The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a new wave of repression within the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East, particularly strategic American allies like Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf kingdoms. Lockdowns in the region since March have been among the world’s strictest. Under official states of emergency, draconian restrictions on public movement have foreclosed the one thing rulers have feared the most since the Arab Spring — spontaneous mass protests.
This has allowed many Mideast autocrats to commence new onslaughts against opposition. Whereas 2019 saw popular mobilization break out once more across the Arab world, this year will be remembered as one of gang-busting retribution. That the U.S. has remained silent is unsurprising, given its tendency to prioritize geopolitical imperatives like military hegemony, oil production, and Israeli interests over democratic concerns in the region. While the U.N. has warned of the “human rights disaster” as dictatorships securitize the pandemic, American officials have not acknowledged the uptick of authoritarian abuses, least of all in its allies.
This carries heavy consequences. American complicity not only further shreds its waning credibility as a diplomatic force for democracy, it leaves U.S. foreign policy with few options once worsening repression, economic collapse, and political anger converge to produce further unrest. The Arab Spring’s enduring lesson remains apropos: youthful societies brutalized by coercive deprivation are bound to resist. When that happens, those societies will be loath to see America as a trustworthy partner.
The dramatic uptick in political repression has manifest in several ways. First, many autocrats are settling old scores with prevailing opposition. Authoritarian regimes already possess security organs and intelligence directorates capable of suppressing dissent. However, the pandemic has physically immobilized populations, something that most dictators could only dream about before. Not only are protests illegal under conditions approximating martial law, but critics cannot escape their country.
This makes opposition easy targets. Jordan has suspended its 100,000-strong teachers union in a move widely seen as payback for last September’s teacher strikes, which paralyzed schools and forced authorities into giving a rare concession for higher wages. Morocco is staging political trials to muzzle its most prominent journalists and editors, who in the past investigated sensitive issues like state corruption. Neighboring Algeria has detained hundreds of activists in a bid to finally break the Hirak protest movement which erupted last year. The same pattern goes for Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to arrest princes and bureaucrats seen as a threat to his political ambitions.
The second repressive strategy has seen autocratic regimes enact high-tech mass surveillance. Effective authoritarianism requires not just monitoring public speech, but also penetrating the private lives of citizens such that fear of coercion — and not just coercion itself — induces silence. Many dictatorships, such as Russia and China, have become avid adopters of digital tools and AI-driven technologies to shadow their citizens in this way. The pandemic has become pretense for similarly intimate intrusions to permeate the Arab world.
Both poor and rich countries have moved in this direction. For instance, Morocco still struggles with significant poverty and illiteracy, but its cash-strapped government is now deploying an expensive fleet of drones to watch over its residents. In more affluent Kuwait and Bahrain, cyber-activists have discovered that official contact-tracing apps, to be installed on every smartphone, secretly upload GPS location data to government servers in real-time. Yet the most Orwellian system has arisen in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE already had the world’s greatest per-capita concentration of surveillance cameras before the pandemic, which fed into a monitoring system built with American and Israeli input that traced the footsteps of every person. That network has now become interlinked with ubiquitous biometric monitors, such as infrared temperature sensors, to create the closest embodiment to Big Brother ever invented.
Finally, many regimes have exploited the pandemic to expand stifling national security laws. Whereas criticizing the government was always perilous, many countries are now policing public discussions of public health to uproot purported “fake news.” The upshot: fake news means any frank and uncensored opinions, such as worries over the financial effects of the pandemic and whether official statistics are telling the truth. This marks the first time that talk of public health, and not hot-button issues like foreign policy and human rights, have triggered criminal sanction.
In Egypt, for instance, doctors and nurses face arrest should they reveal shortages over personal protective equipment, much less question President Sisi’s claim to have found a cure for the disease. In Bahrain, political prisoners who have disproven government claims to have installed safety measures inside jails, such as replacing family visits with video calls, have been punished with solitary confinement. And in Jordan, the army early on arrested the heads of Roya, one of the kingdom’s few independent television channels, after it aired a news program that allowed unemployed workers to express their worries about surviving the lockdown.
Under normal circumstances, the U.S. would not openly criticize its allies for these moves. Maintaining friendly and stable dictatorships has long anchored its regional grand strategy, and human rights criticisms are selectively reserved for opponents like Iran and Syria. But these are not normal circumstances, because heightened repression raises the likelihood of another Arab Spring.
What’s more is that economic devastation looms. Like the rest of the world, the Arab economies will sharply contract this year. But they are the least equipped to deal with severe recession. Even before the pandemic, the Arab world led the world in youth unemployment (30 percent) as well as inequality, with the top 10 percent claiming nearly two-thirds of income wealth. Two-thirds of the regional population was considered poor or vulnerable to poverty. Lockdowns have been so strict because even outside war-torn countries like Libya, Yemen, and Syria, governments did not have the healthcare resources to deal with even a tiny surge of infections.
Moreover, longstanding political frustrations with authoritarian rule are not vanishing. Demands for more inclusive rule and democratic accountability remain on the table, as protesters see the pandemic as merely an inconvenient pause.
Indeed, since the Arab Spring, anger over this governance deficit has repeatedly fueled new uprisings that defy expectations of quietism. In 2018, Morocco faced insurrections in its Rif region, while Jordan was rocked by anti-austerity demonstrations. Popular protests roiled Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, Sudan, and Kuwait last year. And today, the Lebanese public shows little sign of backing down after the port explosion.
These factors of unremitting repression, economic stagnation, and political grievances comprised the incendiary recipe for the Arab Spring. Today, the pandemic has amplified them. This leaves a stark choice to American officials. If the U.S. does not at least recognize the possibility of more political unrest, it will be caught flatfooted once again. This time, however, protest movements and new governments will have no reason to trust American commitments to democracy and human rights, no matter who wins the November elections.
Yet diplomatic standing is what the U.S. needs to engage regional problems constructively. Despite the drumming of warhawks in Washington, the idea of deploying hard power alone to reshape the Middle East has lost its allure among many policymakers. Skeptics of militarism have a powerful argument: American or U.S.-supported interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen have failed to produce anything except conflict and dysfunction.
Moving forward, carving out a primal role in regional affairs means building a credible record of diplomatic action. The U.S. is losing that opportunity now.