Egypt’s 21st-century plagues

 
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By Khaled Diab

While the Egyptian regime battles for its survival, Egypt itself may not survive as a viable state, as it faces a ‘plague’ of potentially crippling environmental, economic and social challenges.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 12 February 2018

For those of us who dared to hope that democracy would lay down roots in Egypt, the farcical run-up to the presidential election – one measure black comedy, one measure theatre of the absurd – is agonising to watch.

It is agonising to watch not because anybody (aside from incumbent president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s most diehard supporters and loyal propagandists) believed the election would be anything more than a one-horse race. It is agonising because any pretence that the other horses even stood an outside chance has been abandoned, with the other serious contenders either crippled or disqualified or both.

This blatant match fixing led human rights lawyer Khaled Ali to announce his withdrawal from the 26-28 March vote, following the arrest of Sami Anan, who, like Sisi, is a former general who was a member of the military junta that governed Egypt immediately following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi’s apparent fear of every challenger that would run, in the end, left him with none. Eventually, one did emerge, a candidate of such heavyweight stature that he went from endorsing Sisi to competing against him: Mousa Mostafa Mousa, leader of the pro-regime Ghad party.

As if having a fan and ‘yes man’ as his opponent, rather than as his running mate, was not enough, Sisi threatened anyone challenging him (I mean, challenged Egypt’s ‘security’ – which are the same thing in his book), in an impromptu performance in which he sounded like a stern school teacher chiding errant schoolkids. Sisi even threatened the entire Egyptian population, whom he cautioned against even thinking about a repeat of 2011, warning that he would not allow it.

But this is not up to Sisi to decide. It is up to the Egyptian people, whom currently appear tired of revolting against a regime that will cling on to power, no matter the price or the cost.

That said, I am convinced that the Egyptian revolution, like its French equivalent, is far from over. However, it is in a race against the environmental, economic and social clock. If the ‘plagues’ threatening the country combine into a perfect storm, Egypt could become a devastated state before it becomes a democratic one; it could become Somalia before it becomes Scandinavia.

Civil strife

The sparsely populated Sinai peninsula has been in the grips of a large-scale insurgency against the central state ever since the Egyptian revolution erupted, with no clear end in sight. Armed groups there, namely the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, still remain strong, capitalising on the peninsula’s geography, relative lawlessness and disgruntled Bedouin tribespeople. While the murderous, bloody rampages of the jihadis, exemplified by the recent deadly attack on a mosque frequented by Sufis have alienated locals, the state’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics, including airstrikes, have done little to endear it to the peninsula’s population. This include mass displacements caused by the razing of the border region between Gaza and Sinai in Rafah. In addition, rather than tackling the socio-economic grievances at the heart of the unrest, the state has allowed the situation in Sinai to deteriorate by failing to implement effective development initiatives there, combined with the collapse of the economic mainstay of tourism. This has fuelled disillusionment, frustration and anger, according to the state-funded National Council for Human Rights. As a sign of the regime’s fixation on a solely military solution to the insurgency, a major military campaign was launched last Friday aimed at crushing, once and for all, the insurgents. Whether more of the same can succeed, especially without a comprehensive development strategy, has been greeted with scepticism by some experts.

Despite suffering a regular string of terrorist attacks, especially those targeting churches and Christians, the Egyptian mainland has so far been spared the same levels of sustained and vicious violence and lawlessness. However, the potential is, sadly, there for mass civil strife, or worse, to break out at any moment. The violence, brutality and excess with which the state has responded to every form of challenge and opposition, even against peaceful protesters and demonstrators, has the potential to fuel a cycle of ever-escalating violence, as formerly peaceful individuals reach the dangerous conclusion that the only way to combat a violent state is through violence. In addition, the precarious grip the state has over many provincial areas and the hinterland of the country could also facilitate a descent into violence.

Mutiny in the ranks

Another potential flashpoint for destructive conflict are power struggles within the military or between the country’s various security apparatuses. Although the army projects an image to outsiders of unity and depicts itself as the glue holding together the nation, there are signs of division within the ranks, including the senior ones.

This was highlighted by the curious case of Sami Anan. On paper, Anan made an ideal regime candidate who could have provided a sheen of legitimacy for the election while doing nothing to challenge the military’s grip on the reins of power. An ex-army general who was Mubarak’s chief of staff, Anan was the second most senior member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which governed Egypt directly following Mubarak’s downfall. Moreover, he was forced to retire by ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who is universally reviled by supporters of the military and anti-Brotherhood Egyptians. This meant that whether Sisi retained power or Anan defeated him, the army would still emerge as the winner.

