MAGHREB – March 2020
North Africa and the coronavirus: a multifaceted plague
On the 11th of March 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, a few weeks after the disease started to spread worldwide. As several western countries were found extremely unprepared to face the pandemic, many other regions are bracing for the impact of COVID-19 on their fragile systems.
In North Africa, the spread of the pandemic is yet another destabilising factor to which different countries are reacting differently. As underfunded health services in the developed world have not been able to cope with an extremely high number of inpatients, authoritarian system in the region are not expected to fare better. Furthermore, the low score that most of these countries register in the field of press freedom raises serious doubts about real extent of the outbreak.
The case of the British journalist Ruth Michaelson, forced to repatriate under increasing pressure by the Egyptian government, is a stark example of the difficulties in reporting on the pandemic in difficult contexts. The correspondent for The Guardian, Michaelson had made reference to scientific studies disputing the number of COVID-19 positive cases in Egypt, believed to be much higher than the official estimates. Considering the late 2019 raid on the offices of Mada Masr (one of the few exceptions of a strictly regulated mass media system), the Egyptian regime’s restrictiveness is hardly surprising. However, coupled with the lack of transparency on the spread of the virus and inflationary pressures due to higher demand of cash, it could easily transform into a threat to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, pushing more people to openly challenge his rule following last year’s demonstrations.
On the contrary, COVID-19 represents an unexpected blessing for the Algerian authorities. Beleaguered by weekly mass protests, the regime made the most of the Hirak’s readiness to end the demonstrations in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This development could have meant the end of the protest movement, already weakened by the regime’s strategy to buy time and reluctant to engage in politics in the current institutional framework.
However, this short-term gain could hardly translate into a long-term accomplishment, given Hirak’s plan to return to the streets once the pandemic is over to pursue ‘la fin du système’. Moreover, the continuous arrests of activists and journalists, such as Karim Tabbou and Khaled Drareni, could easily backfire and break the truce imposed by the pandemic.
Algeria is clearly an exceptional case, as well as Libya, where the fighting has resumed and intensified in spite of the first positive cases. However, already suffering from falling oil prices, also these countries are expected to feel the heat of the COVID-19 on the economies of the region.
The economic packages recently announced by the Moroccan and Tunisian governments highlight the seriousness of the economic shock caused by the pandemic, that is already crippling vital economic sectors such as tourism and causing significant disruption to trade. The political implications of an economic crisis in these countries are consequential. Part of a global trend that could bring a systemic change the coronavirus can further undermine political institutions in North Africa, already discredited after years of mass protests.
Umberto Profazio – Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he was previously Libya Analyst for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa region.