The new coronavirus may be deepening dictatorship in parts of the Middle East already tightly controlled by authoritarian regimes. However, there is a subtle change at work as well—not in the degree of authoritarianism but in its nature.
Close attention to the ways policies are made and presented reveals significant shifts in governance in the region with regard to who makes policies, the ways they are presented, and how they are implemented. Such changes are often evolutionary rather than revolutionary, building on patterns evident before the pandemic. Partly for that reason, there is diversity in responses. It will not be clear until the crisis has subsided whether the current shifts represent blips or harbingers.
One such shift is a rise in the appeal of technical expertise. In many countries new actors within the state apparatus seem to be playing a larger role in implementing and even driving policy. Religious establishments, medical syndicates, and local governments seem to be taking initiative on their own in some countries, but not all, rather than reacting to higher-level direction.
In some countries this is old news but sometimes delivered with new emphasis. In North Africa, deference to technocrats in some areas is well-established. In Saudi Arabia, recent political changes have led to an obsession with rising in quantitative international rankings in a manner that has led to improvement in government performance.
However, technocrats have stepped forward where they had been less visible previously. The Egyptian prime minister, a soft-spoken engineer, along with the health minister, have been the most visible faces for government information and policy. The president still presides, but leaves details to others. In Saudi Arabia, the spokesperson of the Health Ministry conducts daily briefings on the coronavirus and, with the health minister, is becoming quite a public figure. In many countries, new task forces of technocrats have emerged—prompting the question of whether this is a new way of doing things or simply a method of shifting attention.
A second shift has occurred with respect to those who appear publicly in charge. More generally, whatever is happening behind the scenes, autocratic rulers are often stepping back and allowing technical experts and formerly faceless officials to take the lead in explaining policies and providing information. This may be part of a global trend in which democratically-elected leaders seek to show they are in charge, even if they do so by drawing on technical expertise. Autocrats, in turn, appear more likely to allow others to deliver bad news and unwelcome instructions.
But this is not a uniform trend. Two of the region’s monarchs, King Mohammed VI in Morocco and King Salman in Saudi Arabia, have been prominent in public— the former visibly governing and not just reigning. This may be part of an effort to emphasize unifying national symbols (Al-Azhar in Egypt, for instance, has stepped forward). In many countries, when the president or monarch emerges it is to deliver good news, relief, or exhort officials to action.
Standing at the forefront of the responses presents leaders with both opportunity and risk. Being publicly in charge in the short term can boost legitimacy, heightening the image of a savior. However, in the long term it raises the risk of accountability. Should the crisis take a particularly hard toll on any of these countries, the rulers placing themselves at the heart of the crisis response might find it harder to deflect blame than if they had stayed in the background.
A third shift is the diminution of fragmentation, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories. There might be some good news here in a region in which regimes sometimes have divided their populations, blamed outsiders, or sought scapegoats. Those habits have not died, but they seem to be less in evidence at the moment, perhaps because public health measures depend on compliance that does not run aground on ethnic differences, sectarian disputes, or borders.
An organic collective agreement may actually be rising in some places to focus on immediate and aggressive measures rather than indulge in conspiracy theories and use these to further divide populations. The Saudi leadership has dug into traditional forms of inclusive statecraft and sources of legitimacy to generate cross-sector compliance, while allowing criticism of recent trends in nationalism. In Egypt, religious institutions have insisted on some autonomy, but successfully coordinated responses on the matter of public assemblies for worship.
A fourth shift pertains to enhanced policing of information. Because of the coronavirus, the centrality of states in gathering and providing information is even more remarkable than usual. Technology may facilitate daily lives under lockdown, but it also aids in the official control of information.
This is not a new trend. Indeed, in comparison to many other regions, what is striking in the states of the Middle East is the extent to which official actors dominate all public discussions. There are few fully independent media, trusted non-official experts, or communities of specialists that have a public voice. There are some limited exceptions—such as Egypt’s Doctors’ Syndicate, an officially chartered body—that have stepped forward. Religious institutions, generally part of the state, still have credibility in some quarters since some of their instructions (beyond closing mosques) offer moral guidance rather than coercing compliance.
However, it should be stressed that the monopoly is on public information. In a region in which trust in state institutions is often low and social networks—based on face-to-face interactions and social media—are often rich, residents have long exchanged information through less public channels. The opportunity offered by the crisis to suppress “false information”—much of it indeed false, but sometimes merely inconvenient or embarrassing—is one on which few regimes can pass.
A fifth shift is that the coronavirus has activated new local and civil society participants. In some countries, the crisis has created openings for disempowered or overlooked actors—municipalities, provincial councils, grassroots organizations, private voluntary bodies—to step into the breach, providing services and disseminating supplies, supplying information, and translating general national guidance into specific local measures.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, the leadership is promoting volunteerism, both among citizens and the private sector. In Egypt, local government seems more active. But this appears limited to some areas. In Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, as the situation normalizes civil society groups are carving out room to raise awareness, share in the burden of service provision, and support the vulnerable. In other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, there is renewed space for charitable activity though under official supervision. These efforts are nascent, but they do create openings or civil society which had in some countries been purposefully weakened. In other countries, there is a clear mixing of social responsibility with policing, since individuals or philanthropic and civil society organizations risk finding themselves implicated in official monitoring efforts.
A sixth shift is that while most states are addressing the impact of the coronavirus independently of each other at the diplomatic level, the nature of the crisis has led states to mimic each others’ actions or present themselves as avoiding their mistakes. Residents are very aware of the actions taken in other countries, which creates strong pressures on governments to select which items on the short menu of responses they choose to adopt. This leads to a remarkable convergence, even in the vocabulary used to describe policies.
The result of these uneven trends is not an end to authoritarianism, and is certainly not democratic. In many, but not all, countries it is lending a more technocratic face to governance. It might lead to openings to civil society or a broadening of regimes in some places if the new actors show their utility or develop strong constituencies. It may be vaguely akin to what Latin American societies experienced during the 1960s and 1970s and dubbed “bureaucratic authoritarianism.” This was a variety of dictatorial rule led by the military (or, in the present-day Arab world, presidents or monarchs), contemptuous of popular mobilization, unconcerned with civil and political rights, but seeing itself as providing for order and allowing those with expertise to make decisions.
The looming shorter-term question is whether such tactical adjustments can help societies confront the coronavirus crisis. And the longer-term question is whether such tactical adjustments evolve into strategic ones. However, that long term might be unusually short. Expectations that the state will protect its citizens from harm and ensure that their basic needs are met are likely to grow salient. As restrictions on movement and public life ease and publics reemerge, they may come out of their physical isolation with greatly reconfigured patterns of trust, aware of which institutions helped them and which ones failed.