Mon, Mar 30, 2020

The coronavirus crisis highlights the unique challenges of North African countries

MENASource by Karim Mezran, Alessia Melcangi, Emily Burchfield, and Zineb Riboua

Related Experts: Karim Mezran, Alessia Melcangi, Emily Burchfield,

Coronavirus Libya Morocco Politics & Diplomacy

A family with protective masks is seen at a market before the start of night-time curfew to contain the spread of the coronavirus (Reuters)

The countries of North Africa constitute a heterogeneous group from practically every point of view, from their political systems to their economic and social ones. The reaction to the spread of coronavirus does not escape this observation. While the measures undertaken by each government look more or less the same—encouraging self-isolation, banning large gatherings, and supplying hospitals—the reaction from each population reflects the diversity of the socio-political situation in each country.

It is important to monitor ­the evolution of the coronavirus pandemic, its effects on each system, and the debate between government elites and masses to better understand the situation in these countries and the long-term implications of the health crisis.

Egypt

Egypt is the worst-hit North African country with 495 coronavirus cases and at least 36 deaths confirmed deaths so far, according to the country’s health ministry. On March 23, the Egyptian Armed Forces announced that two senior generals died due to COVID-19, amid fears of possible infection in the army, which has around 920,000 personnel. In early March, Egyptian authorities started to recognize an outbreak on Nile River cruises, particularly in the city of Luxor—a popular tourist destination in upper Egypt. Several tourists returning to their home countries showed symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19, according to public health data and news reports, which suggested that there could be many more cases on the ground in Egypt. Despite the delayed reaction, the Egyptian government eventually announced a $6.4 billion fund to combat the contagion and implemented various containment measures against the pandemic, including a government-enforced lockdown. This includes the closure of schools, universities, cafes, and restaurants; a ban against travel, tourist activities, and major sporting events; and reduced work in the public sector, which employs over 5 million Egyptians. This was followed by the Awqaf ministry—in charge of religious endowments—and the Coptic Orthodox Church announcing on March 21 the closure of mosques and churches to tackle the outbreak. On March 24, the government took a further step and imposed a national curfew that requires Egyptians to stay inside their homes between the hours of 7 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Despite these measures, some have accused the Egyptian government of underreporting the actual number of coronavirus cases, which could be much higher than the official infection rates. At the end of February, a group of infectious disease specialists from the University of Toronto had raised alarms estimating the presence of at least 6,000 people infected, with the potential of an outbreak of 19,310 cases in Egypt. The gloomy picture described by this study led to a strong reaction by the interior ministry and Egypt’s State Information Service—the official media and public relations apparatus of the state—which, between March 15 – 17, arrested at least seven Egyptians on allegations of circulating false rumors about the coronavirus, on the basis it could alarm citizens and be harmful to national security. The Egyptian authorities also expelled a journalist for The Guardian who wrote a story challenging the official count of coronavirus cases, and censured a reporter for The New York Times who tweeted the story.

The latest crackdown on freedom of expression by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime suggests a possible aim of distracting public opinion regarding the country’s current crisis by pointing the finger at political opponents, especially the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The recent arrests added to the already high number of political prisoners, now at 60,000, that are currently staying in overcrowded prisons awaiting hearings. According to Human Rights Watch, the spread of the contagion among prisoners kept in inadequate medical care and unhygienic conditions is a serious and alarming threat. On March 21, Egyptian authorities released a few activists, including Egyptian-British novelist Ahdaf Serif, who called for the freeing of prisoners, stressing the possible risk of a disastrous spread of the virus within prisons. However, this is not the only concern. The spread of COVID-19 could bring the fragile Egyptian healthcare system to its knees, especially in light of the incessant demographic growth that led Egypt to recently reach 100 million inhabitants, 95 percent of whom live on roughly 5 percent of the country’s land—a serious challenge for practicing the recommended social distancing. Moreover, in the very short term, coronavirus could have hard economic consequences given the country’s dependence on trade and tourism which, due to the lockdown, have predicted a loss of income of $1 billion per month.

Libya

In the western region of Libya, the coronavirus pandemic is still in its initial phase. The country confirmed its first case on March 25, but the inability of journalists to freely operate in the eastern and southern parts of Libya make it hard to obtain reliable information about the real situation of COVID-19 on the ground. 

