Beyond the Pandemic: Structure of Opportunities and Challenges for Transforming Arab States and Civil Societies

Background and Rationale

This project wishes to explore how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the measures taken to counter it, transform state-society relations in the Arab world. The pandemic is treated as a shifting moment in the structure of opportunities and challenges to transforming state-society relations across the region. Beyond its health hazards, the impact of the pandemic on the global and national economies will persist for a long time even after it is over. What seems to be a global recession, unparalleled since the Great Depression, will hit the Arab world through lower oil prices, curbed tourism, and low investment inflows. It might also prove disruptive to food security in one of the most import-dependent regions of the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the focus of the debate regarding the role of the state away from fostering growth through attracting foreign direct investment, supplying infrastructure, and enhancing global competitiveness. The crisis has shed light on some long-standing political and economic issues like basic welfare functions that seemed quite lacking, starting with public healthcare and social protection, redistribution of income, and extending to vulnerable employment and precariousness that engulfs millions in the Arab world (and elsewhere), especially among the urban poor, the youth, and female workers.

With the Carnegie Corporation’s support, this project aims at forming a multidisciplinary team of researchers who can bring their academic expertise into the policy world. The objective is to generate grounded empirical knowledge about the transformations of state-society relations in the Arab world in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. In doing so, it capitalizes on the Asfari Institute’s established experience in reaching out to and coordinating with, Arab civil society actors and networks.

The team will adopt a thematic approach that cuts across six Arab national cases and that emphasizes national/ regional patterns as well as continuities with the Global South. It will combine analysis of earlier historical patterns with foresight and recommendations addressing major stakeholders in Arab civil societies, development agencies, and even state incumbents.

Taking the pandemic as a point of departure, we hope this project will contribute to the production of a flow of empirical information about the policy, political, and institutional changes in a selection of Arab countries. Hence, we propose tackling five principal areas of state-society relations:

  1. Governance and political regime dynamics
  2. Access to public healthcare
  3. Social protection
  4. Employment and labor regulation
  5. Social justice, taxation, and redistribution


  1. Engaging civil society actors, defined in the broadest sense to include collective social action. Civil society hence includes institutionalized forms like independent unions and syndicates, cooperatives, municipalities, universities, and non-governmental organizations and the less institutionalized forms of collective action on grassroots levels and social networks in producing policy alternatives and recommendations in the five focal areas of this research project. This should enable us to reach out to ordinary citizens as members of loose networks of solidarity or protesters or associations, or as members of formal organizations.
  2. Firmly observing and documenting concrete changes in state policies and institutions in addition to civil society responses and their relations with the state as well as compiling, categorizing, and displaying all data collected in a sound, easy and accessible database. Special attention will be paid to cover social media trends regarding the state’s “inability” or “bias against” ordinary concerned citizen’s wellbeing and concerns.
  3. Exploring the potential for capitalizing on such changing arrangements and patterns of interaction to push for more permanent forms of participatory democracy, wider representation, stronger accountability, and more effective social and economic welfare for the majority of people.


Our project engages with the Corporation’s interests in exploring the chances and challenges for transforming state-society relations in the Arab region. In examining the dynamics of the pandemic and its countermeasures in the region, we intend to:

  1. Gathering, categorizing, and analyzing grounded facts from six Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Sudan, through formidable research teams who are assigned the task of observing all policy-related measures from both ends of the state and civil society.
  2. Using the data collected and organized in twelve months of fieldwork both nationally and thematically in order to develop an informed analysis of transformation in the Arab region.
  3. Producing knowledge through a variety of publications that address the actual and potential reconfiguration of state-society relations in the Arab region with the aim of engaging civil society organizations, societal stakeholders, epistemic communities, international financial and development organizations, and whenever possible state officials and bureaucrats through monthly round ups and op-eds published on the Asfari Institute website.

Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship

American University of Beirut


PO Box 11-0236

Riad El Solh, ​1107 2020
Beirut, Lebanon

Tel: +961-1-350000 EXT. 4469


The Debs Center, 3 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, 8th floor
New York, NY 10017-2303, USA

Tel: 1-212-583-7600