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.

_____

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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Sisi’s fridge and Egypt’s frosty economy

 
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By Khaled Diab

A gaffe by Egypt’s president about his refrigerator reveals just how much Egyptians have cooled towards Sisi and his chilling economics.

A sneak peak inside Sisi's fridge.

A sneak peak inside Sisi’s fridge.

Monday 7 November 2016

You could say that Egypt has had its very own Watergate. But unlike its American counterpart, this was not about tapes and spying and political scandal, but about water and a refrigerator and a scandalised social media.

At the first National Youth Conference in the upmarket resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi demonstrated to young Egyptians how he was “one of you” by informing them that, despite being the son of a wealthy merchant, “I lived for 10 years with nothing but water in my fridge.”

To many Egyptians, an empty refrigerator is a sign of affluence, as it could well indicate that its owner is well-off enough to eat out or order in. Besides, when Sisi was young, fridges were luxuries and so possessing one only to chill water would have struck many of his contemporaries as an extravagance they could ill afford.

But this is obviously not what Sisi intended. The president’s comments sought to inspire young Egyptians to aspire to achieve great things for themselves and their country through “self-esteem” and “independence”. But rather than motivating citizens to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and tighten their belts – with the poor doing the majority of the tightening – his comments caused social media to erupt in guffaws of laughter.

Like his two predecessors, Sisi is prone to making memorable gaffes and Egyptians, who use humour to shield themselves against the unbearable tightness of seeing their country fall apart, mock such pompous soundbites bitingly.

One wit on Twitter likened the Egyptian president to Sponge Bob because he could survive on a diet of water. Employing the “one careful owner” format of advertising, another user pretended to sell a refrigerator on Twitter which, he said, had been owned by the “doctor of philosophers”.

This is a far cry from the Sisi-mania which gripped millions of Egyptians when the former general ousted his unpopular predecessor Mohamed Morsi, who is still languishing behind bars on trumped up charges. Sisi’s initial appeal was constructed on a studied mystique of impenetrable silence, an illusion which was quickly shattered by his increasingly eccentric and unfathomable pronouncements.

The initial enthusiasm of many Egyptians to this self-appointed leader whom they believed would be a strongman who could steer Egypt to safety and security has given way to growing unease, alarm and opposition to Sisi’s repressive, arbitrary and increasingly erratic model of governance.

Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and secular activists, including many of the leaders of the 2011 revolution, are in prison, while freedom of expression and assembly have been seriously curtailed.

Beyond authoritarianism and oppression, there is the economic bottomline. Exhausted by the upheavals of revolutionary change and counterrevolutionary inertia, many Egyptians were willing to turn a blind eye to Sisi’s myriad abuses and brutality, buoyed by his pledge of security, stability and, above all, prosperity.

Instead, the economy has continued to nosedive, as reflected in the devaluation, and the subsequent floating, of the Egyptian pound and the shortage of hard currency which has seen the dollar exceed 16LE on the black market. This highlight both Egypt’s economic ill-health and the unfairness of the global trading system, based as it is on “reserve currencies”, which can easily cause a crisis in smaller economies to spin into a catastrophe.

Of course, not all of this is Sisi’s fault. Like Morsi before him, Sisi inherited a poisoned chalice from the three decades of Mubarak excess and mismanagement – cloaked in neo-liberal hocus-pocus which gave the illusion of growth even while the economy tanked and wealth was concentrated in ever-fewer hands.

In addition, the negative feedback of Egypt’s various crises, especially terrorism and insurgency, has led to the drying up of many of its main exports, most notably tourism, the levels of which have hit record lows.

However, Sisi has made matters considerably worse. In fact, it is hard to imagine a less productive path out of Egypt’s economic malaise than that pursued by the current president. Instead of focusing on bread-and-butter sectors, getting the wheel of industry turning or addressing Egypt’s numerous social and environmental challenges, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has spent his presidency herding white elephants, including the aborted idea of building a new capital city.

Sisi’s first mega-project, the widening of the iconic Suez Canal was bound to run into dire straits. Even I, no clairvoyant or expert, predicted as much. In its first year of operations, revenues from the expanded canal remained largely stagnant. Billions are also being wasted on a nuclear power white elephant, when the resources could be better channelled into more effective means to shore up Egypt’s energy shortage.

The president’s difficulties are being exacerbated by the gradual shrinking of Arab assistance. Although Egypt has relied on foreign aid to varying degrees since the Free Officers came to power in 1952, the years since the 2011 revolution have seen Egypt receive an unprecedented flow of aid from the Gulf allies of the moment, with inevitable strings attached. However, tumbling oil prices and Egypt’s wish to steer an independent course from its allies is leading to the drying up of this source.

After years of faltering on the edge of the abyss, I fear that Egypt’s economy is close to freefall. For the sake the country, I hope Sisi and his government have some real ideas about how to bring Egypt back from the brink.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 31 October 2016.

