The Caravan

Covid-19 And Middle Eastern Tyranny

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

In the democratic West, many expect there to be a post–Covid-19 reckoning. That politicians who did poorly in handling the pandemic will fall from office. There isn’t a clear understanding of what virological competence in a leader ought to look like (Angela Merkel appears, for now, to be the exemplar), but many executives in the more severely infected nations—for example, Donald Trump, Emanuel Macron, and Boris Johnson—aren’t role models and should be punished. And beyond leadership, many seem to believe that the virus will produce a social and cultural judgment day for national priorities. Much more welfare, more state capitalism, and less defense spending seem to be the themes. Covid-19 will, we are assured, shake and shape us long into the future.  

If the coronavirus were the Black Death, which tore through the Middle East and Europe in the 14th century, or the less lethal but still pulverizing pneumonic plagues that struck later, one might be more quickly sympathetic to the prognostications about the contagion’s convulsive effects. This pandemic isn’t what the historian Ibn Khaldun, who lost his parents and many of his teachers to the Black Death, described:

Civilization both in the East and West was visited by a destructive plague that devastated nations and caused populations to vanish. It swallowed up many of the good things of civilization and wiped them out….Cities and buildings were laid waste, roads and way signs were obliterated, settlements and mansions became empty, dynasties and tribes grew weak. The entire inhabited world changed. 

Certainly in the West, the coronavirus might seriously reorder priorities if economies can’t recover rapidly from the first wave—and can’t withstand subsequent waves—of this malady. It’s reasonable to assume that Covid-19, and deficit spending that many Western nations, especially the United States, are utilizing in an effort to stave off depression, will accelerate the decades-old shift in funds from defense to domestic spending and bring us more quickly to the day when bond markets rebel against debt. A disarming, retrenching America will, of course, have enormous impact abroad. In the Middle East, American power has often checked Russian and Iranian ambitions and made worst-case scenarios, say, Iranian domination of Persian Gulf oil, unthinkable. Neither Russia nor China nor the Islamic Republic—the big three revisionist powers—are likely to respond to the coronavirus and a retreating United States with timidity and isolationism.      

Beyond continuing American retrenchment, does Covid-19 in any way rewrite the politico–economic map in the Muslim Middle East, making dictatorships and democracies weaker or stronger? In particular might this be the nail in the coffin—a viral Chernobyl moment—for the Islamic Republic, which is perhaps the most politically explosive country in the region?  

The big Middle Eastern countries have a distinct medical advantage over their Western counterparts: the median age is much lower. In Iran, the epicenter of the disease in the Middle East, it’s 29.5 years. In Italy, the hardest hit of European countries by Covid-19, the median age is 47.3. In Algeria and Egypt, the two Arab states whose political tumult inevitably reverberates throughout the Mediterranean littoral, the median age is even younger than Iran’s. The median age in Saudi Arabia, the newest coronavirus hotspot among the Arabs, is 30. The damage wrought by this malady on youth is vastly less than on the old.   

We still don’t know how this contagion is going to play out in Egypt’s massive shanty towns. The fate of Algeria, much more plugged into the West via its immigrant population in Europe, with a military junta that may be even more sclerotic than Cairo’s, proven democratic aspirations among the people, and an opposition movement, Hirak, that the regime doesn’t seem able to squash, is also in a possibly precarious situation. Algeria has been hit hard by the drop in prices for oil and natural gas, noticeably spooking and, it appears, dividing the military junta that has dominated the country since the 1960s. Accompanying the collapse of hard-currency revenue, Covid-19 has afflicted several large Algerian cities, where public health facilities are bad to abysmal. French-speaking Algeria has rarely garnered much American attention; it should attract more.  

Among the rich and pampered, the Gulf states will likely survive, mildly scathed. The loss of oil revenue and commerce, in part due directly to the pandemic abroad, is unlikely to convulse these countries given their cash reserves and the eventual return of better petroleum prices. Their foreign manual laborers, on whom much daily life depends, may not fare as well since they are stacked up in poor housing; but they can still probably be forcibly repatriated, if infected, by the local rulers. The arrival of Ramadan this year isn’t a blessing for any Muslim country (the Black Death was so devastating in Egypt in 1349 in part because it struck during Ramadan, when the Muslim identity and communal festivities are fervent). But the Gulf states’ resources should be able to contain the virus.   

Saudi Arabia is the one possible exception given its larger, poorer population and just the general ineptitude of Saudi government. Its cash reserves remain extensive, however, and its public health care system, though degrading, is still probably enough to handle the contagion unless it comes in intensifying waves. A perfect storm may be slowly building in the country if oil prices stay low and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 development plan falls apart, which is likely even without declining revenue. But Covid-19, among the country’s denizens, will probably be a bit player in this drama.   

