On the Revolutions in Egypt

It’s easy to see the last week’s events as an indictment of Islamist rule, but I don’t think that’s what is going on here. (Caveat: all I know is what I read in the papers and online. I’m not writing with the benefit of firsthand knowledge.)

Egypt has serious problems that have nothing to do with Islamism. The country that was the Roman Empire’s granary has become dependent on imported food – and they’re running out of money to buy it. The economy is so bad, it would make Obama proud: high unemployment, rising prices, fuel shortages. Oh, and an “education” system that manages to combine massive illiteracy with a university system that churns out ever more graduates with degrees that aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. [Here I’m going to exercise great self-control and not go on about the specific linguistic and cultural features that make literacy in Arabic much more difficult than literacy in Western languages, because people do tend to back away slowly when I get going on linguistic matters. I hope you’re all properly appreciative.]

Last week Leslie Chang pointed out, in a New Yorker article, that she had “yet to meet a politician with a substantive plan to overhaul a system of food and fuel subsidies that eats up almost one third of the budget, or to reform the education sector, or to stimulate foreign investment.”

What I’ve seen and read about the protestors doesn’t inspire me with any confidence. Just as the last ones had pictures of Mubarak inside a Star of David, these have posters of Morsi inside a Star of David. They’re beating the previous protestors’ record for sexual assaults in Tahrir Square. I think what they’re unhappy about is that they’re unemployed and hungry and Morsi’s government hasn’t done anything to improve their lot. A government that rescued Egypt from its economic death spiral would probably make all the protestors happy. And if the government is anti-Semitic, anti-women and Islamist? Those would likely be features, not bugs.

So let’s not be too optimistic here. The fact that the protestors dislike Obama doesn’t guarantee that they are nice guys or that they will do any better than the previous regimes.

23 thoughts on “On the Revolutions in Egypt”

  1. This was such a tragedy on so many levels – but I believe it is one of those situations where there is no good solution, only the least-worst one, and so freighted with if-onlys! If only the French commander on scene had not been so stiff-necked, and realized that no matter who the messenger – the British were in grim earnest, if Darlan had only grasped the true gravity of what the Brits were up against, if the offer to go to American-ports had only been entertained… the terrible ‘ifs’ accumulate.

  2. Whoops – the previous comment was was supposed to be a comment on Mers el Kabir!
    But – it is interesting (in a grim, slow-down-and-look-at-the-carnage sort of way) that our Champ of a President has managed to alienate everyone concerned, Egyptwise. It’s a gift, I am certain. I’d be reveling in the schadenfreude, except that the rest of us will have to clean up the mess for decades …

  3. I have no idea what comes next. But while watching CNN this afternoon I had a flashback to an interview Niall Ferguson gave to MSNBC in February 2011 in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s removal when everyone was saying what a great Obama success this was.


  4. David Goldman (Spengler) called this one. The MB regime had all of the bad features of the Mubarak dictatorship without the Mubarak regime’s experiments in economic liberalization that, however imperfect and corrupt, provided a safety valve. And because the MB are expansionist and subversive of other Arab regimes there was no chance the Saudis or anyone else would bail out Egypt. Now at least, if the MB are really out, there may be assistance from SA and perhaps Turkey.

    What really looks bad in all of this is the Obama administration. They got everything wrong, backed the wrong people and got nothing for it, and are so flagrantly inept that no one wants to deal with them.

  5. As Jonathan said – the Obamaites got everything wrong about Egypt. With a great deal of nimble grace, they have managed to alienate everyone! I’d laugh and laugh and laugh, except that I am afraid that we will be trying to sort out the damage for decades to come.

  6. Jonathon is right, Spengler has been on this for a while. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Egyptians are rioting against whatever takes the MB’s place within a year for the reasons Spengler states.

  7. In some places and sometimes dictatorships are much better than democratic-like regimes. Surprise, surprise!

  8. Egypt has insoluble problems and they got worse when the MB took over. The private money fled and there is no way they can pay for the grain they require the rest of this year.

    Egypt’s population has gone from less than 30 million in 1960 to 82 million this year and rising. Food production is flat. Food production in Egypt was always problematical, requiring the annual Nile flood. The Nile has no tributaries in its course through Egypt to the Mediterranean.

    Islamic militancy is not the answer and tourism has crashed and will not recover for many years, if ever. For a nice socialist analysis, look here. The short version is it is our fault. Now you know, but you had to know already.

  9. And here I was *hoping*…should have known better!

    Seriously–I’m sure it’s true that many of the protestors would demonstrate against just about any Egyptian government, a larger group is largely motivated by economic desperation more than political ideals….still, I do think there are some positive indicators. At least from the photos I’ve seen, the anger of the demonstrators is not directed against the US in general, but specifically against Obama and his Morsi-supporting policies. (In general, there seems to be a very high correlation between anti-US feelings and anti-Israel feelings.) As long as the army or its surrogates are running things, I think anti-Israel agitation will probably be discouraged: I don’t think the army wants to fight Israel. Also, the direct conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood suggests that Egypt will become less desirable as a base for terrorism.

    Re the economy—does anyone here have a feeling for the agricultural possibilities in Egypt?…with better management and training, would it be realistically possible for them to produce enough food to make a big dent in their import requirements? One issue, of course, is any diversion of water from the Blue Nile as a consequence of Ethiopia’s construction of a major (6000MW capacity) dam.

    Also, having a large number of “college graduates” who can’t really do professional-level work and *won’t* do any other kind of work is a burden to any economy and also represents a continuing threat to any political stability. As Francis Bacon observed back in the late 1500s, that one cause of sedition and mutiny in any polity is “breeding more scholars than preferment can take off.”