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Egypt’s pharaoh illusion

 
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By Khaled Diab

The idea that Egyptians are docile sheeple who need a pharaoh to shepherd them is a myth that dates back to the not-so-ancient times of the Nasser era.

Time magazine cover, 29 March 1963. http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19630329,00.html

Time magazine cover, 29 March 1963. http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19630329,00.html

Tuesday 7 June 2016

I am not pharaoh… After two revolutions, nobody who occupies this chair can become a pharaoh,” Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi reportedly told a select group of intellectuals and thinkers a few weeks ago, insisting that he accepted and respected criticism.

Despite the president’s repeated assurances, Egypt has been in the throes of an intensifying crackdown since the weeks leading up to the fifth anniversary of the 25 January 2011 revolution.

This has had the counter-effect of galvanising a rising tide of dissent, as epitomised by the remarkable media and protest campaign spearheaded by the Journalists Syndicate to defend press freedom, call for the resignation of the interior minister and demand an end to repression.

The latest high-profile victims of the state’s clampdown is ‘Street Children’, a group of young satirists whose impromptu songs mocking Sisi and his regime, performed on street corners, have become an online sensation, attracting hundreds of thousands of views each.

After the initial arrest of one of their singers, known as Ezz, for allegedly “insulting” state institutions, the remaining members of the band were arrested soon after. The group seems to have upped the ante in their latest videos in which they ridicule “Sisi, my president”, the army and the security services – criticising the devaluation of the pound, the Suez Canal expansion and the transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia – and call on Sisi to “have some shame” and step down.

That a band of six young men armed with little more than their vocal cords should provoke such an autocratic reaction is bound to cement, rather than disprove, Sisi’s reputation as Egypt’s latest “pharaoh”.

Some see that as no bad thing. In America and Europe, many commentators are convinced that Egypt can only be ruled by a strong man and so crowning a new “pharaoh” was the only way to save Egypt.

This attitude has its native advocates too, not only among the political old guard but also among those who saw Egypt hanging over a precipice and concluded that the only way to stop it from falling into the abyss was to choose the pharaoh-president over people power.

One-upping other despot worshippers, former antiquities chief Zahi Hawass likened Sisi to a specific pharaoh, Mentuhotep II, who reunited Egypt after it split into two rival kingdoms.

This pharaoh-isation of Egypt’s leaders suggests that there is some kind of continuous, almost dynastic, line which stretches back to the dawn of history, leaving the impression that this is some kind of innate national trait.

There are those who subscribe to the pharaoh theory of Egyptian history in an ill-informed attempt to explain away modern autocracy. Some outsiders are driven by an orientalist conviction that Egyptians do not desire nor understand democracy,  while those who prop up Egypt’s dictators can sleep easy in the knowledge that this is ultimately what Egyptians want.

Proponents of the theory at home use it to dissuade Egyptians from rising above their station and to demonstrate the apparent futility of seeking to change what has always been so.

The trouble is this is largely a myth – inspired more by Abrahamic scripture than actual history – that started some six decades ago, namely with Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the leader of the 1952 revolutionary coup and the Egyptian republic’s second president.

But even this wasn’t inevitable. The Free Officers which Nasser led were initially committed to civilian rule and strengthening Egypt’s parliamentary democracy. And given the more than a century of struggle to build a modern, egalitarian and fair state which generations of reformers had been waging, this early commitment to democracy was unsurprising.

However, Nasser reneged on the Free Officers’ promise to transition back to elected civilian rule. In this, Nasser was driven by a fervent desire for his revolution to succeed and the  plain old-fashioned hypnotising lure of power. “If I held elections today, [Mustafa] al-Nahas would win, not us. Then our achievement would be nothing,” he said in a meeting shortly after the coup.

In this endeavour, he faced stiff opposition, namely from what he had assumed was his figure-head president, Muhammad Naguib, who wanted the army to return to its barracks after having accomplished their mission of unseating an unjust, British-backed regime.

Instead, Nasser placed Naguib under house arrest, abolished all political parties and started a brutal crackdown on secular and religious dissent, imprisoning liberals, communists and Muslim Brothers. “[Nasser] recognised that democracy was the clear enemy of the cult of character he was trying to establish,” posits journalist and revolutionary Wael Eskandar.

Nasser’s popularity on the Arab street, coupled with shrewd propaganda, enabled him to turn the newly established republic into his personal fiefdom rather than a state of institutions and checks and balances.

In this project, Nasser was inspired not by his ancient pharaonic ancestors nor facilitated by some native Egyptian subservience to the “pharaoh”. It was part of a 20th century trend of the larger-than-life dictator empowered by the advent of mass media. Compared with Stalin and Mao, Nasser was, nevertheless, a gentle pussycat.