Muslim families, though smaller and less tight-knit than yesteryear, are still bigger and more cohesive than in the West. It’s possible that if large numbers die from the contagion, the young men who watched their grandparents and parents perish will hold their rulers responsible and seek revenge—still a hallmark of Muslim ethics even in thoroughly detribalized metropolises. But the military regimes in Cairo and Algiers, the two Arab regimes most at risk, like the theocrats in Iran, have all played brutal and successful defense against popular unrest. This is especially true in the Islamic Republic, where the theocracy proved resilient in crushing the gasoline-subsidy protests last November. Hundreds were killed over the span of a few days, many, according to Persian social media, through enfilading machine-gun fire.  

The clerical regime’s response to the petrol protests certainly shows that the Revolutionary Guards and their more thuggish minions in the Basij haven’t lost their capacity to gun down young men and women. To have a game-changing effect, Covid-19 would have to either crack this resolve, embolden protestors to risk their lives with greater abandon, or kill large numbers of the ruling elite, who now are mostly in their seventies, thereby sapping the theocracy’s capacity against the wayward proclivities of the Iranian people. Foreseeing the disease’s denouement in Iran is difficult, especially if it recrudesces more virulently in the fall, but we can surmise that the men who were shooting protestors in November were pretty close in age to those being shot. To wit: the regime has the advantage.    

The same might be said in Lebanon of the Hizbollah, the real power behind the confessional facade of government. Covid-19 hasn’t so far struck the country hard, which is surprising given the substantial contact between the Shi’a community and Iranians, whose travel, like the Chinese’s, has brought the virus in its wake. The Revolutionary Guards come and go as they please in southern Lebanon—unless the Israeli Air Force intervenes. It’s Lebanon’s financial woes, now the worst in the region, that make Covid-19 seem like a small-scale affliction. The country’s financial system, a concatenation of profoundly corrupt banks, is in a state of collapse and nothing—not France, not the International Monetary Fund—can save it. Recent protests, which drew large crowds in the Shiite south before the virus struck, certainly suggest a profound disquiet with religious militancy and Iranian domination of an Arab community that helped to establish Shiism in Iran in the 16th century. In the Levant, Covid-19 will likely just be one more reason to want some distance from Persians.  

Nor is the coronavirus likely to become a decisive player in the struggling democracies in Tunisia and Iraq. The incidence in the former has been low. Democracy there has had many problems, but viral incompetence, so far, isn’t on the list. In Iraq, bordering Iran, it has been much higher, but protests against the government have not so far centered on the disease. Incompetence, corruption, and Iranian intrusion are the dominant themes. Covid-19 may become a grievance, but given all the problems still afflicting Iraq, it probably won’t preempt other popular demands.   

And as long as the virus remains a fear in the Middle East, we are unlikely to see young men take to the streets in large numbers owing to the distinct possibility that protestors could catch and transmit the disease to elder members of their own families. On balance, Covid-19 may well be the most effective, least damaging, crowd-control mechanism that authoritarian regimes could have imagined.      

When thinking about the effect of the pandemic in the Middle East, it’s perhaps most helpful to view it culturally. It’s good to recall that the Islamic and European Christian responses in the 14th century were distinctly different. In Christendom, to quote the historian Michael Dols:

…the Black Death affected the central theme of Christian teaching concerning evil and human suffering; Western man took the plague epidemic as an individual trial more than a collective social calamity. The Islamic tradition, however, has not concerned itself to the same degree with personal suffering; the central problem for the Muslim is the solemn responsibility for his decisions that affect other men’s lives and fortunes with a purposeful creation. The cosmic settings of the two faiths are wide apart in their emphasis: where the Muslim’s primary duty was toward the correct behavior of the total community based on the sacred law, the Christian’s was with personal salvation—resignation as opposed to redemption. For the Muslim, the Black Death was part of a God-ordered, natural universe; for the Christian, it was an irruption of the profane world of sin and excruciating punishment.

After the Black Death in Europe, Christians got rowdy. Peasant revolts occurred for years after. Old habits and institutions, first and foremost the Church, took a big hit as individuals started to reevaluate their lives and worth and how they communed with God. Intellectuals became more questioning, if not downright disrespectful. Women began pushing boundaries, or as one wry historian put it, “Who could doubt that humanity was slipping towards perdition when women appeared in public wearing artificial hair and low-necked blouses and with their breasts laced so high ‘that a candlestick could actually be put upon them.’” By comparison, the Islamic world remained conservative, if not quiescent. 

Today, in the Middle East, for things to change post–Covid-19, individuals would have to feel greater agency in themselves and an unbearable weariness of old, repressive orders.  They would have to see in the virus something beyond kismet, fate, which always inclines toward cruelty. They would need to feel angry, energetic, and, above all, brave.  

 

Mr. Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.