Shaken by the unfamiliar rhetoric, gunshots, and bloodstains of civil war, Egypt
is searching its soul – in vain. Once a symbol of stability, prosperity and
tolerance, the largest Arab country has now become a source of fear: Fear for
Egypt, for its neighbors, even for more distant countries as
Egypt’s golden age of centrality, prosperity and enlightenment was
brought not by the pharaohs who built the pyramids, but by their Greek
successors who built Alexandria, linking Egypt to Europe and turning it into a
tri-continental civilization’s heartbeat. With its fertile land feeding much of
the known world while Greek, Roman and Jewish scholars exchanged ideas at
Alexandria’s library, Egypt was an international breadbasket and a cultural
inspiration, the lynchpin of history’s first experiment in
This week, as soldiers were cleaning their rifles after
killing more than 50 mostly Islamist demonstrators in Cairo, Egypt loomed as the
perfect opposite of its glorious past: an impoverished, intolerant and wrathful
flashpoint in the global clash of civilizations.
The sequence and
intensity of events over the past two weeks would be hard to digest anywhere,
but even more so in a country where during the three decades of the Hosni
Mubarak era, entire years could elapse without anything Egyptian making a
Now, within several days, Egypt saw millions pour into
the streets, a military coup, a constitution’s abolition, an early-dawn massacre
and open calls for civil war. Where, then, is all this coming from, and where is
it headed? At the heart of Egypt’s crisis lies an economic patient in need of a
The country that once was the world’s largest wheat
exporter is now its largest wheat importer – ousted president Mohamed Morsi’s
supply minister Bassem Ouda said on Thursday that Egypt has less than two
months’ supply of imported wheat left in its stocks.
Whereas the region’s
other two historic powers, Iran and Turkey, have found alternatives to their
agrarian eras, the former by selling oil and the latter by eradicating
illiteracy and undergoing an industrial revolution, Egypt remains predominantly
agrarian and more than 50-percent illiterate.
Worse, while the population
has more than doubled during the Mubarak years, some 40% of its GDP is now
gobbled by a hopelessly bloated public sector’s salaries and benefits, and an
annual $15 billion – a full 3% of GDP – goes to food and energy
This is no way to run anything, but no one so far has had the
guts to bring any of this under the knife, because all feared that the price
hikes and job losses that spending cuts would inevitable entail, would result in
major rioting. That is why when the Islamists rose to power, there was hope that
they would use their clout with the poor to force on the Egyptian economy the
medicine it cannot escape. Yet Morsi had nothing like that in
Whether he did not care to cure the economy or just did not
understand the gravity of its condition, Morsi did nothing to cut Egypt’s
spending, and thought he could keep the economy limping along by
That is why Morsi kept discussing a loan from the
International Monetary Fund, and at the same time failed to deliver its price, a
$2.5b. cut in his $15b.
subsidies. And when he saw the IMF would not
budge, he did not start to plan an economic rehabilitation, but instead went hat
in hand to Germany and then Russia, only to learn they too will not lend to
Egypt as long as its economy was run the way he ran it. So disconnected was
Morsi’s economic conduct that while he refused to heed the IMF’s demands, he
raised the previous government’s loan request from $3.2b. to $4.8b.
result of all this macroeconomic dereliction was that rating agencies downgraded
once attractive Egyptian government bonds to junk level, thus further weighing
on Cairo’s ability to finance its overspending.
Meanwhile, street safety
deteriorated to near lawlessness, thus chasing away not only capital but also
the tourists who used to generate more than a tenth of Egypt’s GDP, as well as
some 3 million jobs.
The combination of a wasteful budget and plunging
revenues was catastrophic. Of the $36b. in foreign currency reserves that
Mubarak left in its coffers, Egypt now has hardly $12b., and if nothing is done
drastically and urgently, fuel and food shortages might soon result in a wave of
factory closures and then in creeping famine.
Egypt, in short, needs not
only an Alexander the Great, but also a biblical Joseph, an economic leader who
will take it from destitution to prosperity.
Instead, it had until last
week a fundamentalist cast for which prosperity was not even a goal, and may
well have constituted a threat – as wealth breeds openness, liberalism, mobility
Whatever their motivations, the Islamists bankrupted
Egypt and have brought it to the brink of civil war.
THE MASS RALLIES
against the government that has led Egypt to economic ruin can be a major
turning point not only for Egypt, but for the Middle East in general and in fact
for Islamism’s sway in the entire world.
The pouring of millions into the
streets in multiple cities may be the beginning of Islamism’s global decline.
