Larbi Sadiki and Layla Saleh (eds.), COVID-19 and Risk Society Across the MENA Region: Assessing Governance, Democracy, and Inequality (I. B. Tauris, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book? 

Larbi Sadiki and Layla Saleh (LS & LS): As the pandemic bludgeoned the world in ways we all felt keenly on a personal and collective level, it occurred to us that as social scientists, COVID-19 was changing the MENA region in ways that must be accounted for. It was not enough to simply observe that the world and life as we knew it would never be the same. The paradox that in the twenty-first century humanity at large seemed at a loss to help itself for so many months needed investigating. Moreover, even when seemingly endless budgets enabled Western countries, or superpowers like China, to pour money into medical and scientific research, the MENA region remained despondently dependent and helpless. Global hierarchies seemed to frame asymmetries in suffering more blatantly than we could have imagined, as a result of the pandemic: death rates, socio-economic deprivation, economic recession, and more. Even within the MENA region, it struck us how pandemic losses afflicted countries unequally; that the Gulf states were the first to acquire the vaccine and make it available to their citizens and residents was no coincidence. But even in the Gulf, and in all MENA states, vast socio-economic disparities conditioned who bore the brunt of the pandemic and how. All this was more than an infectious disease puzzle. A prominent political and social element was part of the story.

Here we found in critical theory, specifically Ulrich Beck’s notion of “risk society,” a fitting framework that was adaptable to the MENA region. Obviously, countries such as Morocco, Syria, Egypt, or Qatar do not display the same trappings of “modernity” (for example, capitalist development, representative democracy, scientific “progress”) that Beck reveals as problematic as much as they are markers of progress. Nevertheless, the MENA postcolonial state, its structures of governance, and its developmental models all boasted some form of advancement, while keeping its publics mired in authoritarianism, inequality, and even marginalization. COVID-19 seemed to expose the fragility of state-society relations in this postcolonial authoritarian bargain that had, for a time, seemed to be unraveling in the wake of the popular Arab Spring revolutions of 2011-onward.

Hence, we wished to explore the political and developmental repercussions of the pandemic in a manner comprehensive enough to account for country, regional, and global levels. In a region as diverse yet roughly (culturally and linguistically) coherent as MENA, a comparative lens was important. We assembled a fine group of scholars (Beverley Milton-Edwards, Abdul Ghaffar Mughal, Ali Alshawi, Hela Miniaoui, Anis Khayati, Mohamed El Hachimi, Aisha Kadaoui, Mohammed Moussa, Takayuki Yokota, Basem Ezbidi, Assem Dandashly, Ravza Altuntas-Çakir, Aysegül Gökalp Kutlu, Fatmanur Delioglu, Maziyar Ghiabi, Pietro Marzo, Renata Pepicelli, and Madra Kassis). Many wrote from within MENA to explore the pandemic fallout in specific countries and vis-à-vis other regions.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

LS & LS: The book first lays out the framework of “risk society” adapted to the MENA region. How has putative modernization since colonialism, filtered through the apparatuses of authoritarianism and dependency on Western powers and the global capitalist framework, in effect “backfired” in the region? How has the pandemic brought to the fore the backlash of such modernization processes that ensured neither freedom nor dignity to the region’s publics? This is the theoretical prism through which our contributors examined the “pandemic condition” (adapting Hannah Arendt’s well-known “human condition”) in their respective country case studies.

