In times of the plague, smallpox, cholera, or Spanish flu, governments resorted as much as today to mendacious reassurance, approximations, manipulations, propaganda and outright lies. Concerned as they were—no doubt sincerely—to protect their populations against disease, they set up systemic procedures to control their actions, their movements and what they said in public. Their homes were controlled, their movements watched. Curfews were decreed. Censorship was established to make sure no one named the disease, revealed its existence or disclosed the extent of it.
Thus frightened societies were disciplined and regimes seized the opportunity to tighten their grip. Under the cover of mandatory health-protection measures, they would adopt, on an emergency basis, special regulations overriding the principles of common law, set up new systems of surveillance and control. When the pandemic was over, these rules and laws remained on the books, even though the conditions having justified their existence had disappeared.1 People had got used to the changes.
Poisons for some, remedies for others, pandemics have always played a transformational role in the history of societies. Some regimes have come through them stronger than before, others have collapsed. In the lessons of the past, we should read our future.
“Say ‘no’ to pessimistic rumours”
According to the official line, Egypt is weathering this crisis rather well. And anybody who says the contrary had better watch out. Ruth Michaelson, a Guardian correspondent, found this out to her sorrow. She was deported from Egypt for having reported that the official numbers of people infected by the virus were false. Declan Walsh, chief of the New York Times Cairo office, was “reprimanded” for a tweet in which he repeated the same “rumour.” Atef Hasballah, editor in chief of Alkarar Press was suspended for several weeks after he challenged the official contamination figures.
Such measures have long been used in Egypt against anyone who challenges the government’s words or actions. But during an epidemic, journalists, activists, human rights advocates or members of the Muslim Brotherhood have more to fear than in normal times. In Jordan, an emergency military defence law now authorises the Prime Minister Omar Razzaz to treat “firmly” anyone circulating “rumours, fabrications or fake news which could spread panic”.
Making “fake news” a criminal offence
If we are to believe the Turkish press, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said it is necessary “not only to fight Covid-19 but also all the viruses that contaminate politics and the media”. Journalists are accused of spreading “false information” and “untruths” when they deal with the healthcare situation, thereby “undermining the morale of the nation”. And the President promises them a bleak future. Hundreds of citizens accused of spreading via the news networks “false and provocative information” likely to “cause panic” have been gaoled. Such was the lot of İsmet Çiğit and Güngör Aslan of the website SES Kocaeli who were made to understand that it was best not deal with “the subject” at all.
The Algerian parliament has just passed a law which also criminalises “fake news” likely to disrupt “public order and State security”, a description vague enough to serve other purposes. In fact, while Hirak, the protest movement begun in February 2019, has suspended its activities as a sanitary precaution, the government has done no such thing. Protestors are still being summoned by the police, arrested, gaoled and convicted. Some prisoners have benefited from presidential pardons but no Hirak protestor is among them.
Iranians all remember seeing their Vice-Minister of Health Iraj Harirchi minimising the illness on TV while at the same time sweating profusely in front of the cameras, as yet unaware that he himself was infected by the virus. Baghdad suspended the activities of Reuters in Iraq after it had revealed that the official figures for the disease were hugely underrated.
As for the so-called democratic countries, they too have succumbed to the temptation to control the news. While the ubiquitous President Donald Trump has put Vice-President Mike Pence in charge of supervising the fight against the virus, it is mainly in order to control everything that is said about the disease by US health authorities and scientists. Playing down bad news is by no means a speciality of autocratic countries.
The case of Israel
Who’d have thought three or four months ago that it would be a virus that would preserve the political future of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu? In March 2020 he should have gone on trial for corruption, fraud and embezzlement. Instead of which, he closed down the courts and authorised the country’s internal security services to use mobile phone data to keep track of people’s movements.2 These decisions were taken without consulting parliament, in the name of the struggle against Covid -19. It is true that the Israeli government can refer to laws that date back to the British mandate and which, in time of crisis, give it a very wide range of action.
By another sleight of hand, the Prime Minister managed to convince Benny Gantz, his political adversary (but now his ally) to form a cabinet of national unity and give him full executive powers, again under the pretext of the sanitary risk. While disparaging the judiciary system and the media, Netanyahu has managed to pass himself off as the “father of the Nation,” a father seen by some as an abuser of democracy but a protecting father of whom all or almost all is forgiven in a time of “national peril.”
In Israel as elsewhere, what characterises insecurity is fear: it is fear that opens the door to exceptional political decisions and strengthens authoritarian regimes. Netanyahu made use of this when he conjured up the memory of the 1967 war, promising a united Israeli population, “to save tens of thousands of lives.” His comeback strategy was successful, he seized power again despite three unsuccessful elections, evaded everybody and everything. The last man standing takes all.
From Algeria to Egypt
In March, the Lebanese government proclaimed a state of emergency, complete with lockdown, public transport ban, shop closures, etc. Thus it killed two birds with one stone: taking protective measures that go without saying, it also sent home the demonstrators who since 1 October 2019 have been challenging the whole political class, whose corruptness has become just too obvious. Considering that the notion of “State” is practically meaningless in Lebanon, the political and confessional parties are buying a belated virginity by supplying their members and followers with the medical assistance and food which they need and which the State is quite incapable of providing. Some organise visits for journalists to witness their efforts in support of the population, others carry out awareness-raising campaigns, showcasing the activities of their confessional group in their territorial or electoral preserve.