Even during Nasser’s tenure, which combined popularity with brutality, many Egyptians refused to believe the lie that they were docile sheeple who needed a father figure – or in the case of Nasser, an amiable brother, cousin or charming boy next door – to shepherd them. In actuality, opposition was often brave and determined.

In a pattern that would repeat itself continuously over the decades, this forced the regime to find other channels to accommodate Egypt’s diverse and dynamic political currents, giving Egypt, even at its worse, more representative governance than most other Arab states.

Moreover, co-option was often, and remains, a more effective tool than coercion, leading many to hitch their cart to the wagon train. “There were many who embraced [Nasser’s] leadership as an active, not passive, choice because, rightly or wrongly, they envisaged themselves as making gains out of it,” points out Jack Shenker, the author of a major new book on the Egyptian revolution.

Today, the regime is also employing a blend of coercion and co-option to protect the state that Nasser built, and Sadat and Mubarak renovated. But without Nasser’s skill, charisma and monopoly of the media, and with a restive population that is no longer willing to buy yesteryear’s mythology, this enterprise seems doomed.

Sisi is right, no Egyptian president can become a “pharaoh” anymore.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on  May 2016.

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Egypt’s dollar woes

 
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By Khaled Diab

Hopes are devaluation will resolve Egypt’s dollar crisis, but the situation could spin out of control without a global currency for international trade.

100le

Monday 11 April 2016

As Egypt’s economy continues to nosedive, the country has been gripped by a chronic dollar crisis in recent months, exacerbated by falling revenues from tourism and the Suez Canal.

The dollar shortage has fuelled inflation and severely hurt importers and domestic manufacturers who depend on imported raw materials or components. For instance, many imported medicines have become totally unaffordable and there is a shortage in locally produced generic alternatives due to the inability to import active ingredients.

The hard currency shortage has even affected the black market, with a number of reports in the Arabic media over hours-long searches for dollars at inflated prices.

To tackle the situation and to cool the overheated black market, the Egyptian Central Bank decided to devalue the Egyptian pound by 13 percent and to sell $198 million to commercial lenders at 8.85LE, from its previous level of 7.73LE.

The Cairo stock exchange, along with financial analysts, was jubilant at the news, recording its largest single-day rise, of 7%, since July 2013, and ending the week a massive 14% up.

However, the effect on Egypt’s long-suffering poor and vulnerable will be far less benign – their underpaid labour has also been devalued.

“Egypt’s poor are enduring the brunt of Egypt’s economic crisis,” observes Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, in a reference to the high inflation, removal of subsidies, and increased unemployment which have corroded living standards. “The devaluation will undoubtedly increase the cost of certain essential goods, particularly food.”

Continued and worsening hardship for the masses is also bound to hurt the regime. Support for President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi was predicated on his much-hyped capacity to bring Egypt to a safe port of stability and prosperity.

So far, the Sisi regime has demanded of ordinary Egyptians to tighten their belts, while cushioning the wealthy, has given activists and critics a royal belting, and has been unable to keep a rein on spiralling terrorism and insurgency. In addition, despite escalating repression, industrial action continues to sweep across the country (Arabic).

And this disaffection and instability is only bound to grow if the regime delivers only immense pain and no gain.

The Central Bank’s devaluation and loosening of the official exchange rate may not be enough to salvage the situation if Egyptians continue to face dollar shortages and if those receiving remittances from abroad find better prices on the black market, argues Kaldas.

Central Bank Governor Tarek Amer has vowed to do whatever it takes to keep the currency market in check.

However, the early signs were not promising. Despite the devaluation and dollar injections, the Egyptian pound weakened on the black market, reaching 9.55LE to the dollar shortly after the devaluation, while the devaluation is further fuelling a property bubble. In early April, it stood at 10.30LE, according to Reuters, though the official rate has remained stable at 8.78LE.

This has led financial analysts to expect further cuts in the official rate, with the attendant pain it will cause ordinary Egyptians. JP Morgan forecasts that the Egyptian pound will be devalued by a total of 35%this year, with a projected inflation of 14%.

And as has been demonstrated elsewhere in the world umpteen times in the past, from Argentina to Germany, the situation could easily spiral out of control, if these measures elicit panic rather than confidence, or if speculators run the pound into the ground.

Beyond Egypt’s specific economic woes and poor governance, this points at a deeper, wider malaise: how the global trading system is stacked and loaded against smaller economies.

The main reason Egypt and other countries suffer from “dollar crises” is because the US dollar is the world’s dominant reserve currency and the main medium of international trade, though the euro has closed the gap in recent years.

Obliging smaller and poorer economies to trade in the dollar and other reserve currencies makes them vulnerable to the whims of the currency markets and forex speculators.

In addition, the dollar and euro distort trade in favour of the United States and Europe, enabling them to import and borrow far more cheaply than their fundamentals should allow.

