As events are still unfolding, it is too early to forecast the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic (CVP) on the already unstable region. Also, it is hard to make generalizations as the crisis is affecting the MENA countries in different ways. In a few cases, like Iran, it is a national catastrophe with tens of thousands of patients. In others, the number of confirmed infections remains currently limited.
In the 2019 report of the Fragile States Index, most of the MENA countries statuses were classified as either ‘warning’ or alert’, with remarkably low abilities to provide their citizens with public services. Therefore, on the one hand the CVP poses a real challenge to the MENA states capacities, as well as legitimacy: Not only how to take adequate measures to stop the virus spreading and to provide decent healthcare to affected citizens, but also how to deal with the devastating economic slowdown which will follow. Poor performance by some governments could lead to a new wave of political unrest and demonstrations, region-wide or sporadic, with unpredictable consequences.
On the other hand, the CVP crisis could further nourish the entrenched authoritarianism and statism in the region. Rising fears and existential threats are the perfect pretexts for the state to flex its muscles and expand its power. The exceptional measures of curfews and digital surveillance could be the new reality which peoples of the region have to accept under the excuse of maintaining order and improving the state’s functionality. As the liberal democratic regimes appear awkwardly inefficient during the CVP crisis, the model of the intervening, highly centralized, artificial intelligence empowered state could be the champion of the coming age.
Taking this into consideration, it is unclear how the CVP will affect the autocratic regimes in the region. It all depends on how severely the crisis unfolds in each particular case and how efficiently the political regimes manage the crisis. In Egypt, as an example, the challenge is still manageable, and the number of confirmed cases is still relatively low. This partially reflects the efficiency of the protective measures taken by the government but could also be partly attributed to underdiagnosis of the disease.
Given the limited capacity of the healthcare system in Egypt (health expenditure is only 5.3% of GDP with 7.9 medical doctors and 16 hospital beds per 10 000 inhabitants) and the poor state of the Egyptian economy (a high rate of unemployment with tourism being a major source of income), the CVP crisis could have a severely destabilizing effect if things get out of control.