Regions across the globe, including Asia, Europe, and North America, are now witnessing the catastrophic effects of the new coronavirus pandemic. But because North Africa is not likely to see a peak in cases of the virus until later this year, the effects on its economies and governance are still largely unknown. Yet it is clear that the strict measures governments have adopted to stem its spread are already having a dramatic impact on the region’s people – particularly activists, journalists, and anyone critical of the governments’ leaders.
Most governments, be they at the helm of democracies or autocracies, have severely curtailed civil liberties to prevent the virus from spreading, but North African governments have capitalized on the global acceptance of this step to enact even harsher restrictions on free speech and expression. The extreme crackdown on Algerian antigovernment protesters for “undermining national unity,” the prosecution of more than 25,000 Moroccans for violating the state of emergency, and the consolidation of the prime minister’s power in Tunisia are all forms of suppression and represent potential power grabs that, even if temporary, will likely have a lasting impact on the citizen-state relationship.
In this new environment, lack of transparency – especially regarding the outbreak itself and the governments’ responses – has become an even greater problem and further reduced the space for freedom of expression. According to journalists in the region, lockdowns have made it impossible for them and civil society activists to conduct on-the-ground research. Instead, they must rely on phone calls and secondhand information to verify claims of arrests. A rise in unreliable reporting has also made it extremely difficult for independent media, where they exist, to fact check or produce their own stories – and to thereby counter misleading or false information.
But perhaps most troubling is how aggressors are using the distraction the coronavirus pandemic provides to push their incursions forward. For example, in Libya, the diversion has given General Khalifa Haftar cover to conduct strikes with less attention and consequence. Despite some calls for a truce, he recently attacked a medical facility housing supplies to treat patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. When viewed together, the developments in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia show that COVID-19 is not only a dangerous disease with the potential to sicken and kill but also a threat to freedom of expression across the region. Leaders are taking advantage of the uncertainty and chaos to silence dissent and rein in opposition. Even more worrying, in some cases, the publics are not reacting to the crackdowns. Ultimately, the governments’ restrictive measures could hobble civil society and media or add fuel to existing conflicts long after the health crisis has passed.
In Algeria, in early March, with the COVID-19 outbreak intensifying, activists nationwide, including many supporters of the Hirak movement, urged protesters to put the protests on hold for their own safety and that of others. While the majority complied with the request to move the protests online, others refused to give up the street demonstrations because they were either unaware of the magnitude of the danger or suspected the government was using the pandemic to quell the movement. But the matter was finally settled on 17 March when President Abdelmadjid Tebboune banned all public gatherings including protests. The government presented the ban as a prevention measure against the virus’s spread, but leaders were quick to take advantage of the changing circumstances.
Many violent incidents, including police forces chasing protesters and using clubs to beat them back – coupled with an increasing number of political arrests, rising concerns over the government’s incapacity to handle the pandemic, and plummeting oil prices, which threaten to cripple the Algerian economy – have all given rise to new tensions that are likely to remain long after the virus is gone. For now, most Algerians have taken to social media to voice their protests – for example, through campaigns such as the hashtag #Vendredi_57, which signifies the fifty-seventh week of Hirak. Many call on people to stay home and protest virtually, but they promise a renewed burst of the movement once (and if) Algeria makes it out of the woods. This time – the warning goes – the movement will be even fiercer and will take down whatever is left of the old regime.
In Egypt, the coronavirus outbreak has given the country’s military regime an opportunity to improve its popularity, which declined sharply after an Egyptian construction contractor, Mohamed Ali, accused the government of corruption in September 2019. The claim that state and army budgets were being used to build palaces for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his entourage brought hundreds of people into the streets demanding Sisi’s ouster. Although Sisi and Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly were largely silent in the early weeks of the outbreak, they are now using the crisis to connect with the public and boost the regime’s image. But despite the desire to change the regime’s image, Egyptian authorities are tightening an already securitized environment by arresting an increasing number of citizens – mostly for breaking the curfew – without considering the issue of overcrowding inside detention sites.
Furthermore, instead of adopting a policy of transparency and providing clear and reliable information about the virus’s spread in the country, Egyptian authorities are suppressing critical voices by arresting many who have spoken out about the false reporting on social media. Egyptian authorities also continue to ignore the recent demands of domestic and international human rights advocates to release thousands of vulnerable detainees, such as pregnant women, children, persons with disabilities, elderly prisoners, and those approaching the end of their sentences and others who can be safely reintegrated into society. If the government’s increased securitization fuels the virus rather than mitigates it, any improvements in the public’s perception of the regime will likely be short-lived.
In Tunisia, after Tunisian President Kais Saied and his National Security Council first ordered a semi-lockdown on March 18, with a 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. curfew, more severe measures have been enacted. Circulating between neighborhoods requires an official authorization, people who refuse to abide by the rules are rutinely fined up to $100 and surveillance has reached a whole new level, Additionally, parliament activated Article 70 of the constitution by a majority vote, delegating some of its powers to the prime minister. On the positive side, police officers are reluctant to use force against citizens, apart from notable exceptions, and criticism of the government, generally, continues on traditional media sites and social media with no restrictions, as citizens complain about shortages of goods or the poor public health infrastructure.
Nevertheless, there are worrying signs for the future of Tunisia’s nascent democracy. For example, when a member of parliament known for his conservative Islamist views was beaten in public by a local leader of the national labor union, very few people spoke out. Parliament, which only a minority of those polled trusts and appreciates in normal days, is now seen as even more useless. On social and traditional media, people call on the security forces to be more aggressive toward those who disobey the lockdown and curfew. An old adage, “Don’t mention human rights when it comes to fighting terrorism,” is creeping into the public debate, with “coronavirus” replacing “terrorism.” Ultimately, the longer this situation lasts, the more likely it is that authoritarian and martial habits will take root. And it may prove very difficult to supplant them, even after life returns to “normal.”
‘Coronavirus Threatens Freedom in North Africa’ – Article by Sarah Yerkes and a Team of Authors – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.