The Egyptian authorities have prolonged the state of emergency, already in effect since April 2017, which enables President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to go on governing by decree. The army, in charge of disinfecting the streets, enforces the confinement of the population, at the same time forestalling any gathering that might be construed as a street protest. The President has taken several measures of a financial nature: lowering taxes on commercial transactions and the tourist trade, reducing energy costs for industry, but none of these concern the poorest sections of society and in particular people who live from hand to mouth.
In Egypt, a bailout for big business means keeping the army’s business afloat, in other words, strengthening the power structure.
Two of the Algerian Hirak’s leading figures, Karim Tabbou and Abdelouahab Farsaou were convicted of “jeopardising national unity”, an accusation which is open to any interpretation. The Moroccan government has decreed a “state of medical emergency” which, beyond its immediate objectives, has led to a tightening of security and a militarisation of society at the expense of political activity. Elected officials can only sit and watch the security train go by with nothing to do but approve the decisions handed down by the King’s entourage. The management of the Covid crisis is basically in the hands of the army, ultimate rampart against any and every form of social or economic destabilisation.
What national unity?
The Tunisian case is a special one insofar as the new coalition had scarcely won a parliamentary vote of confidence when it had to deal with the pandemic. Covid-19 provided an opportunity for the State institutions, henceforth divided into three decision-making branches, presidency, cabinet and parliament—to vie with one another and test their capacity to influence the course of events. Exceptional measures have been taken: President Kais Saied has activated Article 90 of the Constitution which gives him extended powers in order to prevent disruption of “the normal workings of the State” (establishment of a curfew, redeployment of the armed forces, prolongation of the state of emergency).
The government has adopted decrees specifying the terms of confinement for Tunisians and has asked Parliament for permission to use executive orders of a “legislative nature” a request which was finally accepted following an initial refusal by Rached Ghannouchi. President of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, in other words, the President and the Prime Minister, Elyes Fakhfakh, each old exceptional powers at the intersection of the executive and the legislative. The future will tell whether the pandemic will have favoured good relations between these two very different political persuasions or reveal, on the contrary, contradictions detrimental to Tunisia’s budding democracy.
In Malaysia and the Philippines, the penalties are as clear as day: anyone who fails to observe the rules of confinement or the curfew will be arrested and possibly gaoled. Tens of thousands have been victims of this iron rule. President Rodrigo Duterte was perfectly clear: “[I gave] my orders to the police and the army, people who create disturbances [likely to] endanger their lives: shoot them!”
There are passengers on cruise ships who cannot land, foreigners sent back to their countries of origin, citizens and emigrants brought home, prisoners returned to their families, migrants no longer allowed to land anywhere, travel restrictions for all, borders that are hermetically sealed: everything is contributing to make these countries withdraw into themselves, states to become “nationalist” again, nations to become inaccessible cloisters.
Nationalistic and xenophobic prejudices are unrestrained. American isolationism and Euroscepticism are having a field day. “America first” has become “America alone.” Europe is rediscovering its preference for closed borders, the Schengen agreement is in a bad way. In Lebanon, Samir Geagea, executive chairman of the Lebanese Forces, lashed out at the Syrian and Palestinian refugees3 in a press conference (13 April), suggesting that at the end of the day it was they who brought the virus into the country. Different towns followed suit by adopting discriminatory measures against Syrian refugees. Other local authorities established longer curfews for them than for Lebanese nationals.
Here and there, exceptional measures have been adopted in the name of the national interest. In March, the Saudi authorities imposed a lockdown on the region of Qatif, chiefly peopled by Shiites and considered by Riyadh to be a hotbed of dissent. Hundreds of Pakistani prisoners were deported from Dubai by special jets and in return Pakistan sent home the Emirati diplomats stationed there. Abu Dhabi warned foreign countries that they would have to ensure the repatriation of their nationals residing in the Emirates if they wished to return home. Oman no longer delivers visas to foreigners. Humans are confined, countries are bunkering down.
Extending our investigation to the international community as a whole, we observe that 82 countries have declared an emergency, 27 have taken measures restricting public expression, 94 have adopted decisions affecting Parliament and 23 have given the State ways of intruding on people’s privacy.4
When the crisis is over, it is very likely that decision-makers will not easily rescind the range of exceptional measures taken in the name of their health safety policies. The question is will people ultimately forgive these infringements on their freedom or will they have tired of placing their trust in politicians who only give them empty promises in return and start demanding radical changes.
1The US Patriot Act—an anti-terrorist law—was passed after the 9/11 attacks. The law has outlasted the situation which motivated it. Its official title is “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”
2Officially, this technique had been used until now against Palestinians. It has been challenged in Israel itself. The Prime Minister may have to give it up.
3Between 1.5 and 2 million Syrians have found refuge in Lebanon.
4“Covid-19 Civic Freedom Tracker. Keep Civic Space Healthy” : “This tracker monitors government responses to the pandemic that affect civic freedoms and human rights, focusing on emergency laws. ”