No hope for Egypt?

The problem in Egypt is not about democracy or freedom of speech. It’s about the freedom to provide its citizens with basic needs like food and employment, and it is on this issue the world should be focusing.

Egyptian Masses 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Egyptian Masses 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
They were wrong.
The US administration, the European Union, the human rights organizations, the Western press, the enthusiastic reporters and analysts who welcomed the Egyptian people’s struggle for democracy were all wrong.
The mammoth protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square were not about democracy. They were about food. And about expanding young people’s chances to have a decent life, a decent job and a decent opportunity to marry.
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The mammoth protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square were not about democracy. They were about food. And about expanding young people’s chances to have a decent life, a decent job and a decent opportunity to marry.
Changing the leadership, holding free elections and having freedom of speech are very nice slogans. But even with amended laws, a new parliament and free media, the Egyptian people will remain hungry, poor and frustrated; because after all, the problem lies elsewhere. A catalyst was needed for Egypt to finally explode (or implode), and the Tunisians supplied them with one.
News of a revolt in a foreign country transmitted by Facebook and Twitter electrified Egypt until it climaxed into its own dramatic uprising. The US, obsessed with the need to teach the “backward” nations how to live and how to govern themselves, jumped on the bandwagon and embraced the protesters’ struggle to topple the regime. But the White House just didn’t get it. Instead of fiery speeches, the US administration should have tried to solve Egypt’s disastrous economic situation.
Consider these statistics: in 1897, Egypt’s population was 10 million. In 1948, when Israel was created, it was 18.9 million. In 2011 it is 83 million. Former president Hosni Mubarak feared that by 2050 the population might reach the 150 million mark. This is the reason he launched an ambitious program to reduce the birthrate. The program succeeded, but not enough. A farmer in Egypt still has too many mouths to feed, and when his children grow up, his meager portion of land must be divided into five or six minuscule lots, eliminating the new families’ chances of survival.
So how is it possible to feed them? All of Egypt’s agricultural land covers barely 5% of the country. Their unique source of water, the Nile, is now subject to a ruthless struggle between Egypt and the African states that control its flow, because the latter want more water for their own populations. And there is no doubt that Egypt is not going to win that particular battle. The waters are already receding significantly. In the delta of the Nile, the sea water has penetrated deep into the most fertile part of the country, salting the land and rendering it unusable for farming.
So how is it possible to feed them? Egypt is the world’s number one wheat importer.  In 2010, its inflation was at a staggering 12.8%. In the old days, millions of Egyptians worked in the Gulf States as clerks, engineers, doctors, teachers and technicians. But the economic crisis of 2008 sent them back home.
Millions of young Egyptians went to university and received academic degrees but they can’t find jobs. The country’s technological and social infrastructure cannot absorb all of these college graduates, so they too remain hungry and angry. The men cannot marry because they have no means to sustain a family, and in most cases they don’t even have enough money to pay the required dowry.
These are Egypt’s major problems. And this was the cause of the anger that exploded in Tahrir Square. Sure, the regime was autocratic, freedom of the press was limited, and arbitrary arrests and torture were not unheard of. But the most pressing issue was freedom of basic needs, not freedom of speech. Unfortunately, slogans regarding democracy and free elections cannot help in the fight for Egypt’s freedom of need.
On the face of it then, there is no solution. There seems to be no way for Egypt to feed its impoverished multitudes in the future. There seems to be no hope for the Egyptian people.
Of course, there were always extremists who suggested the use of force. In the 1960s there was a lot humdrum focused around the idea Egypt should conquer Libya and seize its oil. On the other hand, others preached the virtues of expanding to the south in order to secure the flow of the Nile into Egyptian territory.
These solutions, of course, will never work. However, at a less bellicose stage, the Egyptian government launched a program to raise the arable land in Egypt by 50% in a few short years. That program carries a certain promise. The world leaders, instead of making fiery speeches, should convene to work on that program and others in order to find a solution to Egypt’s ever-worsening situation.
In such a context Israel can play a very important role. Being the world’s most advanced country in terms of agriculture, Israel can help Egypt tremendously in its effort to irrigate the desert and transform it. Yes, we know they don’t want our help; but for the sake of diplomacy – and indeed, for the sake of human rights - perhaps it would be worth it for Israel to channel its assistance via other countries and even let others get the credit. After all, what really matters for us is keeping the peace with Egypt. And peace cannot be sustained for long if a frustrated, desperate population begins seeking out scapegoats or succumbing to the everlasting charms of Allah - as preached by the fanatical Muslim Brothers.
Western countries should also begin providing Egypt with much needed jobs by outsourcing some of their production there. This is far more urgent than rewriting its constitution. If the economic quandary is not overcome, Tahrir Square of February 2011 will look like a choir boys’ convention when compared with the next eruption of popular fury.
If Egypt finds a way to feed its people and give them a decent life, then, and only then, can we hope to witness the nation’s first steps toward democracy.
The writer is a former Labor Party MK and the official biographer of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres.