A Call for a Transnational Abolitionist Front in a Time of State Emergencies: a Conversation With Lara Al-kateb & Yasser Munif


On April 3, 2020, the Alliance of Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Socialists issued a statement calling for “a global prison abolitionist Movement to fight COVID-19 and capitalism.” Finalizing this issue in a moment of global emergency, we’re concluding it with this interview with two of their members. 

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: As of now, a large majority of countries in the MENA regions have taken legislation to impose measures of containment of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Can you talk about how some of these emergency legislation tend to exacerbate some aspects of violence (whether counter-revolutionary violence or engineered inequality) already at work in these societies? It is obvious when it comes to Western Sahara or Palestine, but we have no doubt that these logics are at work in many other countries, in particular the many that were experiencing revolutions in the past year.

LARA AL KATEB: First, it is clear that there has been a mishandling of the pandemic by most states and authorities. The contagious nature of COVID-19 has cost thousands of lives and puts millions at risk and yet little action to no action was taken in time. In China, scholars, doctors and activists speaking against the pandemic and its mishandling were jailed. Similar measures were taken in Thailand, Cambodia, Venezuela, Bangladesh, and Turkey, because states learn from each other’s tactics. Governments in the United States, Egypt, and Syria have downplayed the threat of the coronavirus for weeks while an unknown number of people were dying in their houses. Even more so, these governments opted to promote their own self-serving propaganda. For example the Health ministry in Syria went on record to say that the army is “cleansing Syria of bacteria.” Such fascistic framing should come as no surprise from Syrian forces. So what we can expect from the state of emergency is that authorities will exploit this crisis to serve their political ends in terms of enacting authoritarian measures such as cracking down on dissidents, limiting freedom of movement and increasing digital surveillance. 

YASSER MUNIF: Syrians have been under a state of emergency for more than 50 years. It was implemented in 1962 and since then, different versions of it have been imposed on the population. States of emergency are also a reality in many Arab and non-Arab countries. These societies are the targets of systematic state violence and the abuse of the carceral system. The COVID-19 pandemic obviously amplifies that by allowing the dictators in the MENA region to utilize this crisis to reinforce control, surveillance and violence, and to expand the carceral system. The powerful are well-known to never let a crisis go to waste. They are using the current crisis to expand and reinforce the regime of control and surveillance which is already in place. The politics of fear and the state of emergency are instrumentalized to impose a more totalitarian system. 

There are countless examples to illustrate the way in which the power elite is instrumentalizing the health crisis to preserve a decaying system. For example, Syrian refugees living in camps in countries surrounding Syria are demonized and often blamed for the spread of the virus. They are scapegoated by Arab regimes that are unable to address the health crisis. For instance, Zaatari Camp in Jordan, the second largest camp in the world, with almost 80,000 refugees, is ill equipped to face the COVID-19 virus. Living conditions in the camp are bad and social distancing is impossible. Residents tried to improve living conditions in the past and were met with police violence. The Jordanian government imposed a lockdown during the pandemic and is flying drones in some regions to make sure it’s respected. In the past several months, refugees in Greece were brutalized and in some cases killed by the police. The camps look like detention centers rather than anything else. During the pandemic, the government put the camps under lockdown, and ignored the residents’ pleas to decongest the space to prevent the spread of the virus. The conditions in the region and beyond are terrible for the marginal population, the subaltern, the wretched population. For these most vulnerable groups it’s going to be very difficult to overcome the pandemic.