Table of Contents

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has seen a variety of new trends and responses from civil society in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In the region’s more populous countries of Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey, community transmission of the virus has been consistently high since the first outbreaks in February 2020, while in other, less populated countries, such as Tunisia, the coronavirus has spread significantly less.1 Iran has had to deal with an especially severe outbreak, accounting for around half of the entire region’s cases as of June 2020.2 Among the region’s Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia has been hit the hardest.

Governments across the region took decisive measures to restrict movement and slow the spread of the virus. Although these measures have gradually been lifted, the MENA region stands deeply changed as a result of the pandemic.3 In response, civil society has mobilized in many new, collaborative, and critical ways. Yet, this upgraded civic activism has not been strong enough to counter existing authoritarian dynamics, which were given a further boost by the pandemic.

Pandemic Repurposing

In Tunisia, national and local civil society organizations (CSOs) of all types, including those with little to no prior experience in public health, mobilized their members and resources to fight the coronavirus. Some groups staged campaigns to raise awareness about the virus and disinfect public spaces. Others imported medical equipment from abroad or distributed it to health centers across the country. Some CSOs became gatekeepers to public and private buildings, either by monitoring civilians in lines or by drawing signs on the ground to denote recommended physical distancing. Others supported hospitals and health administrations by responding to phone calls to avoid congestion on help lines. These CSOs also raised funds for charities and social services dedicated to families in need.

Many CSOs shifted their activities toward the crisis response. Among those working with foreign donors, some CSOs asked to reallocate funds from their initial purpose to serve crisis-response activities instead—and a few donors agreed.4 The Tunisian government was ambivalent toward these CSOs but accepted their cooperation, even with political organizations that are traditionally hostile to the government. But at the local level, elected authorities were eager to work with the groups and even assigned specific tasks to CSOs for collaboration with municipalities.5

In Turkey, after the government’s March 2020 call for people to stay at home, CSOs quickly mobilized to provide basic needs to furloughed workers, day laborers, and others who had lost their income and had no safety net under the lockdown. Local municipalities, mostly in cooperation with charities, were also quick to organize food banks and successfully mobilized the public in their areas. These forms of in-kind support and volunteerism became important tools, particularly after the government froze the donation campaigns of opposition-led municipalities and launched its own campaign with the slogan “We are self-sufficient, my Turkey.”6 At the same time, new civic initiatives emerged to connect those in need directly with potential donors. One group of activists launched the Citizen Solidarity Network, which lists and maps public support and volunteer networks, organizations, and initiatives across Turkey.

Youssef Cherif
Youssef Cherif is the director of Columbia Global Centers Tunis. He is also a member of the Carnegie Civic Research Network.

Egypt has always had a strong charitable network, despite recent crackdowns on civic engagement.7 Civic groups mobilized this network, particularly during Ramadan, and stepped up to support civilians affected by the government’s halting of all traditional support activities such as the provision of iftar meals. Egypt is one of the most difficult places in the world for civic activity because of highly restrictive laws governing CSOs; as a result, citizens found their own space and created their own discussions on social media. Unorganized and not led by any particular movement or civil society, ordinary citizens used online platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to voice their complaints and tell stories of engagement with the public health sector during the crisis. In Algeria, several local organizations worked to distribute food and support the health sector.8

In Iran, the context for civil society is more strained. Faced with the early and rampant spread of the virus at a time rife with antigovernment protests, Iranians were challenged by a lack of wide-scale access to information about the virus, the pandemic, and the government’s response. The country has seen not only the highest number of cases per capita in the region but also the highest number of deaths—all in a short period of time and much earlier than the rest of the region.9

Elsewhere across the region, the coronavirus has been a major test for civil society in countries in conflict. The full extent of the pandemic’s impact on communities in Libya, Syria, and Yemen is unknown due to a lack of transparency about ongoing conflicts and a severe lack of testing capabilities to officially record the spread of the virus.10 Iraq is ill equipped to manage the public health crisis due to fallout from the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.11 Over 1 million internally displaced people—according to official figures—are stuck in camps that have limited medical services; even the best camps are unprepared to deal with the community spread of the virus.12

Religious organizations in Iraq have become increasingly active in the country’s health response, with the Marjaiya, or senior Shia clergy, in Najaf directing significant funds and healthcare support toward the crisis.13 Armed nonstate actors led by the Popular Mobilization Forces have played a part in the coronavirus response by setting up awareness campaigns for their fighters and providing healthcare treatment in some parts of the country,14 although human rights activists have warned of the sectarian nature of this support.15 CSOs working in parts of Iraq that were liberated during the war against the Islamic State have shifted their focus to work primarily on the pandemic response by supporting displaced and host communities with much-needed aid from the international humanitarian sector.16

Criticism of Poor Governance

Alongside providing practical health support, civil society actors across the MENA region have become more critical and outspoken toward governments, whose inaction in response to the pandemic has yielded tragic consequences. In Egypt and Iraq, in particular, poor governance and weak public services have been the norm for some time. As a result, civil society has long been the stopgap to support civilians in local communities. These countries’ responses to the pandemic have been no different. Civil society has exposed the authorities’ bad decisionmaking and lack of preparation for the crisis. Although both countries have experienced a slow spread of the virus, there has been little attempt by the government of either state to prepare for the inevitable peak of infections.

As a consequence, despite being afforded time, the Iraqi and Egyptian public health sectors reached their limits. In Iraq, hospitals struggled to deal with the virus amid a sweltering summer, reduced access to electricity, and a shortage of ventilators.17 Egypt took weeks to expand its coronavirus treatment capabilities from thirty selected hospitals to all 320 public hospitals; in the meantime, Cairo ordered private-sector healthcare to step in and support the public response.18 The Egyptian healthcare system was quickly overwhelmed, and despite the severe closure of civic space, doctors spoke up and became the voices of citizens and fellow healthcare workers vis-à-vis the government.19

Throughout the pandemic, Egypt’s doctors’ syndicate has published scathing attacks on the government for its inadequate response to the crisis and decried the lack of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. The protests and occasional strikes by doctors and healthcare workers have been justified: over one hundred doctors in Egypt had died from the virus as of June 2020.20 The syndicate has become an increasingly influential and distinctive part of Egyptian civil society.

Hafsa Halawa
Hafsa Halawa is an independent consultant who works on political, social, and economic affairs and development goals across the Middle East and North Africa. She is also a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute and a member of the Carnegie Civic Research Network.

In Turkey, the coronavirus struck amid an economic crisis. Fearful of further economic losses and with inflation and unemployment rates already soaring, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan imposed only a partial lockdown to protect economic activity in key industries, such as construction and manufacturing. This interest-led response sparked reactions by various groups. The Turkish Medical Association criticized the government’s delay in closing Turkey’s border with Iran and its failure to extend quarantine restrictions to incoming travelers. The association made repeated calls on the government to restrict mobility further and provide more support for hospitals.

Factory and construction workers took action with strikes and protests against insufficient health measures in their workplaces and, in some cases, against being forced to work despite reported cases of the coronavirus on site. Trade unions were also active during this period. The two major civil society actors, the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects and the Turkish Medical Association, collected thousands of signatures for a joint statement that called on the government to halt all nonessential economic activity and provide financial support to small retailers, workers, and disadvantaged groups.21

Another reaction to the government’s handling of the outbreak came from students. The shifting dates of the university entrance exam frustrated students.22 They reacted first during a June 26, 2020, livestreamed videoconference with Erdoğan, which has received 428,000 dislikes on YouTube as of this writing.23 This was followed by a hashtag campaign, #OyMoyYok (No Votes for You), which became a trending topic on Twitter in Turkey.

In Algeria, the pandemic sowed seeds of division among the organizers of an opposition protest movement dubbed the Hirak. Some protest leaders felt that the coronavirus pandemic was a looming catastrophe and called for an end to the weekly sit-ins and demonstrations, which have regularly gathered thousands of Algerians. But others kept up their protests against the authoritarian system, corruption, and bad infrastructure and urged the movement to continue. Some leaders were therefore willing to postpone their demands and focus on the pandemic, but others continued to protest for a change of regime.

Authoritarianism and the Pandemic

The MENA region has experienced differing levels of authoritarianism as a result of the coronavirus, depending mainly on how authoritarian each country was before the outbreak.

Egypt remains one of the most frequent jailers of journalists in the world, alongside China and Turkey. For years since coming to power, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has continuously cracked down on all forms of expression and severely restricted the space for civil society. The coronavirus pandemic has not changed this course of repressive action; rather, the crackdown has continued against journalists and social media users and even expanded to ensnare healthcare officials.24 Several doctors have been arrested during the pandemic for publicly criticizing the government’s coronavirus response.25 Even former grand mufti of Al-Azhar Ali Gomaa entered the debate, claiming doctors on strike were akin to “murderers.”26 Young, female users of TikTok have also become targets for the regime: some were jailed for “inciting debauchery” even as a wave of activism on gender rights swept the country and the Egyptian diaspora.27

The security apparatus has appeared more concerned with imposing its continued strict control over civil society actors, and over civic engagement more broadly, than with enforcing compliance with coronavirus measures in public.28 Notably, Egypt is one of the few countries in the region that has not passed temporary release measures for prisoners to stem the spread of the virus in jails.29

Even during the pandemic, Egypt has continued its assault on freedoms. The government has amended or extended several laws, including an emergency law related to the coronavirus, to give more administrative power to the presidency.30 Cairo has also changed antiterrorism legislation to enable authorities to register political prisoners as terrorists.31 And the government has cited the pandemic as a reason to close public viewings of parliamentary sessions, including one in July 2020 in which the legislature voted to approve military action in Libya.32

Özge Zihnioğlu
Özge Zihnioğlu is a lecturer in politics at the University of Liverpool. She is also a member of the Carnegie Civic Research Network. She would like to thank Mehmet Ali Çalışkan and Ayşe Yıkıcı for their helpful comments in preparing this chapter.

Government responses brought about renewed protests in Iran and Iraq, too. In Iran, U.S.-imposed sanctions have posed significant challenges to the country’s overall response to the coronavirus as Iranians have little access to outside support. As economic conditions have worsened during the pandemic, strikes and protests have been recorded across Iran, notably among factory, coal mine, and healthcare workers.33 Anecdotal (and unverified) reports suggest that repressive measures by the state to quell demonstrations and strikes, seen in the pre-pandemic protest movement, continue.34

In Iraq, a revolutionary movement had been active since October 2019 across the southern, heavily Shia-populated parts of the country. In the months before the coronavirus outbreak, governance had been effectively suspended while political elites jostled to form a new government. When the pandemic hit, protesters retreated from the streets, and marches came to a halt.35 Yet, protest camps in the heart of major cities, such as Baghdad and Nasiriya, remained active as supporters continued to provide medical personal protective equipment for those who stayed.

The Iraqi government’s pandemic response has exposed a crumbling institutional infrastructure amid the public health crisis, and protests resumed in July 2020 only to be met again with state-sponsored violence.36 In the weeks before, a prominent Iraqi security expert and writer was assassinated outside his home in Baghdad, causing uproar among civic actors.37 Since then, several young Iraqi protesters have been assassinated—allegedly by militia groups—sparking outrage and resurrecting the initial anger in the protest movement. Despite a new prime minister and government and their promises for accountability and justice, the habits of Iraq’s security services and armed nonstate actors continue unchecked, hindering civil society’s ability to do its work and increasing the motivation of the protest movement.38

In Turkey, state repression has been mounting since the 2013 Gezi Park protests and, especially, the 2016 failed coup attempt. The government’s intolerance of any dissent has continued throughout the pandemic. A pertinent example concerns the media. According to one account, judicial action was taken against thirty journalists between March 11—when the first coronavirus case in Turkey was announced—and May 1, 2020.39 Ten of these journalists were taken into custody, and one was arrested. Some of this action was taken after news reports challenged official coronavirus figures. Journalists were often charged with provoking the public and inciting public fear and panic.

Also, various union leaders and members have been detained as a result of their protests, statements, and social media posts.40 In July 2020, the government passed a law to change the structure and elections of bar associations to allow for multiple bar associations in large provinces where existing associations are critical of the government. The changes enable pro-government lawyers to form their own associations. In protest, several bar association presidents began what they called a defense march to Ankara after the government’s plans were announced in late May. The police intervened, and several lawyers participating in the march were detained.

