We should note the absence of any pretense to coordinate national responses at the regional level —whether in the GCC or Arab League (or at the transregional level of even the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)). This is, however, not surprising. The last meeting of the Arab League was cancelled allegedly due to corona virus (and disagreements over re-admitting Syria as a member). The region has consistently failed to cooperate on seemingly less-political issues such as disaster management. Low levels of trust between the regional states prevent the sharing of data, expertise, and best practices among the League members. As our Al Sharq Forum book on Regional Security Architecture noted, the Arab League has utterly failed to coordinate policies and share data for disaster management in the region.
The GCC has also proved so far useless in this process. The COVID-19 pandemic confirms once more that any coordination of response and close cooperation inside the region exists only at a bilateral or trilateral level at best, and for strategic purposes (as in the UAE offering assistance to Syria). Likewise, the OIC is so far irrelevant as a mechanism despite, as noted in the book released by Al Sharq Forum, several steps having been taken in the right direction institutionally in the last decade. Through its Islamic Development Bank the OIC announced a miniscule package of $2 billion for (so far) 45 members out of 57 which have been affected by the current pandemic.
Civil-military-Coronavirus relations in the MENA region
As the MENA region is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic just like everywhere else in the world, there is a trend requiring our attention. The region is manifesting different patterns regarding military involvement in national responses to the pandemic. In Turkey the armed forces are only mentioned as an object to be protected from the pandemic, whilst in other countries militaries appear to be either partners to (civilian and military) governments in designing policies, or helping tackle national responses to this pandemic by implementing national/local lockdown orders.
I should note that this trend is not restricted to the MENA region. State capacity in even some advanced democracies has proved incapable of dealing with this challenge and civilian governments have requested assistance from their militaries. Examples include the Trump administration asking the US Air Force to transport test kits from abroad and the Italian government deploying army vehicles to transport bodies from hospitals to cemeteries. Nonetheless, in western countries such as Italy or the USA, this trend is unlikely to challenge civil-military relations.
In contrast, things may become more complicated in the wider MENA region and beyond. The pandemic has coincided with delicate transitions in some MENA countries such as Tunisia and Algeria, while in Iran it has overlapped widespread civilian protests and mounting external pressure on the regime. Rumors of the regime hiding the true numbers of infected and dead may ignite further protests against the revolutionary guards and regime in Iran. The Hirak movement in Algeria will be affected by the corona virus threat too. Although how exactly is still unknown, possibilities include the movement losing momentum, or an escalation in opposition to it if the Algerian state fails to tackle the pandemic.
We should also note that military participation in national response strategies against the COVID-19 pandemic may be unlike natural disasters such as earthquakes where a military itself is not immediately affected. Hence it is able to help victims with evacuation, search and rescue, post-disaster reconstruction, and therefore may garner political influence or enhance already existing political power. On the contrary, this pandemic has the potential to affect militaries all the way from the US army (soldiers in Afghanistan have already been infected in addition to fears about military contagion on US soil) to the Egyptian army, some of whose senior-level members have already died from the corona virus.
Therefore, the prestige and aura of militaries are just as prone to being undermined by this pandemic as civilian governments. In Tunisia, the army has been lauded for allowing a transition to democratic civilian rule, yet the participation of the military in both designing and implementing the national response strategy to Covid-19 has been glaringly obvious. It will be interesting to follow what that means, both if the Tunisian army’s involvement will prove durable beyond this pandemic, and how civil-military relations transform in the country.
In places such as Pakistan, the pandemic is just another boon to the army. As the pandemic hits Pakistan at it is weakest points – the state capacity to manage a large population with poor health infrastructure and a weak police force – the Pakistan army now effectively controls policy even at the expense of contradicting Imran Khan government’s initial stance on the pandemic. In Bangladesh and Lebanon, armies have been called on to streets to enforce lockdowns, yet a coup d’état in either country is not expected (at the moment). Enhanced popularity may still be a side benefit to all armies involved in this process, which in turn may be used for political purposes in the future.
In places where the army is effectively ruling, as in Egypt, the Egyptian army’s initial response to the pandemic has been to make sure that only it can ‘address’ the problem. Similar to the issue of food insecurity in the 1990s, the Egyptian army has come forward, claimed a role for itself and started firing empty cannons by ‘disinfecting’ asphalt roads in downtown Cairo. However, if the Sisi government is perceived to be failing to effectively fight the pandemic, and the Egyptian economy is hit as hard as many others, new dynamics could emerge and civil-military relations could once again get complicated.