The chapters cover the GCC, the North African countries, Lebanon, Palestine, Iran, Syrian refugees in Turkey, EU-MENA relations, and Arab authoritarianism more broadly. They variously examine three themes. First are modes of governance, including the new pandemic-era “biopolitics” (Foucault’s surveillance and control of populations): lockdowns, health tracker applications, mobility and travel restrictions, and so on, all in the name of public safety. Second is democracy, always a pertinent question made more so by the Arab Spring that touched the entire region in some way or other. What prospects remain for democratization in the region, when emboldened, coercive authoritarian regimes seemed eager to militarize public space, to curtail freedom of speech, to jail opponents, more than ever before? Much has by now been written about COVID-19’s detrimental impact on democracy worldwide. We wished to comparatively examine the specificities of MENA setbacks in democratization. Most dramatically, Kais Saied proclaimed his “state of exception” on 25 July 2021, activating what has probably been the most disheartening reversal of revolutionary gains in the region since 2011. He was in part encouraged by rampant protests that decried Hichem Mechichi’s (then Prime Minister) government in dealing with the pandemic, as the death rate crept up alarmingly. At the same time, civic resistance has not been stamped out, even with pandemic-style authoritarian resurgence, as some of our chapters demonstrate. Third and finally, the theme of inequality, within and between countries in the region and the rest of the world, runs through the chapters. Socio-economic systems, and the exclusions they engender, are inextricably tied up in political regimes and processes. The economic is political. COVID-19 drove that lesson home in a new way.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

LS & LS: We both have longstanding interest in protest politics and democratization in the region. These are always, as we mention above, linked to material marginalization, underdevelopment, and transgressions against socio-economic rights in general. Larbi Sadiki has probed transformations in Arab democratic discourses in The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia UP, 2004), Arab democratization (Rethinking Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy, OUP, 2009), the Arab Spring (Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring), and contemporary Middle East politics (Routledge Handbook of Middle East Politics). Layla Saleh’s book examined Syria’s revolution vis-à-vis US foreign policy towards the region since 2001 (US Hard Power in the Arab World: Resistance, the Syrian Uprising, and the War on Terror, Routledge, 2017). The pandemic offered new (very difficult) empirical circumstances that resonated with topics and themes we have written about in these above-mentioned and other works. Readers will recognize continuity in theoretical and normative interests (democracy, bottom-up politics, emancipation) integrated into recent social and political events that have accosted the region and the world.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LS & LS: We hope that students and scholars of the MENA region will read this book. Epistemologically and methodologically, what we have called “ethnographies of the pandemic” can offer insight into how to study difficult socio-economic phenomena from the ground up, centering the local and the indigenous in a reflexive fashion. Too often, research on the MENA region is limited by Orientalist frameworks and limited, first-hand engagement with the field and local knowledge. We sought to avert this pitfall in the book, and as such the chapters illustrate different ways of taking “the local” seriously, from interviews to participant observation to even “digital ethnography,” made more popular by pandemic travel limitations.

The book should also appeal to other readers who may be curious about how the pandemic has affected societies and publics in the “Global South.” Civil society activists and some policymakers may appreciate our attention to issues of formal politics, governance, protest, and development that depart from simply cataloguing the pandemic damage, as it were. 

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

LS & LS: We have just finished writing an immense co-authored book: Revolution and Democracy in Tunisia, which is forthcoming with Oxford University Press and should be out by the end of the year. It takes an in-depth, theoretically innovative, and rich empirical look at protest and revolution in the North African country, phenomena with which social scientists continue to grapple. We also founded and edit the Brill journal Protest, which publishes research articles, special essays, short eyewitness pieces, interviews, and reviews. Volume 3, Issue 1 will be out in late June.

J: What are some takeaways from your book as the pandemic has subsided?

LS & LS: The book obviously tackles a specific set of medical, social, and political circumstances, namely the COVID-19 pandemic that has to a great extent abated by mid-2023. However, the hazards of “MENA risk society” persist. Dissemination of the vaccine, busy airports, and crowded restaurants have not brought with them the freedom and dignity (slogans of the Arab Spring) that MENA publics still yearn for. With the downpour of excessively pessimistic diagnoses of the region’s politics, with proclamations of the inevitability of authoritarian rule and the failure of Arab Spring democratization, we hope that our book conveys three things. First, the conditions giving rise to the 2011 revolutions have taken a turn for the worse, not better, since the pandemic. Second, if even during the pandemic citizens spoke out and broke out of their imposed authoritarian “confinement,” so to speak, the drive to protest and revolt has not withered. The collective pursuit of emancipation, despite polarization and fragmentation, despite the doubling down of state repression, will not be snuffed out. Third, research on the MENA region, during and since the pandemic, requires a strong dose of reflexivity. It necessitates focused attention to the indigenous and respect for the local, without foregoing the compiled wisdom of (Western) social science.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1, “MENA Risk Society and the ‘Pandemic Condition,’” by Larbi Sadiki and Layla Saleh)

