China appears to have won the first battle against the coronavirus after reporting its first day without new cases, thus providing a potential authoritarian blueprint for how to contain the spread.
As the epicenter of the crisis moves to Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, a region beset by socio-political turmoil is not far behind. The last decade has defined the Arab World by its struggle for freedom, but this could radically transform as citizens shift their demand to security, and could be on the cusp of surrendering hard fought civil liberties for short term results, but at what costs?
Authoritarian source or solution?
The uncompromising authoritarian approach adopted by the People’s Republic was swiftly adopted by other authoritarian regimes, in the UAE and Saudi Arabia most notably. Both regimes are well versed in lock downs on public gatherings, monitoring movement and restricting civil liberties and at first glance the moves seem to have stymied the flow.
However, like China, both countries have track records of using bogeymen to justify and legitimize an ongoing contraction of the public space. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have used the purported threat of terrorism to justify the state’s totalitarian control on the public sphere, and this casts doubt on the credibility of their actions. The UAE’s counterterrorism legislation labelled “antagonizing the state” and “stirring panic” as acts of terror with severe penalties for regime maintenance purposes.
The laws have been used to curtail civil society, political dissent and is virtually indistinguishable from China’s response to whistle-blowers early on in the breakout. China’s announcement of no new cases this week has offered hope, but Chinese leaders’ credibility is also in question. Their suppression of the truth and tight authoritarian grip on information in December exacerbated the crisis, as they lied, the virus spread around the globe and peopled died.
Citizens living under authoritarianism cannot force their own regimes to tell the truth, and neither can other states who need to deal with them. As the crisis is global, international coordination is critical, and open access to information by states, scientists, and statisticians help us better understand and prepare as the virus spreads. It is essential to discern honest facts from fiction as authoritarians often instrumentalize crises in the information space for regime maintenance.
Big Brother and the prisoner’s dilemma
In the short term, the most controversial measures could be the most effective at turning the tide of the virus. Israel is already tracking the physical movement of infected individuals, and warning citizens they interacted with by SMS of potential infections to break the chain of transmission. Italian and French Police enforced lockdowns are confining people to their homes as governments fear society is not responsible enough to act without authoritarian measures.
Liberal democracies face an impossible task; granting governments the right to bypass democratic hurdles to act swiftly may help restrict the spread of the virus, but for how long and at what cost?
Public panic and urgency to act serve as the pretext for a radical reframing of the social contract by authoritarians. Panic ripens citizens into swiftly surrender their civil rights in exchange for perceived security. In the past decade the term “terrorist” was used by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt as a pretext to restrict attempts to fashion a new social contract during the Arab Spring based on freedom from Autocrats in exchange for an authoritarian social contract based on security from the “terrorists.”
The COVID-19 pandemic offers a more potent version of such a threat. The panic offers authoritarians a real pretext to employ modern technology and new tools for mass surveillance and detention under the guise of forced quarantine to save lives. This pretext and these tools help construct new totalitarian states, and new ways of regime maintenance and security.
Disinformation campaigns by China have already begun as bots praise their authoritarian measures, whilst suppressing information on Fang Bin, who disappeared under the guise of forced quarantine after releasing the first footage of dead bodies from Wuhan. Beijing is seemingly prepared to turn on anyone who challenges the state’s narrative. Abu Dhabi has followed suit, its tightly regulated and controlled social media landscape has seen its most popular influencer, comedian Khaled Al Ameri, turn to more serious matters, subtly reminding their citizens they would be penalized for spreading “fake news” around Corona Virus.
To cover or recover?
COVID-19 will likely tear through the Arab world in the near future and act as an acid test as to how governments manage the crisis and their resilience. The pandemic will likely demonstrate the need for accountability measures if governments mishandle the crisis, anti-corruption measures to ensure natural resources are spent appropriately on ailing infrastructure before a crisis starts, and democratic freedoms in order to ensure information is not suppressed or manipulated. The question today is, are authoritarian regimes enacting measures to deal with the spread of the virus today, or preparing themselves for the backlash from their citizens tomorrow if they’re not?
Financially, the UAE has followed China taking early measures to continue delivering public services and announcing huge budgets to tackle the crisis to counter act the short term effects, but authoritarians elsewhere in the Arab World such as Mohammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, or Khalifa Haftar in Libya do not have the same financial resources, or a well-endowed rentier state to deal with the long term impact of the crisis.
Nevertheless, in the shadows of the pandemic, MbS is consolidating his grip on power, “cleansing” the kingdom’s religious elite, as well as the mass detaining political opponents, whilst facing a major economic crisis sparked by a trade war with Russia. In Egypt, Sisi has promised an astronomical $6 billion to combat COVID-19 as the country appears overwhelmed with containing the public health crisis. In Libya, Hafter has dressed his militia in face masks and sent them to disinfect airports in an optic measure to assure the public they are capable of fighting the virus and divert attention from the $23 billion he has accrued in debt for his war efforts, which would paralyze any financial attempts to prepare for the fight against the virus.
The response has to be inclusive not elitist
With growing liberal enthusiasm for China’s swift authoritarian response, many forget Beijing’s initial ignorance and disinformation caused COVID-19 to spread globally. There are other liberal success stories: through proactive and efficient measures and a high state of readiness, China’s breakaway republic Taiwan was able to get the pandemic under control early, without authoritarianism, mass surveillance or arbitrary restrictions on individual movement; and Italy was able to build a makeshift hospital in 72 hours.
There will inevitable be a pre and post-corona world, and the decisions taken today will leave a profound footprint on tomorrow. The only viable way of managing the crisis is not a shrinking of the public space in favor of the state, but a widening of the public space in partnership with the state in order to meet the challenge. Adopting authoritarian measures in exchange for liberal rights may seem seductive at first, but authoritarian measures are the reason for the virus spreading into a pandemic. And once rights are lost, they may not be easily regained tomorrow. To quote from Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice “The spirits I summoned – I can’t get rid of them.”