Surprising as it may be, it looks as though the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli has gotten its act together and organized a prompt and effective reaction to the outbreak of the virus, benefiting from the wealth of information coming out of countries that have already been overwhelmed by this highly infectious disease. The government in Tripoli has issued strict orders to the population to stay home, and most businesses have been closed with the exception of pharmacies and grocery stores. Police not only monitor the effective closure of stores, but also make sure that those authorized to remain open are all equipped with masks and gloves for employees and that no more than a few people are inside at a time. A project has been undertaken to collect the enormous amount of garbage that has been accumulating in the past month, due to public services shutting down as a result of the conflict in Tripoli, as well as cleaning and disinfecting the public streets. Showing a high sense of civic duty, most inhabitants of the city are respectful of the measures taken by the government.

Initially, it looked as though all actors in Libya’s conflict would prioritize the fight against coronavirus over the fight with each other, as the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar paused their shelling of civilian zones of Tripoli. It seemed that perhaps international pressure to halt fighting amid COVID-19 concerns played a role in the cessation of attacks, which would be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak picture. Unfortunately, on March 24, Haftar’s forces resumed their offensive, bombarding Tripoli with heavy shelling that killed at least five civilians on the first night, including women and children. Haftar has made it clearer than ever with this move that he is not interested in national unity and will prioritize military victory over all else.

Tunisia

As with most countries affected by the spread of coronavirus, the number of Tunisia’s confirmed cases keeps growing. As of March 27, 227 cases have been confirmed, including six deaths. 7,642 individuals remain under compulsory self-quarantine. In response to the accelerating contagion in Tunisia, the government has taken incremental measures to deal with the outbreak in the country and curb its spread.

Tunisia started screening arriving passengers with thermal cameras or frontal lasers at all ports of entry since late January, as part of a sanitary surveillance plan. Upon arrival, all passengers were required to complete a health questionnaire and observe a 14-day self-isolation period from the arrival date. Most of the first confirmed cases were visitors coming from countries heavily affected by COVID-19. Thus, the government on March 16 suspended international flights and closed maritime borders, with the exception of repatriation flights to and from Tunisia.

The health ministry is also taking the lead in other areas, including updating the public and raising awareness. The ministry provided 24-hour hotlines for urgent medical services related to coronavirus. Furthermore, to increase transparency and limit rumors that may cause public anxiety, the health ministry created a user-friendly website to disseminate real-time official information. This proactive approach was especially needed as the chronic lack of essential medical equipment in the health sector will make the response much more difficult than prevention.

The new measures included a general curfew from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; a ban on all public gatherings and travel between cities except for proven essential needs; and the closing of schools and universities. On March 20, Tunisian President Kais Saied convened his national security council and announced additional measures. Accordingly, all Tunisians must undergo self-isolation and limit themselves to essential movements only for absolute necessities like grocery stores and pharmacies. On March 23, President Saied ordered the army to enforce the lockdown. The government also announced several measures to tackle the economic recession the crisis will cause. In addition to allocating $850 million to combat the economic and social effects of the lockdown, the government has promised to delay tax debts, postpone taxes on small- and medium-sized businesses, delay repayment of low-income employee loans, and provide financial assistance to poor families.

In Tunisia, there is public agreement on the limits of the healthcare system. To help flatten the curve, the public called on the government to implement a general lockdown. Ironically, Tunisians even went as far as petitioning the government to apply a 24-hour curfew, something no one would have ever thought could happen given the populace’s wariness of government overreach since the ouster of the repressive Ben Ali regime. There has been mounting solidarity among Tunisians to support the health ministry in its efforts, especially through donations and volunteering.

Tunisians are also closely monitoring the situation in neighboring countries, particularly in Italy. The situation in Italy has had a significant impact on Tunisian public opinion, as Rome and Tunis historically have very close ties. In conversations between Tunisians and the authors, many expressed concern that if Italy is struggling so much, the Tunisian system would struggle even more so if Tunisians increasingly contracted the virus. As such, many are now actively complying with government measures, as there is a widespread perception that if they don’t, Tunisia could head for the worse.   