[Note: In-text citations have been removed for the purpose of this excerpt] 


At the interlocking levels of polity, economy, and society, global changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic prompt investigation, reflection, and deliberation by academics, civic activists, and political practitioners. In the midst of widespread uncertainty and the ‘collapse’ of taken-for-granted functions of states, economies, and international institutions, it is apropos to reconsider some widely held conceptions. How do crises bring to the fore the contradictions in the discourses and practices seeking to ensure democracy, freedoms, and socio-economic rights through the national, regional, and global actors and institutions? These compelling questions are far from abstract. Lives and livelihoods, many already precarious, have been bulldozed off-track in the wake of the pandemic and policy responses aiming (or claiming) to contain it. Hence, it is fitting to reflect on how social scientists can engage in research aimed at problem solving to confront enormous challenges heightened by COVID-19. These range from inequality, human indignity, to contracting opportunities compounded by resurgent authoritarianism in many Arab settings. Prior to March 2020, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) was already in the throes of intense tumult and trenchant violent conflict, particularly since the onset of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and counter-revolutions. These have played out not only in the Arab states, but have also ricocheted to other states in the region such as Iran. The pandemic has piled on difficulties of health, sustenance, and aspirations to security and emancipation. COVID’s woes in this region may be understood through a sort of duality. The pandemic’s blows have on the one hand followed the trajectory of some global patterns. At the same time, its impact has played out in regionally specific ways. The collection of chapters in this edited volume collectively seek to untangle how COVID-19 unfolds in the MENA region. That is, the book attempts probes the contours and configurations of its ‘pandemic condition,’ with special reference to issues of socio-economic (in)equalities, (self) governance, civic engagement, and democracy. An eye to problem-solving research, the ‘reflexivity’ dimension, further enhances the empirical, country-level analyses attuned to major trends exacerbated or initiated by the virus.


MENA ‘Regional’ Risk Society 

Investigating the logics and instances of the “COVID condition,” we invoke Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens’concept of “risk society.” This notion helps to underscore the severity of the pandemic for human development and (in)humane sharing of the burdens afflicting the region’s states and societies as a result of Covid-19. It strikes a chord as we seek to both make meaning out of the pandemic and to chart pathways for ways to understand and even mitigate COVID destruction. Risk society is characterised by “distributional conflicts over ‘bads’” (and not “goods”), in contests over “how the risks accompanying goods production… can be distributed, prevented, controlled and legitimized,” according to Beck, Giddens, and Lash. Further, Beck has offered elsewhere the notion of risk as “manufactured uncertainty” that results from human-made (not natural) problems resulting from modernization. These include environmental disasters and new illnesses, for example, that arise from technological, scientific, and industrial development.

Beck conceives of this “second modernity” as one of reflexive (rather than linear) modernization (rather than linear) that can bring about “its own change through unwanted side effects”. Reflexive modernization can thus, in a new “Enlightenment” ideal, induce “criticism” and “self-criticism”. He pays special attention to the role of industry and science. Rather than merely bringing about improvements in people’s lives according to the liberal rubric of progress, they themselves contribute to or even create risks. Social science has a role to play, argues Beck: by being more “reflective” than “professional,” it can move away from excessive positivism to deeply and critically consider how to address the contemporary challenges of risk society. We thus approach COVID-19 as a clear and dire manifestation of Beck’s “risk society.” This global pandemic, unpredictable in its outbreak and its rapid-fire spread, has crippled polities, economies, and societies. It has arguably resulted from the toxic combination of capitalist structures and practices on the one hand, and scientific-technological developments on the other. Advancement-turned-vulnerability is the name of the game.