In Algeria, authorities used the pandemic to suppress the opposition and end the Hirak protest movement.41 Several opposition activists were arrested and are still in jail as of this writing. When some of the Hirak organizers refused to stop the movement in March, fissures appeared in their ranks. The activists ended up halting the protests, but their initial hesitation made them prey to the propaganda of the authorities just as Algeria became a coronavirus epicenter in Africa: the activists were called chaos spreaders and foreign agents. But even as the Hirak dwindled, the authorities were unable to stop the coronavirus outbreak.

As in other reflections on civil society and democratization, Tunisia is the outlier in the region. At the start of the crisis, Tunis enacted emergency laws, which led to fears that either the government or the security services would exploit the pandemic to derail the democratic system.42 When the government established a fund to help coronavirus victims, it disregarded CSO calls to monitor its work, raising questions about transparency. However, as the curve of coronavirus infections flattened, the emergency powers given to the prime minister were revoked. It became clear that neither he nor the so-called securocrats fighting against him had used the prerogatives given to them by the parliament to expand their reach.


The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the weak institutional infrastructures, ailing public health systems, and fragile economies of several countries across the Middle East and North Africa. No country—whatever its wealth or current state of conflict—has been immune to the outbreak or the economic and social fallout from the virus and the global economic downturn. Some states have responded by increasing crackdowns and pressure on civil society. But there have also been instances of welcome support from online and offline civic actors in the production of personal protective equipment, healthcare support, service delivery, and other, more traditional forms of charity work.

Nevertheless, the region has not seen significant challenges to regime power as an immediate result of the pandemic—even in countries such as Algeria, Iran, and Iraq that are experiencing active, wide-scale protests. However, this may change as the longer-term impacts of the pandemic and the uncertain regional and global recovery begin to hit citizens on a larger scale. The effects of lockdowns, curfews, and halted economic activity will take some time to manifest themselves as states balance the need for austerity measures to curb government spending with efforts to provide safety nets for those who are most vulnerable and disproportionately affected by the pandemic. As the probability of poverty and economic insecurity increases, the risk of social unrest and prolonged challenges to regime stability becomes more potent.


1 “WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard,” World Health Organization,

2 Carlos Conde and Arthur Pataud, “COVID-19 Crisis Response in MENA Countries,” Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, June 9, 2020,

3 Karen Young, “The Long Road to Post-COVID Economic Recovery in the Middle East,” Al-Monitor, July 15, 2020,

4 Author interview with a Tunisian civil society leader, July 2020.

5 Alexander Reiffenstuel, “Tunisia’s Civil Society Supports Governmental Efforts of Slowing COVID-19 Transmission in Tunisia,” ResearchGate, April 2020,'s_Civil_Society_Supports_Governmental_Efforts_of_Slowing_COVID-19_Transmission_in_Tunisia.

6 Can Selçuki, “COVID-19 Donations in Turkey Overshadowed by Politics,” Duvar English, April 18, 2020,

7 During the coronavirus period, charity has expanded with private-sector support: “HSBC Announces COVID-19 Charity Projects in Middle East,” Daily News Egypt, April 15, 2020,

8 Nourredine Bessadi, “Civil Society Thrives During Pandemic,” Goethe Institut, May 2020,

9 A resurgence of the virus in Iran points to a dangerous second wave at the time of writing: Patrick Wintour, “Iran Cases Hit Record High in Second Wave of Coronavirus,” Guardian, June 4, 2020,; Zulfiqar Ali, “Coronavirus: How Iran Is Battling a Surge in Cases,” BBC, August 20, 2020,

10 Mohammad Al-Kassim, “Despite Coronavirus, Mideast’s Wars Continue Unabated,” Medialine, March 26, 2020,; “COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch,” International Crisis Group, March 24, 2020,

11 John Davison, “In Iraq, Coronavirus Terrifies Even Doctors Hardened by Conflict,” Reuters, March 27, 2020,

12 Hafsa Halawa, “The Forgotten Iraq,” Middle East Institute, March 16, 2020,

13 Hassan Ali Ahmed, “Iraqi Government Officials, Clerics Unite Against COVID-19,” Al-Monitor, March 25, 2020,

14 Jessica Watkins, “Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces and the COVID-19 Pandemic: A New Raison d’Être?,” London School of Economics, April 29, 2020,

