisoners should be prioritized for release in the current coronavirus crisis, whether or not governments think they will threaten their hold on political power. That’s a tall order in the Middle East, where Freedom House ranks only two governments—Tunisia and Israel—as free and another four—Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Morocco—as partly free.

Even so, this strategy of releasing prisoners is far from perfect. The last large-scale release of prisoners occurred in 2011, when the Assad regime in Syria deliberately released a number of extremists in order to sow chaos and discredit the emerging opposition. Many of these newly freed Syrian prisoners went on to join al-Qaida or other Salafi-jihadi groups that fought U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. In 2012, moreover, the Islamic State developed a carefully coordinated strategy of prison breaks that has been used to bolster their numbers for years. As recently as March 29, Islamic State militants escaped from a prison in northeastern Syria that is run by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Even combined, these numbers are dwarfed by the number or prisoners released in the second half of March. The effects of this unprecedented groundswell will only be fully understood in the coming years.

Ultimately, the coronavirus crisis highlights the chronic weaknesses of virtually all governments in the Middle East—particularly their weaknesses in providing the basic public services their populations require. As in the United States and elsewhere, the virus has put the region’s already-fragile health care systems under unprecedented strain. Ongoing conflicts have destroyed national health care systems and created populations of displaced people, who are especially susceptible to coronavirus. But the Middle East’s prisons bear the strongest witness to its governance failures: Unable to deliver on what their people expect and want, governments resort to suppressing dissent and locking up nonviolent political offenders such as journalists and activists in overcrowded prisons.

These chronic governance problems have held the Middle East back for decades, going back to before they were first identified by the Arab Human Development Reports. Indeed, these deficits still drove instability in the region right up to the coronavirus outbreak. The current pandemic has put whatever halting progress may have been made toward addressing these countries’ challenges at severe risk. Once the crisis recedes, it will become vital for governments across the Middle East to make the changes necessary to rectify these deficits and provide their people with the effective governance they deserve.

Strengthening governance across the Middle East

While a holistic short-term solution is difficult to determine, the long-term answer is clear: These governments cannot continue to incarcerate large numbers of their own citizens. Imprisoning dissidents as a method to maintain their own grip on power speaks to the continued dysfunctions of the region’s political systems. The impending catastrophe in Middle East prisons is just one horrendous effect of the human rights abuses that have existed for decades. It’s critical that regional governments and international policymakers alike learn lessons from this crisis and enact serious, substantive changes to their systems of governance.

For the United States, this means recognizing that the pre-coronavirus political debates focusing solely on the U.S. military presence in the Middle East ignored wider questions about the nature and purpose of U.S. engagement in the region. The coronavirus pandemic and its effects on the Middle East throw this myopia into stark relief: Regional political, economic, and social systems already groaning under the weight of demographic and economic pressures now face additional strains that could break them.

Focusing narrowly on the number of U.S troops in the region fails to take in to account that the domestic challenges facing societies across Middle East often spill over to affect other parts of the world for the worse. A number of the first Americans and Canadians to come down with the coronavirus contracted it on Nile River cruises in Egypt, for example. A U.S.-Middle East policy that helps the people of the region forge more responsive and capable political, social, and economic institutions would also better protect Americans from the threats of pandemic disease that can flourish wherever weak and unstable governments rule.

Peter Juul is a senior policy analyst for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Jenna Sjogren is a special assistant to the Executive team at the Center.
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