Ever since Ulrich Beck’s (1992) seminal thoughts on “World Risk Society”, social scientists have elaborated on the differences between “risks”, “crises” and “catastrophes”. While often understood as rather theoretical exercise, the recent earthquakes in Syria and Turkey, the war on Ukraine and not least the worsening effects of climate change have shown that indeed everybody’s life is “at risk”, and that it requires concerted efforts from political leaders and societies to prevent them from transmuting into full-fledged crises or even catastrophes.
In Beck's classic risk theory, there are three options for decision-makers to respond to risks: denial, apathy and transformation. Governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have typically opted for the first or second option: denial (by muzzling warning voices) or apathy (through inaction).
The recent COVID-19 pandemic, understood as “turbulent problem” (Ansell et al., 2021), has however shown that traditional bureaucratic procedures are insufficient to ensure neither the safety of the citizens nor the stability of the affected regimes. Thus, taking the governmental and societal responses to COVID-19 in the MENA region as analytical starting point, this paper discusses recent developments in crisis management in selected MENA countries. Following Gaskell and Stoker (2020), its underlying assumption is that core for the successful containment of crises is the combined ability of (a) policymakers and (b) citizens to (re)act flexibly is. This “dual flex-ability” [i.e., functional leadership (= the performance of policymakers) and socioeconomic potency (= the status of a society)], sets the matrix for societal responses to contemporary risks. Between both factors, however, serves the level of trust that a society has in its government structure as important intervening variable. The higher social trust, the higher citizens willingness to endure also unpopular decisions.
In authoritarian, lower-middle income countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, these variables have been rather modest. For this reason, the paper assumes that ability and willingness of decision-makers and citizens to respond jointly to comprehensive risks are limited in these countries – unless the lack of trust has been reduced through better governance not only in crisis times, but especially in “times of normal”.