Security forces stand at a checkpoint in the city of Sulaimaniyah, in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, on March 14, 2020, as part of lockdown measures against COVID-19 coronavirus disease. (Shwan Mohammed/AFP via Getty Images)

Corona as Security Threat: Mideast States Call Out Army

Several countries order military to join the fight against the pandemic

Country after country has announced new emergency measures to tackle the rapid transmission of the novel coronavirus in the Middle East.

The most recent was Tunisia, as President Kais Saied instructed the army on Monday to enforce the 6 pm-6 am curfew that was put in place on March 18. The North African country has identified 89 cases of the COVID-19 virus; three persons have died so far and one has recovered.

In Jordan, the army took over the streets on March 17 to police the curfew, following the government’s activation of the Defense Law that entered the kingdom into a state of emergency. Citizens who violated the curfew in Amman and elsewhere have been arrested and referred for possible criminal prosecution.

Moeen al-Taher, a Jordanian-Palestinian political analyst and writer at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Amman, told The Media Line that the Jordanian army and security forces had to impose the new reality of limits on movement. “People here fear the army; it has prestige and respect among Jordanians. The army’s deployment made people take the matter seriously.”

Taher said that people in European countries, with their democratic systems, failed to comply with instructions, while China was able through its dictatorial system to get the virus under control. “Anyway, our problem today is to put an end to the coronavirus, not to revive democracy,” he said.

“Each country faces its own circumstances in dealing with the new crisis; the role of the armies is important here, but it has to be spelled out and restricted to a limited time frame,” he elaborated.

“The army’s involvement has to be controlled, and it has to be subject to the political echelon in the kingdom, to avoid any disagreements in a chaotic time that could turn into a power struggle,” he said.

Taher said that coronavirus would create a new reality for international society, the nature of which depended on how well the disease was dealt with.

The kingdom has identified 112 cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus; no one has died and one person has recovered.

In Egypt since mid-March, the army has cooperated with state institutions to combat the virus through measures such as storing foodstuffs and providing training on preventive measures. In addition, the Armed Forces’ Fire and Rescue Department provided firefighting vehicles with antiseptic solutions for disinfection after possible exposure and to sterilize open spaces. On Sunday, an Egyptian army officer died after he was infected with the novel coronavirus in the course of his duties.

Amani El-Tawil, a lawyer and a program director at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told The Media Line that the army’s involvement made sense for a variety of reasons, chief among them that the virus could be part of a biological warfare campaign.

“The Egyptian army has a chemical [and biological] warfare unit, which is the part of the military that should be responsible for dealing with the coronavirus file, and not all of the army branches,” El-Tawil said.

Furthermore, she said that COVID-19 could be used as a tool in the framework of the rivalry between the US and China for world leadership. “In any case, how states deal with the coronavirus pandemic will affect the international political balance.”

El-Tawil said that Egyptians accepted the army’s role, as they understood the serious threat posed by the virus to public safety and national security.

The Land of the Nile has identified 327 cases of COVID-19; 14 persons have died and 56 have recovered.

On March 21, Prime Minister Hassan Diab instructed the army and security forces to ensure that people stayed at home to counter the transmission of the virus, after the number of cases rose to more than 200 despite previous calls by the government urging citizens not to endanger themselves and others.

Abd Joumaa, a political activist based in Beirut, told The Media Line that Lebanese people weren’t bothered at all by the army’s role in countering the coronavirus but rather welcomed and blessed it. Some citizens urged further stringent measures in light of the emergency.

“At this stage, the security forces have tightened procedures so that people are not allowed to leave their homes unless it is urgent, and those who go out to the wrong places, that is other than to supermarkets and pharmacies, are being charged fines by joint forces drawn from all of the Lebanese security services,” Joumaa said.

He added that workers other than in the health, medical and food sectors who left their homes were being fined as well.

The Land of the Cedars has identified 267 cases of COVID-19; four persons have died and eight have recovered.

In Saudi Arabia, King Salman ordered a curfew starting on March 23 and to last for 21 days, from 7 pm-6 am, requiring residents to stay home unless it is absolutely necessary.

Previously, the kingdom suspended the entry of foreigners from countries hardest hit by the virus, and banned foreign Muslims from traveling to Mecca and Medina for the Umrah pilgrimage, which can be performed at any time of the year.

Suliman al-Ogaily, a member of the board of directors of the Saudi Society for Political Science, told The Media Line that the army hadn’t been employed to fight the coronavirus, but rather security services under the authority of the Interior Ministry. “Our army is deployed at the borders to protect the kingdom; the king’s order did not include the army, as Saudi Arabia avoided giving any impression that the coronavirus issue has a security element,” Ogaily said.

He pointed out that royal orders are considered laws in Saudi Arabia, and therefore the involvement of the security forces in law enforcement is legitimate. “The nature of the virus, which spreads rapidly, required authorities to double-down on measures that were taken on February 27, as the number of cases infected with COVID-19 has passed 500,” he said.

He added that in Arab culture, there is a tradition of constant social gatherings and events, especially in the evening, which explained the times of the curfew. “The authorities couldn’t rein in such traditional practices all at once; they had to take further measure to ensure that any traditional activities that help to transmit the virus are stopped.”

Ogaily gave as an example how Saudi Arabia had put on hold the practice of collective prayer. “Therefore, canceling gatherings of people and enforcing the curfew is now acceptable,” he said.

The kingdom has identified 562 cases of the COVID-19 virus; no one has died and 19 persons have recovered.

Israel plans to spend $14 million on medical equipment for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Defense Ministry said on March 11, as the army prepared to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser, told The Media Line that so far, Israel is dealing with the pandemic as a civilian issue. However, in the case of a complete curfew, the IDF would have to help the police, which didn’t have sufficient personnel to enforce it throughout the entire country.

“Everyone has relatives in the army, so the army’s deployment would not be a problem here,” Amidror said.

Lior Akerman, an Israeli political analyst and retired brigadier general, told The Media Line that management of the coronavirus crisis wasn’t being directed by the military or the security forces. “In line with the decision of the government, the Israel Security Agency [the Shin Bet] technology platform is being used to locate potential patients who were nearby identified corona patients” by tracking cellphones, he added.

Akerman pointed out that in the scenario of an enforced total closure, there would be no choice but to rely on police and military personnel.

“The US also uses National Guard soldiers during times of crisis, as do all the European countries,” he added. “This kind of crisis must be managed by the civilian and health systems, with the security forces limited to helping in a law enforcement role.”

Israel has identified 1,442 cases of COVID-19; one person has died and 41 have recovered.

On Sunday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh ordered a two-week lockdown in Palestinian cities and villages with the exception of health facilities, pharmacies, bakeries and grocery stores, deploying the security forces as law enforcement to make sure citizens remain in their homes.

The Palestinian Authority has identified 59 cases (57 in the West Bank and two in the Gaza Strip) of COVID-19; no one has died and 17 persons have recovered.

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