The arrest and disappearance of Anan for simply daring to announce his candidacy may have simply been driven by Sisi’s overwhelming desire to stay in power at any cost. However, it also reveals a possible split within the army, and could also be, it has been suggested, a manifestation of the rivalry between different factions within the army and other powerful security organisations, such as the police, the homeland security agency, military intelligence and the general intelligence service.

This is not the first sign of unrest within the military. An earlier example of this was the 2015 conviction, in a secret military trial, of a group of 26 officers who had allegedly attempted to mount a coup to overthrow the Sisi regime.

If clock and dagger gives way to open conflict within the military and/or between it and other security agencies, the army, the country’s main functioning institution after it eliminated its rival power bases, could push Egypt over the edge of the abyss.

Economic faultlines

While the regime’s power centres jockey for ascendancy and power, and cash in on their influences, including the aggressive expansion of the army’s economic pie, the economy has been struggling and is heading towards a painful crash if something drastic and dramatic does not happen soon.

Although the Egyptian government aims for an economic growth rate of up to 5.5% for the current fiscal year (2017/18), which would make Egypt the fastest-growing African economy, this masks a number of bitter and troubling realities. Not only is this growth mostly debt-driven, financed by conditional loans from the international financial institutions or the influence-peddling of the regime’s Gulf benefactors, it has failed to create a sufficient supply of jobs. In addition to unemployment remaining high, the cost of this recovery has mainly been borne by the poor and dwindling middle classes. The floating of the Egyptian pound and austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and higher indirect taxes, and the high inflation they create, have hit the average Egyptian family extremely hard – as they have been doing for years.

The government’s penchant for expensive white elephant mega-projects of questionable economic benefit and feasibility, as well as high environmental risk, could spell future economic disaster by indebting the country further and emptying state coffers. These include the much-vaunted $8-billion expansion of the Suez Canal, a new administrative capital, with an initial estimated cost of $45 billion, whose business district is being built by China, not to mention Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, to be constructed with a $21 billion Russian loan.

Needless to say, these tens of billions of dollars could be more usefully and productively invested in a country in desperate need of every penny. Instead of a new capital city, Egypt should decenteralise the state and invest in its neglected provinces and periphery regions. Instead of outdated, unclean, dangerous and expensive nuclear energy, Egypt could invest the money in setting up small-scale renewable energy projects across the country, which will not only generate more energy but create more jobs to boot, as I have argued before, helping it to significantly exceed its aim of extracting 20% of its electricity needs from renewable sources. Other examples abound of how Egypt could use its limited resources resourcefully to stimulate development and promote sustainability.

Heat tidal wave

Egypt is a hot land and one of the driest in the world. And human-induced global warming means that Egypt’s climate is getting hotter and drier, with experts warning that climate change could make much of the Middle East, including Egypt, effectively uninhabitable in future decades. Extreme weather, including more frequent and longer heatwaves, is becoming more common. A sweltering example of this was the weeks-long heatwave which hit the country, and much of the region, in the summer of 2015. By 2050, average temperatures are expected to rise a whopping 2-3°C, while the country’s already low rainfall is expected to taper off by another 7-9% – inflating the country’s water poverty beyond the current alarming levels.

Global warming is also causing sea levels to rise, already damaging and threatening Egypt’s northern coastal region, especially Alexandria, the country’s second-largest urban area.

Strike force Delta

Rising sea levels have not only already started to claw away at Egypt’s coastline, it is rendering growing areas of coastal farmland too saline as seawater seeps into soil and aquifers. In addition, inadequate irrigation, drainage and fertilisation practices have affected up to 43% of Nile valley agricultural lands. One report found that soil in the Nile Delta, Egypt’s most fertile area and perhaps the best farmland in the world, is being submerged at a rate of 1cm per year by rising sea levels. By 2100, as much as a third of the Delta’s 25,000 square kilometres of arable land could be lost to agriculture, experts warn. This problem is severely exacerbated by the subsiding of sediment, which means while the sea is rising, the Delta itself is sinking. This is largely due to the fact that the fertile sediment that used to shore up the Delta has not reached it since the Aswan High Dam’s reservoir began filling in the 1960s, causing erosion and a troubling rise in the water table, and with it greater soil salinity.