But there are downsides for top-dog economies, such as making their exports less competitive and the inevitable trade deficits caused by the “Triffin Dilemma”. The unnaturally low cost of credit has played a central role in the US’s dangerously high public debt – on which it has come perilously close to defaulting – and contributed to the US subprime crisis and the European sovereign debt crisis.

The solution to this, in my humble view, is the introduction of a single global currency for the purposes of international trade. This would help remove the volatility of currency markets, end speculation, eliminate the currency black markets, and even the global economic playing field.

This is not a new idea. John Maynard Keynes, the legendary British economist, proposed just such a currency as the lynchpin of the post-war economic order, but was torpedoed by American opposition. Following the volatility and crises which have afflicted the global economy in recent years, China, Russia and other emerging powers have also called for just such currency reform.

A world trading currency would not only help stabilise and boost the global economy, it would also reduce the social fallout caused by dollar shortages and the immense inflationary pressures they create.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 28 March 2016.

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Podcast: Egypt’s cartoon villains and heroes

 
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By Khaled Diab

The battle between Egyptian revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces is being played out in caricature.

The famous satirical cartoonist, the late Mostafa Hussein, lost his sense of humour to implore Sisi to run for the presidency in October 2013.

The famous satirical cartoonist, the late Mustafa Hussein, lost his sense of humour to implore Sisi to run for the presidency in October 2013.

Thursday 18 February 2016

It’s an arresting image – both figuratively and literally. A caricature of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has the Egyptian president’s hands pressed over his tightly shut eyes. An anxious frown is knitted deep into the dictator’s brow and his mouth is downturned as if the weight of the country hangs off it.

Entitled ‘Shy president’, the caption reads: “I don’t like being drawn.”

The cartoon was the brainchild of the outspoken pro-revolutionary cartoonist Mohamed Qindeel, who goes by the nom de plume Andeel.

Andeel’s caricature was a graphical protest at the arrest of fellow cartoonist Islam Gawish. “When I read the news about Islam I started drawing Sisi’s face before I even knew what I’d have him say,” Andeel says. “The fact that they wanted people to think they are not allowed to draw Sisi was enough to make me sure that I have to draw him.”

Gawish’s cartoons, which tend to be simple, child-like ink drawings, have become a runaway success with Egypt’s young. One memorable Gawish cartoon mocks the duplicity of the regime’s rhetoric compared with its reality. It features a balding stickman who represents Sisi or his regime.

“You need someone who will embrace you. Come here,” the authority figure urges a group of long-faced youth. The punchline arrives in the final panel in which the youngsters are still in Sisi’s embrace but are now standing inside a cage, with him on the outside.

Many, including Andeel, are convinced that cartoons like this were the reason behind Gawish’s temporary detention, as Egypt slowly reverts to the bad old days when mocking the president was a red line.

Following massive uproar, Gawish was released. However, his short-lived detention may have already served its intended purpose. “[Gawish] is young and mostly active on the internet. He doesn’t belong to the old-school intellectuals,” explains Andeel. “So making people believe he is targeted is supposed to make people realize that the authorities are as present online… as they are in the physical world.”

And with over 1.7 million followers on his Facebook page alone, Gawish is a big fish to net.

Egypt is in the grips of a major crackdown on dissent, with thousands of activists, artists and journalists languishing behind bars or fleeing into self-imposed exile. One prominent example of this is Ramy Essam, whose daring, mischievous lyrics transformed him into the unofficial “singer of the revolution”. He is now living in relative obscurity in Sweden.

Those left behind live in constant anxiety or fear that the arbitrary net of Egypt’s resurgent autocracy could nab them next.  “I’m thinking about the possibility of going to jail for the first time in my life,” admits Andeel.

But arrest and intimidation aren’t the only weapons in the regime’s arsenal. There is also the subtle and not-so-subtle art of counterrevolution.

There has been a concerted campaign to erase the revolution’s artistic legacy, including the literal whitewashing of Egypt’s flourishing revolutionary street art.

There has also been a clear, if piecemeal, effort to co-opt artists, including actors, singers and writers. Many of them have quite literally been singing his praises, in a revival of low-quality, cloying patriotic odes to the president and to Egypt which I and many others had hoped the revolution had relegated to the dustbin of history.

Cartoonists, too, in the state-owned media and some pro-regime outlets have played their part in this effort. “These cartoons tend to mirror official policies, whether that be the president’s speeches, government slogans, or campaigns,” observes Jonathan Guyer of the Institute of Current World Affairs who specialises in Egyptian political cartoons.

Sisi’s official anointment as president and the inauguration of the much-hyped extension of the Suez Canal were particularly active periods for counterrevolutionary artists.