  10. A huge percentage of the population all lives within a few miles of the Nile. I’m not sure how fertile the ground is but what agriculture there is is there. Everywhere else is just a big sand box.

    One side effect of building the Aswan dam in the early 60s was the Nile Water raising temperature. It now supports a liver fluke that once in you can’t be eliminated. You will see very few people in the Nile.

    Had an interesting experience while there in 1983 – and with population growth things only have gotten worse.

    We were taking a tour around Cairo and outside the city the guide stopped at a rug making factory.

    Maybe calling it a factory is too generous because it was a building where women and children – with hand looms – were making rugs.

    Anyway they gave us all a bottle of Coke as we wandered around looking at the rugs.

    We left, and not one sale was made.

    Before we left, the guide informed us that the factory would like to be paid for the Cokes since they made no sales.

    Egypt is dirt poor with huge unemployment.

    And little hope.

  11. As Walter Russell Mead says: Obama has unique ability to find the sour spot in foreign policy.

  12. @Robert – that is a great quote. Still chafes me that he did nothing to help the Iranian students.

  13. Lockheed Martin claims that they have developed a technology for water desalination with much less energy consumption than required for current technologies. Their approach is based on very thin graphene filters.

    If this actually works at scale…and it sounds like the volume production of this stuff will be a real challenge…it could potentially be a game-changer for agriculture in some countries, including Egypt….of course, though, the beneficial effects of any technology whatsover can be negated by bad politics and bad culture.

  14. Bad politics and bad culture are responsible for most of the trouble in Africa. Egypt is no exception.

    The article I linked to has a few good points. They blame an increase in meat eating for the grain shortfall and American food aid for some of it. Both are valid but only so far. Like most socialists, they would prefer that everyone is poor and deplore that some are more prosperous than others.

    Somewhere, a few years ago, I saw a comparison of Finland and Egypt and their economies. I have tried to find it and can’t. The GDP were comparable 50 years ago.

    Nasser started the slide and Sadat tried to arrest it with economic reforms continued by Mubarak. That ended with Morsi and the results should have been expected.

    This is the most amateurish government we have had since the 19th century. Hillary is no better than Obama. I wonder if that will be important in 2016 or if the LIV factor will still hold.

  15. I’ve always wondered about the agricultural history of Egypt as “Rome’s Granary” – how much grain that was and the size of the populations it was supporting. As Bill Brandt said above, outside the Nile’s fertile areas, Egypt’s a big sandbox. Seems like a funny place to be a granary for anybody other than Egyptians, super-fertile Nile or not.

    Given the current population, and assuming maximal development of arable land for grain crops, could Egypt actually feed itself, or would it have to import food under the best circumstances?

  16. TK

    Egypt(actually all of north Africa) was wetter during ancient times, albeit it was still a sandbox the green parts were proportionately larger at the delta and along the Nile. Libya too was a granary. Julius Caesar solidified his political grip in Rome with Egypt’s conquest, giving him personal control of the vital grain imports to Rome. His great-nephew Octavian repeated that conquest in his war with Antony and Cleopatra

    Today, not so sure Egypt has the arable land for food self-sufficiency for so large a population

  17. All these lovely folks will get everything they deserve, and get it nice and hard right where it hurts.

    As will we, by the way, if we don’t come to our senses pretty soon and dethrone the aristocratic elites we have allowed to usurp the power of the state for their own ends.

    Cosmic justice will out, and the reality of Acton’s law, and various uncomfortable economic laws as well, will not be denied.

    The only true solution, for them and for us, is a re-discovery of the inalienable rights of the individual, and a commitment to the rule of law under a constitution that is thoroughly grounded in those rights.

    On this special day, it is well to remember that those ideas are the only truly revolutionary ideas in human history, and the foundation of all our progress and success.

    Happy 4th!

  18. Apparently, the residents of those coastal lands along the Med had developed very efficient means of capturing and containing rainwater, and dispersing it to fields, and to those cities such as Leptis Magna. Such water dispersal systems, the cities which depended on them, and the crops of wheat and all were complex and required technology and skill to maintain. Curiously, all of that seemed to vanish from North Africa around the 8th century or so. Interesting coincidence, I think…

  19. The areas east of the Nile delta were also green and fertile. The “hanging gardens” were around Babylon which is now Iraq, just south of Baghdad. Afghanistan had extensive irrigation systems that are now seen only on radar images. There are still some in use in Iran and Kazakhstan but many were lost after the Mongol invasions of the 15th century.

    Certainly the Sahara desert has changed but that took place over 10,000 years or more. I don’t think it was fertile in historic times although Libya was probably more so during the rise of Carthage.

  20. A lot of North Africa along the coastal areas were farmed in Ancient times, but the coming of the Arabs after 700 AD and their notoriously desert making agricultural/pastoral practices ruined most of the middle east. I have read descriptions of what is now Israel when the Jews were first re-settling the area under the old Ottoman regime. A lot of it was a desolate desert like most of the rest of the formerly fertile crescent. The use of modern farming practices has restored the fertility. Israel is a major food exporter now, which is another reason for the Arab jealousy.

    In many places in the Negev and Sinai archeologists have found ancient rainwater diversion systems that were used to farm the land, but again, the Muslim conquest gave the land back to the old bedioun tribes who overgrazed it and ignored the ancient irrigation systems.

  21. In many places in the Negev and Sinai archeologists have found ancient rainwater diversion systems that were used to farm the land, but again, the Muslim conquest gave the land back to the old bedioun tribes who overgrazed it and ignored the ancient irrigation systems.

    Interesting point. Perhaps the explanation is that the land was overgrazed when it was treated as commons without assignment of property rights.

  22. Margaret, when you get a chance I wish you *would* do a post on the linguistic & cultural feature related to literacy in the Arabic language. I expect several people here would be interested.

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