As I argued in an article I wrote at the time of the Suez Canal expansion, the price tag for protecting the Delta is, according to my calculation, lower than Suez Canal II – and defending Egypt’s breadbasket would have been a far more useful and productive use of scarce resources than this white elephant.

With Egypt already dependent on imports for an estimated 60% of the food needs of its burgeoning population, this failure to protect the Delta will have dire economic and security consequences in the future by making Egypt more dependent on expensive food imports at a time when global food supplies are likely to become more stretched and unreliable.

Population time bomb

A closely related plague is the unrelenting explosion in Egypt’s population, which not only corrodes the benefits from economic growth but is also placing unprecedented strain on Egypt’s ability to feed itself, its land resources, its environment and its ecological carrying capacity. It is almost unfathomable today that when Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798, the country’s population was estimated at just 3 million, compared to France’s population of around 30 million at the time.

More recently, the 1947 census counted 19 million Egyptians, which is less than the current population of Cairo. Today, Egypt’s population is just shy of the 100 million mark, according to one estimate. Egypt’s population is growing by a whopping 2 million or more each year, partly due to the chaos that has engulfed the country in recent years. In panic, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has described population growth as the biggest challenge facing Egypt and the government has revived its birth control programme, but it may be too little too late.

Concrete jungle and just deserts

Although Egypt is a huge country, the vast majority of Egyptians are squeezed into the Nile valley, which constitutes around 4% of the country’s territory. This has meant that, for decades, agricultural land has been swallowed up by the growing concrete jungle, as anyone flying over the country can clearly see, in a process of desertification that has been intensified by global warming and encroaching sands.

Even though Egypt managed to reclaim around a million acres of desert land in the three or four decades to the 1990s, a similar area was lost to urbanisation. Another study found that in the 1990s the net stock of agricultural land actually rose by some 14%. However, this reclaimed land was of far inferior quality to the extremely fertile vanishing agricultural lands of the Nile valley. The choice of crops, such as water-intensive banana and corn, and the use of inappropriate fertilisers have damaged reclaimed land. In addition, already by the mid-1980s, sand encroachment and active dunes affected 800,000 hectares.

Despite a long-standing ban on building on agricultural land, the trend has actually accelerated due to the relative breakdown in law and order, growing population and worsening economy since the 2011 revolution. An estimated 30,000 acres are lost annually today, compared with 10,000 acres before 2011. Then, there is the huge industry to bake red bricks, using the precious and fertile top soil which is essential to farming. The government has been working on stiffening fines for illegal construction on agricultural land, but it is unlikely to make a dent as Egypt’s population continues to creep upwards and the desert settlements are too expensive or unattractive for average Egyptians to make the move.

One promising avenue for combating desertification and the encroachment of the desert sands is to plant specially modulated forest areas using sewage effluent, which provide the bonus of being a sustainable source of wood in a country which currently imports almost all its wood requirements. An innovative pilot project just outside Ismailia has been so successful at doing this that it has elicited interest from German investors.

Curse of the Nile

Egypt has long been described as the gift of the Nile. In a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for this legendary waterway, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt would be a barren desert dotted by occasional oases. Not only is the ‘eternal river’ dying a slow death, under strain from booming populations along its length, pollution and climate change, the water Egypt receives from the Nile is barely enough to meet its current needs, let alone its future requirements.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other from 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic metres, the country is struggling with water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

Meanwhile, the needs of Ethiopia and other upstream countries are also growing exponentially. To meet the requirements of its rapidly growing population, which now exceeds Egypt’s, and its development plans, Ethiopia has constructed its Grand Renaissance Dam and is seeking to fill its giant reservoir, which could potentially cause significant disruption to the downstream flow reaching Egypt. This has caused years of brewing tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa, which abated somewhat in 2015, following the sealing of a Declaration of principles, but have reignited in recent months, as negotiations have stalled.

These frictions could potentially trigger a ‘water war’ between Egypt and Ethiopia. Moreover, even if Egypt wishes to act in good faith with Ethiopia, any reductions in the water flow reaching Egypt could have catastrophic consequences, especially in years when rainfall in Ethiopia is lower than expected.

That said, with the right investment and innovation, redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt excessively, as it can actually get by on considerably less water. For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage, such as the practice of flooding fields instead of drip irrigating them. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.

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The ‘plagues’ facing Egypt are formidable and would be challenging even for a rich and highly developed society. However, the Egyptian state can and must do more to secure the country’s survival against all these odds, rather than its fixation solely on the regime’s survival.

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