Sisi the sailorIn contrast to the unflattering portraits of Sisi by Andeel or by the renowned graffiti artist Ganzeer – who depicted the president with a television head on which was the face of a cartoon bunny, the portrayals of many pro-regime artists couldn’t be more ingratiating – the portrayals of many pro-regime artists couldn’t be more ingratiating.

There is Sisi the conscientious, earnest labourer straining under the burden of carrying the country on his shoulders. There is also Sisi the skipper of the good ship Egypt, navigating it through narrow, perhaps even dire, straits, while trusting, smiling, stupefyingly grateful, flag-waving Egyptians stand behind him.

One common motif is to depict Egypt as a woman, “Um el-Dunya” (Mother of the World), with Sisi as her son, guide and defender – an image, Andeel believes, is “psychologically reflective of tyranny”.

These staid, formulaic cartoons lack, in the words of Guyer, “the artistic nuance or linguistic wordplays of some of the more rabble-rousing and creative illustrators for independent media outlets”. Andeel maintains that the desire for freedom means that rebel art “will revolve around fresh ideas” and be free of monotony and repetition.

Watani habibiThat’s not to say that pro-regime art always lakes creativity or artistic merit. The propaganda songs of the Nasser years are still popular today. But that was a time in which artists seemed, despite their misgivings, to believe in the national project. They wanted optimistically to help construct a nation, not keep one from imploding.

Those supporting and praising Sisi aren’t all hired pens, some genuinely believe his rhetoric and project, while others fear the alternatives to his rule.

This public sentiment could be gleaned in the “Sisi-mania” which gripped Egypt in 2013 and 2014. Citizens spontaneously produced and consumed Sisi paraphernalia, from chocolates to perfume, in a surreal show of leader love, even lust, in the form of Sisi lingerie.

With such a public mood and mainstream media hysteria, some fear that the window for subversive caricature and radical art in Egypt has shut. But Sisi’s heavy-handed repression and failure to turn Egypt around has replaced the mania with apathy in somen and bubbling restiveness in others.

Many who had offered their conditional love are withdrawing it. An example of this Guyer points to is Amro Selim, who was one of the first cartoonists to lampoon Hosni Mubarak in caricature, in the former dictator’s final years. Angered and fearful of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Selim was a supporter of Sisi’s violent power grab.

But Selim has gradually grown more critical. In one scathing cartoon, he has Sisi sitting on the head of a troubled journalist, like some sort of fat genie, watching carefully what the embattled hack is writing.

Abu NadaraMoreover, biting satire has been an Egyptian staple for decades, if not centuries, even if its mainstream form was forced to focus on social issues during oppressive periods.

When Egyptian rulers oppress, the satirical press doesn’t go away it just goes underground. This is reflected in Egypt’s first satirical magazine, Travels of the Man in the Blue Glasses, which was first published in 1877.

After it was banned in Egypt, its founder, Yaqub Sanu, began to publish it in Paris and thousands of smuggled copies continued to enjoy a massive underground following back home.

With social media and the internet’s intrinsic subversiveness and the endless possibilities they opens up for artists, the underground scene has grown exponentially since the days of Sanu.

And what sizzles and simmers underground is bound to, when the moment is right, bubble up to the surface again, turning counterrevolution back into revolution.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This report was first broadcast on the BBC World Service’s The Cultural Frontline on  13 February 2016.

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Taxing questions about democracy in the Middle East

 
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By Khaled Diab

In the Middle East, there appears to be a link between autocracy and low taxes. Would higher taxation lead to greater representation or repression?

Tuesday 18 August 2015

The only certainties in life are death and taxes, sages, from Benjamin Franklin to Daniel Defoe, have been informing us for centuries.

In the Middle East, death is becoming an ever-more probable prospect of increasing ugliness and savagery. But taxes are a very different matter. Compared with Europe, America and other highly industrialised economies, most of the region’s taxation levels and tax revenue are very low.

The most extreme example are the petroleum-producing states. For example, Saudi Arabia’s total tax revenues account for around 5% of its GDP, while Oman’s is an even lower 2%. This is because most Gulf countries, flush with oil revenues, impose little-to-no taxation on their citizens and corporations.

Even in countries which are not rich in oil, governments impose and, more importantly, collect surprisingly little in the way of taxes compared with their Western counterparts. In Egypt, for example, tax revenue hovers at around 13-14% of GDP, even though the country possesses no sizeable natural resource wealth.

The inability or unwillingness of countries in the region to tax their citizens has far-reaching implications. Although everything from religion and the patriarchy to the deep state and corruption have been explored as causes behind the ongoing failure of the Arab revolutions, the issue of the economic bottom line has received surprisingly scarce attention.

The imposition of taxes by the state was a major factor in the emergence of democracy in Britain and Western Europe. Though it may be largely forgotten today, democratic participation was once contingent on the state’s financial dependence on its citizens. In fact, in its early days, rather than one person, one vote, the democratic system in place resembled more a Democracy Inc, with shareholders instead of equal voters.

