The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing political tensions in the Middle East and North Africa, a region already affected by decades of conflict. Now unscrupulous politicians blame their political enemies or country governments for the spread of the new coronavirus.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization (WHO), sounded the alarm over the threat that misinformation and disinformation pose to humanity:
“At WHO, we not only combat the virus, we also combat trolls and conspiracy theories that undermine our response,” he said, reiterating that false information can cause confusion and fear.
The Middle East and North Africa region is no stranger to conspiracy theories. A 2019 Oxford University study revealed that the region is home to half of the top 12 countries identified as having “high cybertrope activity,” including Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates.
Those in a position of power use the “information war” to frame narratives and control public opinion, and social media has become the main battleground in employing influences, trolls, bots, and armies of commentators.
In Iran, Yemen and Syria, the so-called “axis of resistance” – whose legitimacy is often linked to virulent opposition from the West – leaders use COVID-19 to reaffirm political positioning and channel hostile ideologies against the West.
Hezbollah, for example, has framed the coronavirus as a plot twist for its “enemies,” the West in general, and the United States in particular. Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite political party and affiliate of Iran, is known for being a state within a state. Most countries consider it a terrorist organization.
In March Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary general, stated:
The corona is a highly threatening enemy. We have to confront this invasive enemy. We should not surrender or despair or feel helpless. The response must be confrontation, resistance, and fighting. We will win this battle. It is only a matter of time.
The coronavirus is a very threatening enemy. We must face this invasive enemia. We should not give up or despair or feel powerless. The answer must be confrontation, resistance and struggle. We will win this battle. It is only a matter of time.
The ‘axis of resistance’ led by Iran
In the battle for hearts and minds, the ideological army of the Iranian regime – Corps of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard – has led to a counter narrative about the pandemic, and portrayed the virus as a conspiracy by the regime's traditional enemies, the United States and Israel.
The propaganda includes claims that the virus is a “US biological invasion” and a “Zionist biological terrorist attack,” which prompted some defenders of the regime to call for a retaliatory response.
Since its founding in 1979, the Revolutionary Guard has been the “primary mechanism for the ruling clergy to apply their theocracy at home and export their Islamist Shiite ideology,” according to Foreign Policy.
It collaborates with its allies in Arab capitals where it has considerable influence, such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. They share similar ideologies against the West, the United States, and Israeli. The leaders of these nations often glorify strife and martyrdom.
For example, Hezbollah general secretary Nasrallah frequently preaches messages of martyrdom to his base. In an interview, he explained: “Our combatant explodes smiling and happy because he knows he is going to another world. Death for us is not the end but the beginning of real life. “
Houthis: Iranian intermediary voice in Yemen
Yemen continues to grapple with the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations after falling into a bloody proxy war in 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition intervened to topple the Houthi leaders of power they held after a coup.
Houthi forces, backed by Iran, control the populated northern region, as well as the media. Houthi leaders have used the pandemic – which some analysts describe as a “gift to the Houthis” – to attack rivals and divert attention from the ongoing crisis. Houthi leaders also promote the Iranian regime's conspiracy theory that the virus is a plot by the United States.
The Houthi Minister of Health, Dr. Taha Al-Mutawakkil, said in a public sermon broadcast on television: “We must ask everyone, we must ask all humanity: who and what is behind the coronavirus?” And it concludes with a Houthi motto: “Death to the United States! Death to Israel! Damn the Jews! Victory for Islam! “
As the virus has been sweeping Yemen for weeks, activists report dozens of deaths. Houthi leaders have denied the scope of the outbreak and downplayed its severity. At a press conference, Mutawakkil said:
We should not do like the rest of the world who have terrorized the population. The recovery of the virus is very high, it is in Yemen of over 80%. The treatment of the coronavirus will come from Yemen.
We must not do like the rest of the world that has terrorized the population. Recovery from the virus is very high, in Yemen it is over 80%. Coronavirus treatment will come from Yemen.
The Houthis often stick to an ideology rooted in victimization, and it shows that all of Yemen's problems are caused by external interventions that started in 2015 with the Saudi-led campaign. Thus, they often blame the intervention that absolves them of responsibility for the current crisis.
Mohamed Ali al-Houthi, member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, tweeted on March 16, that the Saudi-led coalition is to blame for the spread of the coronavirus in Yemen.
وتتعمددول العدوان في المناطق التي تحتلها على عدم اتخاذ أي إجراءات إحترازية ولا طارئة ولا حجر صحي ولا
وكان لا وباءيجتاح العالم يسمى # كرونا
نحمل العدوان الأمريكي وحلفائه مسؤلية أي حالة باليمن_فهويسيطر على الأجواء والمنافذ البحرية البرية_
ومسؤلية عدم التأهيل واتخاذ الإجراءات
– محمد علي الحوثي (@Moh_Alhouthi) March 16, 2020
In the territories occupied by the aggressor countries (the coalition led by Saudi Arabia) no precautionary, emergency or quarantine measures have been taken. There would be an epidemic sweeping the world called the coronavirus. We hold the US aggressor and his allies accountable for all cases in Yemen, as they control airspace, land, and ports.
Houthi leaders have also exploited the virus to pressure their base into action and boost military recruitment. In a Houthi-affiliated television channel, a speaker recommended that the public unite on the battlefield and die as martyrs instead of being homebound by the coronavirus.
The Saudi-Emirati axis: the fault lies with Qatar and Iran
The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf was formed in 1981 after the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Iran-Iraq war, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain. From the beginning, their union was to defend themselves against the Iranian threat.
However, the council has been in crisis since 2017, when a bloc of countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates came into conflict with Qatar over allegations of ties to Iranian “terrorist groups”. A total block was imposed since June 2017 against Qatar.
The coronavirus has become politicized against this background. A widely circulated narrative among council countries supports the story that the virus arrived imported from Iran, the regional epicenter of the crisis, or Iraq, through Shiite citizens returning from pilgrimage in Iran.
The Saudi daily Al Jazeera accused Iran of “adding health terrorism to its bloody terrorism” for not being transparent and allowing the virus to spread.
Saudi Arabia “blamed” Iran for the spread of COVID-19; Bahrain accused them of “biological assault” for failing to stamp the passports of Bahrainis who traveled to Iran.
In a region ruled by Sunni royal families over a vast Shiite majority, analyzed for its proximity to Iran, this scapegoat is likely to fuel sectarianism and tension.
UAE and Saudi Arabia have launched social media campaigns to blame Qatar for the coronavirus with labels like #QatarIsCorona (Qatar is coronavirus), which they say Qatar manufactured the virus in China to endanger SaudiVision 2030 and Expo Dubai 2020.
The Internet has provided fertile ground for generating and amplifying false state-sponsored news and propaganda campaigns. In an era of social distancing and more reliance on social media, allowing these narratives to spread without brake and without sanctions undermines an effective response to the pandemic – and more widely – to peace and democracy.