15 Author interview with Iraqi rights activist via Skype, July 2020.

16 “UNHCR Iraq COVID-19 Support to IDPs Families for Procurement of Personal and Household Hygiene Items,” ReliefWeb, July 12, 2020,

17 Joanna Sampson, “Iraq Reports Rising Covid-19 Cases and ‘Severe’ Shortages of Oxygen,” GasWorld, July 3, 2020,

18 “Egypt Allocates 320 Public Hospitals to Examine Potential Coronavirus Cases,” Egypt Independent, May 21, 2020,

19 Mia Jankowicz, “Egypt Blamed ‘Negligence and Mismanagement’ by Doctors for Its Coronavirus Crisis, Then Started Arresting Them for Speaking Out,” Business Insider, July 8, 2020,

20 Fatma Lotfi, “About 100 Covid-19 Fatalities, Over 3000 Infections Among Doctors So Far: EMS,” Daily News Egypt, June 25, 2020,

21 “7 Acil Önlem İmzacıları Hükümeti Bu Önlemleri Almaya Çağırıyor!” [Seven Emergency Measures: Signatories Call on the Government to Take These Measures!], DISK, April 4, 2020,

22 Gonul Tol and Ayca Alemdaroglu, “Turkey’s Generation Z Turns Against Erdogan,” Foreign Policy, July 15, 2020,

23 Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “Gençlerle Video Konferans Buluşması,” YouTube video, June 26, 2020,

24 Maged Mandour, “Repression and Coronavirus Response in Egypt,” Sada blog, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 15, 2020,

25 Frederik Deknatel, “Even in a Pandemic, Egypt’s Sisi Only Has One Gear: Repression,” World Politics Review, July 20, 2020,

26 “Ali Jumaa: The Vector of Corona Virus to Others Is Deadly by Causing ... Video,” ElBalad News, June 7, 2020,

27 Alla Juma and Kersten Knipp, “Egypt Imprisons Female TikTok Influencers,” DW, July 29, 2020,; “Egypt Serial Sex Attacks Prompt Law Change,” BBC, July 9, 2020,

28 “Egyptian Journalist Jailed on Fake News Charges Dies of Covid-19,” Guardian, July 14, 2020,

29 “At Least 14 Dead As Covid-19 Spreading in Egypt’s Prisons,” Al Jazeera, July 20, 2020,

30 “Egypt Amends Emergency Laws Amid Coronavirus Outbreak,” Reuters, April 22, 2020,

31 “Egypt’s Updated Terrorism Law Opens the Door to More Rights Abuses, UN Expert,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, April 9, 2020,

32 “Egypt Parliament Approves Military Intervention in Libya,” Africanews, July 21, 2020,

33 Roozbeh Bolhari and Golnaz Esfandiari, “Iranian Workers Strike Amid Worsening Economy, Deadly Coronavirus Crisis,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 29, 2020,

34 Shamsi Saadati, “Iran Regime Increases Oppressive Measures to Control Restive Society and Avoid New Iran Protests,” National Council of Resistance of Iran, June 23, 2020,

35 Heather Murdock and Halan Akoiy, “Coronavirus Is ‘Break, not Defeat,’ Iraqi Activists Say,” Voice of America, April 17, 2020,

36 “Protests Against Power Cuts Turn Deadly in Baghdad,” Arab Weekly, July 27, 2020,

37 “Hisham al-Hashimi: Leading Iraqi Security Expert Shot Dead in Baghdad,” BBC, July 7, 2020,

38 Mina Al-Oraibi, “As Violence Spirals, Iraq Is Headed for Real Trouble,” National, July 28, 2020,

39 “CHP’den Koronavirüs Döneminde Basın Özgürlüğü Raporu: Çaykur’da 11 işçinin Koronavirüs’e yakalandığı haberi bile soruşturma konusu oldu,” T24, May 2, 2020,,876236.

40 Nur Kaplan, “Workers Call Out: ‘Does Anyone Hear Our Voices?,’” Bianet, April 6, 2020,

41 Heba Saleh, “Activists Accuse Algeria of Using Covid-19 to Clamp Down on Protests,” Financial Times, April 3, 2020,

42 Sarah Yerkes, “Coronavirus Threatens Freedom in North Africa,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 24, 2020,