For instance, from the 15th century, voting in England was limited to people holding land worth 40 shillings or more, and property was the defining feature of the electoral system until after World War I.

Reflecting how common the notion was that only those who could pay were allowed to play, the prominent Victorian liberal John Stuart Mill argued: “The assembly that votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed.”

In a way, this is the stage much of the Arab world is at right now, albeit informally. Through backdoors and informal channels, the wealthy and the upper-middle classes can influence the direction of the state and have their rights protected ­– at least far more so than the masses.

Today, the West lives in a more enlightened age and every citizen – whether rich or poor, male or female – possesses an equal right to vote. But the basic premise remains unchanged: the government takes money from the citizenry and so citizens have the right to choose the government and hold it to account.

If taxation is at the core of representation, does the inverse hold: that without taxation, there is no representation?

While numerous complex factors affect the level of authoritarianism in the Middle East, I’m convinced that it is no coincidence that political participation and democracy seem to be (loosely) correlated to the level of taxation.

Viewed in this light, it is unsurprising that the oil-rich states tend to be the most autocratic. This is both because the rentier state, as it is known, is not beholden to its citizens for its survival and because it can use the wealth it has accumulated to purchase influence and silence or ignore demands for reform.

Even non-petroleum countries often depend on resources other than taxes, including foreign aid, mining rights, or revenues from national assets such as the Suez Canal. This results in a situation in which governments are more concerned aabout pleasing foreign corporations and states than their own citizens.

“A basic feature of the social contract in the Arab countries is that the citizen accepts limitations on public representation and state accountability in return for state-provided benefits,” explained the Arab Human Development Report in 2009. “Such a contract is only possible when states have sources of revenue other than direct taxes, such as oil, to finance public expenditure.”

However, in the poorer Arab countries this tacit social pact has broken down, and it is teetering on the verge of collapse in the wealthier states. In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that in the poorer countries, the state plays little to no (positive) role in the lives of its underprivileged citizens.

In Egypt, for instance, the state once provided free education and healthcare of adequate standard, and attempted to guarantee full employment, at least in theory. Today, state schools are ignorance factories, state hospitals are death incubators, and with the public and private sectors in tatters, people are increasingly relying on the informal economy for employment and sustenance. That is why “bread” and “social justice” were two of the revolution’s main demands.

This raises the intriguing question of why it is that, though higher taxation is in the interests of both the state and its citizens, neither side seems terribly interested in broadening the tax base.

On the part of the government, Middle Eastern regimes do not have the authority or credibility to collect more taxes. More importantly, it appears they would generally prefer to enjoy a monopoly on power in an emaciated and failing state than to share power with citizens in a more vibrant, powerful and robust political partnership.

The motives of citizens are more complex. Naturally, taxes are unpopular almost everywhere. In the Middle East, more so. In much of the Ottoman Empire, peasants and workers were heavily taxed under a system known as Ilitizam, or “tax farming”. This double taxation had a devastating effect, such as depopulating entire villages in Egypt.

The situation did not improve with Western rule. After European lenders had helped to bankrupt Egypt during the construction of the Suez Canal, Britain formally occupied Egypt. In a 19th-century version of the Greek debt crisis, Britain handed over Egypt’s public treasury to European banks who swallowed up two-thirds of the state’s revenue.

With high taxation generally leading to no representation, not to mention a great deal of repression, persecution and corruption, it is unsurprising that the people of the region have such a cavalier attitude towards paying taxes. And native governments, with their high level of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence, have not helped raise the credibility of paying taxes in the public eye.

But there are some initial signs of change. Governments across the region are looking to increase their revenues by broadening the tax base. These efforts have mostly focused on indirect taxation, such as sales and consumption taxes, which are easier to levy and require less accountability.

However, indirect taxation is reaching its limits. Egypt, for one, has raised its low income tax level to try to shore up its deficit, especially as aid from its Gulf patrons gradually dries up. Even in the Gulf, a robust debate has begun about the need to raise tax levels to compensate for fluctuating and falling oil revenues. Additionally, it is time for the region to find a new ownership model for natural resources which boosts accountability and places control in the hands of citizens.

While governments are bound to try to impose taxation without real representation, in modern economies, this would require the kind of coercive ability no state in the region possesses. In addition, it will undoubtedly lead, like in the 19th century, to falling tax receipts, as taxpayers collapse out of exhaustion or find ever-more creative ways to evade taxation.

Although taxation alone will not bring about fair representation, manipulated cleverly by the citizenry, it will force the region’s governments to become more accountable and, eventually, more democratic.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in Haaretz on 11 August 2015.

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Sisi’s Suez moment

 
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By Khaled Diab

Suez Canal II is not about economics. It is a symbol of how President Sisi is supposedly navigating Egypt through narrow straits towards modernity.