Never, since its political eruption 34 years ago in Iran, has Muslim
fundamentalism been confronted by so many, so bluntly, so spontaneously, and in
the place where Islamism has always been most powerful and felt most
comfortable: the street.
If Egyptian Islamism’s current setback proves
over time to be a deep and lasting defeat, then it will surely weaken that cause
Alas, at this stage declaring Egyptian Islamism’s defeat would
be very premature.
Yes, the Egyptian public’s statement is indeed a grand
failure for Egypt’s Islamists, reflecting their astonishing lack of preparation
for their arrival to power. Morsi’s mishandling of the economy will remain
etched in the minds of millions as proof that the Islamists can perhaps do
charity, but they can’t run a country, let alone fix it.
Muslim Brotherhood’s forced removal from power, coupled with Monday’s bloodshed
in Cairo, has damaged the anti-Islamist cause.
The arrests in recent days
of several hundred Islamist leaders will make it more difficult for the
fundamentalists to organize, but it won’t prevent the restoration of their image
as martyrs, a status they have been cultivating since Morsi’s removal. Having
been deposed by military bayonets rather than a democratic process, the
Islamists are now returning to their favored position: minimum responsibility,
maximum authority. Had they lost power without the military’s mediation, they
would have been far more disgraced.
Meanwhile, people on all sides of the
arena, both within and beyond Egypt, see Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as its real
leader, and the military’s conduct a restoration of the regime that reigned
during the six decades between the overthrows of King Farouk and
Set against this backdrop, things now will rise or fall on the
interim government’s delivery. Since the army’s so-called roadmap leads to
parliamentary and presidential elections in February ’14, and to the adoption
this year of a new constitution, there is plenty of time for things to
deteriorate further, or somehow improve.
THE BEST-CASE scenario is that
the interim government, lacking political ambitions, will prove gutsy and
business-minded, and do the dirty work for the government that will emerge from
the approaching election.
A serious spending cut coupled with a
restoration of street safety and capital inflows may rebuild the public’s trust
in its leaders’ merit and their country’s future.
For that to happen,
however, Supreme Court head and interim President Adly Mansour, a lifelong
jurist with no political experience, will have to demonstrate exceptional vision
and resolve while digesting his arrival in a chair where he never expected to
Resolve is necessary not only for challenging the working class by
retreating from subsidies, but also in clashing with parts of the middle class,
which must lose millions of state-funded jobs. It is also needed in standing up
to his appointer, the military, whose size is beyond Egypt’s needs and whose
costs are beyond its means.
If the interim government charts such a path
and begins treading it, and then passes the baton to a newly elected secular
government that will pick up from where it will leave off, then the recent days’
dramas may be recalled as the beginning of a big salvation.
chances of any of this transpiring are at best slim.
government will face a beleaguered Brotherhood that will incite the rural masses
against anything positive Cairo’s politicians try to do. Monday’s bloodshed in
Cairo will be cast as a local version of Ireland’s Bloody Sunday, and Morsi’s
removal will be equated with that of Salvador Allende (the first Marxist to
become president of a Latin American country through open elections).
terrorists who in the past attacked Egypt’s woefully vulnerable metropolises,
tourist sites and resorts, will return, and with a vengeance.
government, at the same time, will arrest, jail and also kill many people, while
mosque preachers will attack the ideas in which Egypt’s other side
The military showdown has in fact begun, though outside the
In Sinai, Islamists have attacked Egyptian military
outposts and a general’s convoy, and also killed a Christian priest in El-Arish.
In response, the army this week reportedly killed several dozen Islamists and
arrested hundreds, as a prelude to a large offensive that will involve thousands
of troops and require Israeli approval in accordance with the peace
Fed by Hamas, whose ties to the Brotherhood are intimate, the
commotion in Sinai is but a sideshow in the broader struggle for Egypt’s
To win, the coalition of liberals, Christians, and generals that
has effectively declared war on Egyptian Islamism will have to do more than
fight guerrillas; it will have to produce food, create jobs and restore the
tolerance for which Egyptian society was once famous.
It is a task worthy
of great leaders, leaders on the scale of Alexander the Great. Unfortunately, in
today’s explosive Nile Delta, Alexander and his legacy of multiculturalism and
enlightenment are a dim recollection from a distant past. Indeed, as it seeks
Morsi’s successor, Egypt would do well to focus the search on a new Joseph. If
that economic redeemer is found, empowered, and allowed to act – Alexander will
follow by himself.