Algeria

Algeria is experiencing a growing number of coronavirus contractions with 367 cases and 25 deaths as of March 27. To contain the virus, the Algerian government gradually banned travel; canceled all large-scale events, closed schools, universities, mosques, and restaurants; and asked people to stay home. Then on March 23, officially declared a lockdown and curfew from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The government has also enforced police patrols and blockades to control movement on the streets and dispatched the military to Algiers and Blida to enforce official directives. Most importantly, the government ordered the end of mass street protests that have taken place in the country for more than a year.

The demonstrations, which began in February 2019 after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced that he would run for a fifth term, lead to his resignation on April 2, but not the true overhaul of the elite political class that the movement has sought. Friday after Friday, people took to the streets to demand big structural changes, including the ousting of holdovers from Bouteflika’s regime and democratizing reforms. The election of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in December 2019, prompted additional protests about his legitimacy and the inability of the regime to carry out the promised change in Algeria’s political system. Protests continued despite concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

On March 17, President Tebboune delivered an address announcing the “prohibition of rallies and marches whatever their form and their nature” in order to combat the contagion. On March 20, for the first time since it began, the street protest movement—commonly referred to as the Hirak—stopped what would have been the 57th consecutive week of protests against the political elite, leaving the streets to police vehicles parked along the main streets of the capital. Although these official measures designed to limit public gatherings have been mainly interpreted as an opportunistic attempt to muzzle the protest movement, several Hirak activists started to call for the temporary suspension of the marches, emphasizing the importance of this measure in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. But the persistent political and social instability could pose a challenge to countering the virus due to the government’s lack of political legitimacy and the serious mistrust between the population and authorities.

The announced political projects, such as the revision of the constitution by referendum and the anticipated parliamentary election, risk being postponed by the government due to the current health crisis. This emergency fits within the looming economic situation aggravated by the fall in oil prices due to Russia and Saudi Arabia’s oil price war. Petroleum revenues still represent the main source of government income. On March 10, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad raised alarm by stating that the country is facing an unprecedented “multi-dimensional crisis” exacerbated by the oil price collapse. Together with the oil crisis, the coronavirus crisis could deliver the final blow to an already weakened system, leading to economic and political implosion, with effects spreading well beyond Algeria’s borders.

Morocco

On March 2, Morocco announced its first case of coronavirus. In response, the Moroccan authorities implemented several measures to control the spread of the virus. On March 13, the government began closing borders, suspending all international flights, cruises, and passenger ships, and enforcing restrictions on domestic flights.

Heeding World Health Organization guidelines and lessons learned from Italy, Morocco made tests available and free to all citizens. To finance the country’s coronavirus response, a special fund was created at King Mohammed VI’s instruction, so far bringing in $1.5 billion in donations from Moroccan corporations, banks, and even private individuals. Parliament, judiciary, and other government members have also donated their salary to support the Kingdom during these difficult times. Healthcare centers prepared 1,640 beds for coronavirus patients, including 250 beds reserved for life-threatening cases. On March 22, Morocco received from China a delivery of necessary medical aid to help halt the spread of COVID-19.

On March 19, the Kingdom issued a state of emergency, shutting down all schools, mosques, cafes and restaurants, sports and entertainment venues to combat the virus’ spread. To ease economic pain, Morocco will pay a stipend to people who lose their jobs and defer tax and debt payments from small businesses. Despite these measures, the Kingdom witnessed some public gatherings in violation of official guidelines. In response, the committee for the interior minister within the Moroccan parliament unanimously voted for a draft law to discipline violators and criminalize all actions that could jeopardize the country’s state of emergency and put the population at risk. Along these lines, Moroccan police have arrested at least a dozen people for reportedly spreading rumors about the coronavirus, including a woman who used her YouTube channel to claim the disease did not exist.

With 275 confirmed cases including 11 deaths as of March 27, Morocco is eager to stop the spread of COVID-19 by not only collaborating with all governmental and non-governmental institutions, but also by raising awareness among Moroccan citizens, whose participation will determine the success of the Kingdom’s response to the crisis.

Karim Mezran is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter: @mezrank.

Alessia Melcangi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a tenure track assistant professor at La Sapienza University of Rome. Follow her on Twitter: @AlessiaMelcangi.

Emily Burchfield is an assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Zineb Riboua is an intern with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.