Can Protest Movements in the MENA Region Turn COVID-19 Into an Opportunity for Change?

COVID-19 has offered regimes in the region the opportunity to end popular protest. The squares of Algiers, Baghdad, and Beirut – all packed with protesters over the past few months – are now empty due to the pandemic, and political gatherings have also been suspended. In Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon, COVID-19 has achieved what snipers, pro-regime propaganda, and even the economic crisis, could not.

Moreover, political regimes have taken advantage of the crisis to expand their control over the political sphere by arresting their opponents, such as in Algeria where the authorities have cracked down on a number of active voices of the Hirak movement. Similarly, in Lebanon, security forces have used the pandemic as an excuse to crush sit-ins held in Martyr’s Square in Beirut and Nour Square in Tripoli.

However, despite the challenges that the pandemic has brought, it also offers opportunities for protest movements in the region. While the crisis has put an end to popular mobilization in the streets, it has  created new forms of activism in the shape of solidarity initiatives to help those affected by its consequences.

In Iraq, for example, protest groups have directed their work towards awareness-raising and sharing essential food to help mitigate the problem of food shortages and rising prices across the country. In Algeria, Hirak activists have run online campaigns to raise awareness about the virus and have encouraged people to stay at home. Others have been cleaning and disinfecting public spaces. These initiatives increase the legitimacy of the protest movement, and if coupled with political messages, could offer these movements an important chance to expand their base of popular support.

Exposes economic vulnerability

Economic grievances, corruption and poor provision of public services have been among the main concerns of this recent wave of protests. This pandemic only further exposes the levels of economic vulnerability in the region. COVID-19 is laying bare the socio-economic inequalities in MENA countries; this is particularly evident in the numbers of people engaged in the informal economy with no access to social security, including health insurance and pensions.

Informal employment, approximately calculated by the share of the labour force not contributing to social security, is estimated to amount to 65.5% of total employment in Lebanon, 64.4% in Iraq, and 63.3% in Algeria(opens in new window). The crisis has underscored the vulnerability of this large percentage of the labour force who have been unable to afford the economic repercussions of following state orders to stay at home.

The situation has also called attention to the vital need for efficient public services and healthcare systems. According to the fifth wave of the Arab Barometer, 74.4% of people in Lebanon are dissatisfied with their country’s healthcare services, as are 67.8% of people in Algeria and 66.5% in Iraq.

Meanwhile, 66.2% of people in Lebanon believe it is necessary to pay a bribe in order to receive better healthcare, as do 56.2% of people in Iraq and 55.9% in Algeria. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the need for more government investment in public healthcare systems to render them more efficient and less corrupt, strengthening the protesters’ case for the need for radical socio-economic reforms.

Read full article at Chatham House