Image via Ahmed Namatalla

Image via Ahmed Namatalla

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Sequels rarely match up to the original, most film buffs will tell you. But judging by the trailers and the blitz publicity campaign, Suez Canal II will be every bit as significant as its predecessor.

Dubbed as Egypt’s “gift to the world”, inaugural ceremony for the new channel of the Suez Caal promised to “dazzle the world”. The spectacle included an air and naval show, fireworks, folklore performances and even a performance of Verdi’s classic opera, Aida.

On Wednesday 5 August, the front page of the semi-official al-Akhbar newspaper carried an image of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi at the helm of a ship steering it through the canal, with smiling citizens waving flags enthusiastically in the background.

The symbolism is clear. The ship is presumably Egypt, the canal is the narrow strait the country is currently navigating, the  destination is a brighter future and every Egyptian is firmly behind their president. But with all the pomp, swagger and bluster in the air, perhaps nautical metaphors are not the most appropriate: unseen icebergs and the Titanic spring to mind.

More subtly, the image echoes the propaganda during the presidency of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. For instance, in a nationalist song from 1963, the legendary heartthrob Abdel-Haleem Hafez sang:

Our president is a navigator. He’s taking us across.

He’s a worker and farmer. He’s one of us.

And perhaps behind al-Sisi’s surprising choice of megaproject is an unspoken wish that the Suez Canal will propel him to legendary status, as it did Nasser. After all, the canal sealed Nasser’s reputation when he nationalised it, triggering the 1956 Suez Crisis, known to Egyptians as the Tripartite Aggression.

The Suez Canal was also important to Anwar al-Sadat, who was often lionised as the architect of the “crossing of the canal” during the 1973 war with Israel. Mubarak did not have a Suez moment but he did have plenty of waterways, from the stalled al-Salam (Peace) Canal to make the Sinai bloom and the Toshka white elephant to create a new Nile valley in the Western desert.

In fact, the Suez Canal has been an important nationalist symbol since its construction. For Khedive Ismail, it was a central plank – along with rapid industrialisation and the new Cairo he built as the “Paris on the Nile” – of Egypt’s steady march to modernity.

Symbolism aside, does Suez Canal II actually live up to the hype? Strictly speaking, the megaproject is not a new canal but a 72-km parallel channel to extend the existing one. And it is not even the first such expansion – there were previous ones in 1955 and 1980.

This makes the notion that it is a second Suez Canal and an engineering feat on a par with the first seem ludicrous, considering that the original waterway was 164-km long and completely revolutionised shipping from Asia to Europe by giving vessels a massive 7,000-km shortcut.

In actuality, Egypt, perhaps in light of the rapid de-development of the region, seems to be downsizing its mega-dreams compared with previous generations. But the boastfulness and adulation surrounding them is as grandiose as ever.

That is not to say Suez Canal II is not without engineering merit. Unlike the original French-conceived canal, the new channel was completely designed and implemented by Egypt. Moreover, unlike its predecessor, it did not result in the deaths of tens of thousands of Egyptian forced labourers.

Unlike many previous megaprojects, not only was this project actually completed, it was finished ahead of time, in a record single year, which some have seen as a positive sign for the future. In addition, unlike the original, the expansion is domestically financed, largely through investment certificates sold to citizens, which could act as a promising model for future initiatives.

Unlike in the 19th century, whether it succeeds or fails, Suez Canal II is unlikely to help bankrupt an already highly indebted nation. However, Egypt may have trouble paying back citizens if its projections prove unfounded.

According to government projections, the expanded capacity and faster passage time will propel the canal’s revenues from the current $5.5 billion to an astonishing $13.5 billion. Many international and local experts are sceptical this will happen because the canal is currently running at below capacity anyway and the rate of annual growth in global shipping would have to be considerably higher than it is today.

Though they make a strong case and one I find highly persuasive, it is possible the experts are wrong, as officials keep reminding us, and Egypt will confound its critics, as it did in 1956 when everyone expected the country would not be able to operate the canal after removing its British and French management.

Personally, I believe this was a massive missed opportunity. Rather than focus on an initiative of questionable and marginal benefit, the government should have chosen a megaproject of true national importance.

As I’ve argued before, instead of Suez Canal II, the billions sunk into dredging the desert sand should have gone to shoring up the Nile Delta, which is threatened by rising sea levels and sinking sediment. Although experts have been warning for decades of these dangers, Egypt has taken almost no action to save its breadbasket and home to nearly half its population.

Now that is truly a sinking ship that needs to be navigated to a safe port before it is too late.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 6 August 2015.

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Save the Nile Delta, President al-Sisi

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt would be much better off saving the sinking ship of the Nile Delta instead of building a white elephant Suez Canal II.

