Inequality fosters instability. This is especially true when it overlaps with a growing sense of injustice, expanding corruption, and declining distrust in political leaders, parties, and institutions.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the measures associated with its containment have negatively impacted economic growth, capital inflows, and productivity across the world. The ripple effects have hit hardest the most vulnerable in our societies.
In the Middle East and North Africa Covid-19 containment measures have amplified preexisting economic and societal inequalities and deepened long festering grievances. The pandemic is the fourth crisis to hit the region in the past decade, after the Arab uprisings, the 2014–2016 decline in oil prices, and the resurgence in 2019 of protests in countries that had escaped the first wave in 2010–2011.
Critically, the underlying political and socioeconomic discontent that triggered the uprisings a decade later have yet to be addressed. Authoritarian retrenchment, deficient political representation, growing gaps between the haves and have nots, expanding perceptions of endemic corruption, plummeting trust and confidence in institutions and leaders, and diminishing hope in the future remain evident throughout the region. Millions of people have fled their homes seeking safety either as refugees or as internally displaced populations living in decrepit conditions. Hundreds of thousands of other citizens of the Arab countries seek to emigrate to less troubled countries.
In 2019, a new wave of protests broke out in Algeria and Sudan, countries that had escaped the first wave. Mass demonstrations also took place in Iraq and Lebanon against political leaderships that had enriched themselves through corruption, impoverishing their societies and citizens. And in countries such as Egypt and Syria, people took to the streets despite deepening authoritarianism and lawlessness.
Covid-19 was exploited to inhibit these protests as containment measures and health concerns were used to keep people at home. However, protestors are likely to come out onto the streets again once these concerns subside, or if populations feel that they have relatively less to lose by engaging in collective action than by accepting their deteriorating circumstances.
The socioeconomic impact of the pandemic will be gargantuan with consequences that are deep and long lasting. Poverty and inequality are expanding rapidly even if at an uneven pace among Middle Eastern and North African countries. Economies in the region are recording negative fiscal balances and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs. This is overwhelming in an Arab world where almost half the population is under the poverty line and average unemployment is twice the global average.
A recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), outlined how a “double-whammy” of lockdowns and the resulting sharp decline in oil demand and prices have hit oil-exporting countries hard. The IMF also estimates that the regional gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020 will shrink by 5.7 percent and in conflict affected countries by 13 percent, even as spending has increased as a result of measures taken to combat the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. This means that fiscal deficits and public debt are expected to rise. In this context, Arab states are unlikely to be able to continue manufacturing social consent through the subsidization of goods and services and the promise of public-sector employment. It is no surprise, then, that some 45 million individuals throughout the Middle East and North Africa are expected to fall into poverty this year alone. Meanwhile women are also bearing the brunt of the pandemic. The largest portion of lost jobs is those occupied by women, especially in the informal sector. And like women around the world, they are bearing the brunt of a significant rise in domestic violence.
Fragile and conflict-ridden countries have been hit even harder. Most are facing a weakening of economic activity and a decline in remittances of at least 20 percent. This is happening in a context of chronic political instability, expanding poverty and societal vulnerability, weak institutions and failing infrastructures, and mounting security challenges. Some countries have seized the opportunity to further crack down on dissent. The Algerian authorities have exploited the coronavirus lockdown this past year to stifle the country’s protest movement. In countries at war, such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, the parties to the conflicts have been instrumentalizing the pandemic for political ends and undermining desperately needed cross-border medical supplies and humanitarian aid.
Ten years ago, the Arab uprisings expressed a demand for social justice and freedom. Social peace cannot be achieved by force while financial incentives to silence populations are no longer an option. Unless Arab governments take those concerns more seriously and begin to invest in their people, the countries of the region are likely to face even greater instability.