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Trust and coercion in times of emergency: COVID-19 and structures of authority in North Africa

Tunis Medina old city close during covid-19 pandemic
Photo: Wikimedia/Brahim Guedich
Amal Bourhrous

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has revealed many things about the societies confronted with it. Most directly, perhaps, the pandemic has revealed the solidity or precarity of their healthcare and social protection systems. This kind of crisis can, however, also function as a prism through which more fundamental political and societal structures can be better understood. As normal politics are largely on hold during times of emergency and crisis, the foundations of political authority and the nature of state–society relations are brought into sharper focus. In particular, the way societies perceive state capacity and the way state authorities respond to the crisis both indicate whether state authority is based on public trust or on coercion and fear. Furthermore, a crisis like the pandemic is also a major event that, in itself, affects these structures. As such, the crisis potentially consolidates or weakens either trust or coercion as the basis of authority. This essay examines what COVID-19, and the responses to it, brings to light about political authority and state–society relations in North Africa. 

A profound trust deficit 

In some places the pandemic has highlighted high levels of trust in governments and institutions, clearly showing that trust is a cornerstone of state–society relations and the basis of political authority. In North Africa, however, what has come to the fore is the profound trust deficit that characterizes state–society relations. Across the region, there has been little confidence in the preparedness of governments and state institutions to respond to the threat of the virus. In particular, there has been widespread scepticism about the capacity of the state to undertake large-scale testing as well as the ability of the healthcare system to provide adequate medical care. People have also had little confidence that the state would provide social protection in case of job loss due to the pandemic.

In Algeria, for example, the suspension of street protests was, at least in part, due to the widespread conviction that the regime could not be trusted or relied on to protect citizens. On social media, activists encouraged people to stay home for fear that the decaying healthcare system could not withstand an aggravated health crisis. In a statement, a group of doctors and practitioners associated with the protest movement urged Algerians to avoid public gatherings, warning not only about the seriousness of the threat, but also about the precariousness and the deficiencies of the Algerian health sector. In Morocco, a study has shown that a majority of Moroccans have very little confidence in their country’s ability to respond to the pandemic. In Egypt the credibility deficit of state institutions has contrasted with the trust enjoyed by religious actors such as al-Azhar, Egypt's prestigious centre for Islamic learning, which, acting ahead of state authorities, advised cancelling congregational prayers to prevent the spread of the virus.

Disciplinary approaches and securitized state–society relations

This lack of trust has, in a sense, been confirmed by the COVID-19 response adopted by North African states. Rather than engaging with citizens and securing their trust, consent and cooperation, the responses have relied primarily on the use of instruments of power and coercion to compel populations to respect state orders. This privileges disciplinary approaches and underscores the prevalence of top–down control in state–society relations. In Egypt, for example, the state’s response has largely consisted of systematic repression, denial and propaganda. With North African countries unable to provide adequate medical care and social protection, their heavy reliance on instruments of power and coercion to confront the COVID-19 crisis throws into sharp relief the limited repertoire of instruments available to exert authority. This emphasizes the highly securitized relations between state and society in North African countries which, in turn, highlights force and coercion as the basis of authority in many of these countries.

The ambiguity of coercion in times of crisis

It is true that the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated, in all types of societies, the adoption of drastic measures—including the use of coercive means and enhanced surveillance—to contain the spread of the virus decisively and effectively. This is why many countries, both democratic and authoritarian, have declared a state of emergency, which is intended to legally allow the use of all means necessary to respond to a threat. In some countries, the adoption of extraordinary measures has occurred in a context of state–society relations largely governed by trust, with safeguards against abuse and power grabs in place. In North African countries, however, this has taken place in a context in which state–society relations are marred by a lack of trust, and where, in many ways, a tight grip on society and security-based approaches are the norm. 

However, precisely because the pandemic does call for drastic measures, there is a risk that political authority based on force and coercion is shown in a more positive light. Therefore, as the COVID-19 crisis accentuates the lack of trust in the state and the precariousness of healthcare and social protection systems, it paradoxically also offers the possibility of compensating for these failings through the reliance on instruments of coercion. Thus, on the one hand it underscores these failings, while on the other it offers the possibility, in a sense, of dissimulating them precisely through the highly securitized approaches to the crisis that are a symptom of these failings. The strong grip on society and the highly securitized approaches become ambiguous precisely because they function as a means to achieve a desirable goal—that of saving lives and preventing a large-scale catastrophe. This also offers an opportunity to further consolidate a kind of authority buttressed by coercion and fear, which now benefit from their association with firmness and efficacy in pursuing a greater good. 

How the pandemic consolidates coercion-based authority in North Africa

In North Africa, measures to combat the pandemic and enforce lockdown orders have thus doubled up as a show of strength and a display of control over society. While military forces deployed in Morocco and Tunisia, for example, have provided logistical and medical support and enforced quarantine, their mobilization has also served to bolster state authority. In these countries, where the military is held in high esteem, the mobilization of the armed forces has enabled governments to enhance their status in the eyes of the population by projecting an image of power, efficiency and competence. The display of power has added a dimension of gravity to the situation and has earned state authorities the admiration and praise of the population. 

As a result, discourses and narratives glorifying repressive methods have gained traction during the pandemic. In Tunisia, some observers have noted growing calls for a more aggressive response towards those who disobey lockdown orders, insinuating that rights are irrelevant when fighting a pandemic. Thus, the crisis situation has increased the demand for implacable state control over a population perceived to be unruly. This does not, however, mean that this admiration and praise translate into genuine confidence in the state, or a surge in public trust as one could be tempted to believe. Rather, while highly securitized methods may have contributed to, or even played an important part in, preventing thousands of deaths, the underlying distrust of governments and state authorities remains. But as fear of the means of coercion mixes with admiration, it consolidates coercion as the basis of authority.

In times of emergency, the political and institutional practices that normally mediate between state and society are temporarily suspended. This brings into sharper focus the foundations of authority and the fundamental structures of state–society relations. In North Africa, as the pandemic highlights the ingrained distrust in governments and the highly securitized relations between state and society, it brings into relief coercion as the basis of political authority. At the same time, as the crisis brings the dynamics of trust and distrust, of consent and coercion to the fore, it also affects them, by offering the possibility for coercion-based authority to be cast in a more positive light. The COVID-19 pandemic thus not only illuminates the structures of political authority in North Africa, but it also affects these structures by providing an occasion for coercion and discipline to be reinforced as the basis of political authority.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Amal Bourhrous is a Research Assistant with SIPRI’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.