Risk society and its dangers are not neatly boxed within single countries. Instead, they permeate the territorial demarcations of modern states. The COVID-19 pandemic, the focus of our study, clearly illustrates this. Thus, we also further draw on Beck’s concept of “world risk society.” Here, there is a three-fold “de-bounding of uncontrollable risks”. It is spatial (problems spilling out of nation-state boundaries); temporal (unforeseeably longer time frame); and social (accountability and culpability are indeterminate). Ecological, global financial, and global terrorist risks are all examples. We can add the pandemic to the roster. Since risk can resonate internationally and transnationally, Beck urges “cooperation” and multilateralism for problem-solving in such cases, ideally within “cosmopolitan states” whose rights- and justice-based values make them more inclined to exactly such synergism. This globalization of risk has implications not only for problem-solving in the policy realm, but also in social science. Hence, Beck shuns what he calls “methodological nationalism” that deals with nation-states as the cornerstone of social science analysis. Instead, he argues that social science must be made more “transnational” (elsewhere, “cosmopolitan”) from concept-building to theorizing to methodological implementation. Following Beck, then, we take the pandemic to be a manifestation of “world risk society.” In this volume, we go beyond the “methodological nationalism” he decries in social science, toward a “transnationalism” that remains focused on the Arab region. Going too global may come at the price of losing the specificity of local/regional context in the conceptualization and measurement of concepts and the tracing of patterns.

Hence, our take on Beck’s global risk society zeroes in on the MENA region. Shared cultural, economic, political characteristics emanating from geographic proximity and overlapping histories necessitate region-wide examinations of politics. MENA countries also experience common patterns of risk society. This includes relatively ‘dependent’ status in world affairs, from Palestine and Kuwait to Morocco and Syria. We contend that such recipient positionality extends to the problems emanating from risk society. As Beck notes, “in the so-called periphery,” policies and decisions in confronting world risk society are made elsewhere in the “center,” involving an “exogenous process” outside the former’s control. In fact, he adds, risk is unequally distributed across a world riven with inequality, its dangers sometimes ‘exported’ across time and space by the powerful in the direction of the less powerful. Investigating the pandemic’s pathways, as expression and exacerbation of risk in MENA’s numerous countries, impels us to adopt a regional focus: what we call “regional risk society.” At the same time, our analytic strategy further aids us as we seek to avoid abstracting Arab states and societies of their agency. Thus, we stress the comparative uniqueness of states and regions dealing with risks not of their own making. That is, the risk inducers of modernity (capitalism, industrialization, technological progress, etc.) that Beck has suggested are not of local (Arab) origin—a logic that extends to the coronavirus. Yet, the Arab states and their societies, like other developing countries, must suffer the consequences of such risk as the architects of Western modernization do, albeit through distinct experiences.

We are aware of criticisms levelled at Beck’s risk society. For example, some theorists take Beck to task for presenting as novel risks that are not really new (or modern) in the history of human existence. ….What justifies its use here in this volume is not subscription of a view of “total risk” as perhaps contended by Beck. It is not how class per se relates to risk. Rather, it is how risk engulfs the world’s peripheries relative to the industrialized states that form the center of global economic, scientific, technological and even military prowess. These peripheries in MENA, almost invariably ex-colonized states and societies, display insecurities and vulnerabilities exacted on them by adoption of development models (modernization-cum liberalization, dependence, etc.) and implements of power (Western tutelage and authoritarian rule tolerated by the West). So risk may not be “total”, as conceived by Beck within new modernity. It is, however, “situated” risk with own specificities. In particular, how risk is not in any small measure, as regards political, socio-economic or social vulnerabilities and woes of the ex-colonized, a variant of that experienced by the ex-colonizers. Indebtedness to the ex-colonizers debilitates the economies of the ex-colonized. The techne of oppression, militarization and securitization that prop up delegitimized regimes and elites are made available to the ex-colonized by the ex-colonizers. Failed development models followed economic itineraries, socialist or liberal, account for a big share of the brands of risk found in MENA. That includes wars and their aftermath in the region. And so on, such that MENA risk society becomes a fitting frame through which to examine, critique, and re-imagine its “pandemic condition.”