Save the Nile Delta. Image: NASA

Save the Nile Delta. Image: NASA

Thursday 18 September 2014

Egyptian presidents have long been fond of symbolic mega-projects. In addition to the practical benefits they were expected to perform, these show-pieces had the dual purpose of demonstrating how apparently visionary the dictator of the moment was, his patriotism and benign influence, as well as a tool for cobbling together a semblance of national unity and purpose.

Gamal Abdel-Nasser had the Aswan High Dam, which was intended to electrify the public towards his ambitious Arab socialist development programme. However, disagreement over financing prompted him, in 1956, to nationalise the Suez Canal to pay for the dam, leading to war with Britain, France and Israel. Anwar al-Sadat’s mega-project was to cross the Suez Canal militarily to regain the Sinai territory Egypt lost to Israel in 1967, and defeat not only Egypt’s neighbouring enemy but also to silence his domestic ones.

Hosni Mubarak had his Toshka project which was meant to create a new Nile Valley to absorb some of the country’s runaway population growth and the alarming loss of arable land to urban development. Toskha would achieve this by diverting water from Lake Nasser into the desert with the aim of expanding Egypt’s agricultural acerage by 10%. Despite its noble ambitions, “Mubarak’s pyramid”, as this largely aborted super mega-project was described, has only delivered a molehill due to mismanagement and poor planning.

Only a few months into his presidency, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has already broken ground on his own mega-project, billed not as the new Nile Valley but as the new Suez Canal. While Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and Sadat’s army crossed it, Sisi’s ambition is to expand the waterway by building a second, 72km-long channel that is expected to boost the traffic passing through Suez. The project also fits into the government’s ambition to transform the Suez region into an industrial, technological and international trading hub.

But this poorly conceived project is already smashing against the rocks of unexpected problems. On a fundamental level, some experts wonder whether the extension will actually boost the Canal’s capacity, since more than 90km of the waterway will remain single-carriage. In addition, there may simply not been enough additional demand from shipping to justify the new investment.

On top of that, the project has already run into expensive technical complications. Ignoring warnings by irrigation experts, the digging began too close to the original Canal which has caused the site to fill with groundwater. Pumping the excess water out carries a price tag of $1 million per day.

It is my view that, rather than yet another white elephant mega-project, Egypt would be much better off diverting the estimated $8.4 billion it will cost to build Suez Canal II to another, far more pressing mega-project: Nile Delta I.

Since ancient times, the Nile Delta, which covers 25,000 square kilometres and houses nearly half of Egypt’s population, has been the national breadbasket but also that of various empires. Yet this extremely fertile fan of land in the middle of the desert is under serious threat from a two-pronged attack: rising sea levels caused by global warming and sinking sediment due to the silt being blocked upstream by the Aswan High Dam.

The Delta is quite literally sinking into the sea, but few officials seem unduly alarmed by this impending shipwreck. Despite the economic, social and national security implications of this catastrophe-in-the-making, no Egyptian government has taken any substantial action to beat back this erosion, aside from constructing a few measly dykes and barriers to protect important urban areas on the coast.

This is doubly surprising in light of the decades of forewarnings provided by both local and international experts. For example, more than a quarter of a century ago, researchers at the Smithsonian Institute delivered dire warnings about future disaster.

Today, the alarm amongst experts has reached fever pitch. “The total [area of the Delta] expected to be impacted by a rising of the sea level by one metre during this century will be 8,033 square kilometres, which is nearly 33% of the total area of the Nile Delta,” predicted Khaled Ouda, a geologist at Egypt’s Assiut University, in an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this year.

In addition to the loss of precious agricultural land, this would turn millions of people in one of the most densely populated places on Earth climate refugees.

Given that rising sea levels and a sinking delta would redraw Egypt’s natural map more radically than ISIS has redrawn Iraq and Syria’s political one, the price of averting this disaster is surprisingly low – less than half al-Sisi’s Suez Canal project.

A plan proposed by Egyptian engineer Mamdouh Hamza involves the construction of a concrete wall along the Delta’s entire coastline and skirting it with a plastic diaphragm to prevent saltwater seepage. Total estimated cost: just $3 billion. The remaining billions can be invested in building impenetrable barriers several metres below sea level to hold the crumbling Delta in place and avoid sea water salinating the Delta’s aquifer.

Beyond these emergency measures, Egypt needs innovative solutions to replenish the Nile Delta through restoring the flow of natural silt, which not only protects against sea erosion but also acts as a powerful natural fertiliser. But this is more easily said than done, since the silt is sitting at the bottom of Lake Nasser a thousand kilometres downstream.

Inaction on these fronts will make the fallout from the revolutions and counterrevolutions that have gripped Egypt since 2011 seem like a minor distraction. Failing to protect the gift that is the Delta will turn the Nile into a curse for Egypt.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 8 September 2014.

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