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Egypt

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Egypt: Triumph and Tragedy

Exactly five years after Egypt’s democratic revolution triumphed, the country is once more ruled by a military office. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in July 2013 and is even nastier than his predecessors.

More than 600 Egyptians were sentenced to death last year, mostly in mass trials, and most of the cases involved people who had gone to pro-democracy protests.

When Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign from the Egyptian presidency on Feb. 9, 2011, by nationwide non-violent demonstrations, there was an explosion of joy. It ended an unbroken 59 years when thinly disguised military dictators ruled the country and their cronies looted the economy.

Egypt’s democratic revolution followed closely in the footsteps of the Tunisian revolution that triggered the “Arab Spring,” but it mattered far more because the country’s 90 million people account for almost a third of the world’s Arabs. Despite the disaster in Syria, we would still count the Arab Spring as a success if the Egyptian revolution had survived, but it was never going to be easy.

The protesters who drove the revolution in the cities were mostly young, well-educated and secular, but most Egyptians are rural, poorly educated and devout. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood had for decades been providing free social services to poor Egyptians. They were grateful and they were pious, so of course they voted for the Islamists.

The young revolutionaries should have understood that the Muslim Brotherhood was bound to win Egypt’s first free election. Most of them were horrified when “their” revolution actually ended up making the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president.

Morsi had his own problems, including trying to balance his own party’s expectation of rapid Islamization with the reality that the army and much of the urban population were committed to a secular Egypt. He was not good at tightrope walking, so what he probably saw as reasonable compromises were viewed by his opponents as forcing political Islam down people’s throats.

If his opponents had also more political experience, they would have calculated the Muslim Brotherhood was bound to lose the next election. The Egyptian economy was a disaster, so in four years’ time they would be deeply unpopular.

Instead, in June 2013, just one year after Morsi became president, they launched mass demonstrations demanding a new election – and called on the army to support their cause. El-Sisi, whom Morsi had trustingly appointed as defense minister, led a military coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood leader.

El-Sisi took off his uniform and had himself elected president. The army is back in power, and the number of secular political activists in jail is now probably greater than the number of Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

“The level of repression now is significantly higher than it was under the Mubarak regime,” Egyptian investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat told The Guardian last month. “People from older generations say it is worse than even the worst periods of the 1950s and 60s.”

It is too soon to conclude that a modern democracy cannot thrive in the Arab world? Tunisia, after all, is still managing to hang on to its revolution, and the sheer number of people that Sisi has jailed suggests that his regime is far from secure. But nobody in Egypt is celebrating the fifth anniversary of the country’s democratic revolution.

Five Years After the Arab Spring

Five years ago this month, the “Arab Spring” got underway with the non-violent overthrow of Tunisia’s long-ruling dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He dared not order the army to open fire on the demonstrators (because it might not obey), he was running out of money, and eventually he flew off off to Saudi Arabia to seek asylum.

In an Arab world where satellite television broadcasts and social media had effectively destroyed the power of the censors, practically everybody else spent the four weeks of civil protest in Tunisia tensely watching what the Tunisians were doing. When the Tunisian revolutionaries won, similar non-violent demonstrations demanding democracy immediately broke out in half a dozen other Arab countries.

It felt like huge change was on the way, because the world had got used to the idea that non-violent revolutions spread irresistibly, and usually win in the end. The ground-breaking “People Power” revolution in the Philippines in 1986, for example, was followed in the next three years in Asia by non-violent democratisation in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Bangladesh, and failed attempts at non-violent revolution in Burma and China.

Similarly in eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Communist regime in East Germany in 1989 was followed by non-violent democratisation in all the Soviet-dominated “satellite” countries by the end of the year. The Soviet Union itself broke up in 1991, and some of its component parts also became democratic. Non-violence was a magic potion, and people assumed that it was bound to work in the Arab world too.

They were wrong. The non-violent movements demanding democracy spread just as fast, but their only lasting success was in Tunisia. Egypt and Bahrain are back under autocratic rule, and Yemen and Syria are both being devastated by civil wars and large-scale foreign military intervention. Libya is also being torn by civil war (although the revolution there was never non-violent).

You can hardly blame people for trying to get rid of the old regimes – they were pretty awful – but beyond Tunisia the endings were uniformly bloody and tragic. Was there some systemic reason for this, or was it just a lot of bad luck? There is great reluctance to pursue this question, because people are afraid that the answer has something to do with the nature of Arab society or Islamic culture. They shouldn’t worry.

Islam is not incompatible with democracy. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, had a non-violent democratic revolution in 1998 and continues to be a thriving democracy today. Turkey has been democratic for decades, although Recep Tayyib Erdogan, the current president, is doing great damage to the country’s democratic institutions. Pakistan and Bangladesh are both democracies, although turbulent ones.

These four countries alone account for almost half the world’s Muslims. In the Arab world democracy is a much scarcer commodity, but it does exist, most notably in Tunisia itself. Several other Arab countries, like Jordan and Morocco, have a significant democratic element in their politics, although the king retains much power.

So what went wrong with the “Arab Spring”? In the case of Bahrain, the problem was that the majority of the population is Shia, but the ruling family is Sunni and saw the democratic movement as an Iranian plot. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia saw it the same way, and sent the Saudi army in to crush the “plot”.

Yemen was a lost cause from the start, since there was already an incipient civil war in the country. Now it’s a full-scale war, with foreign military intervention by a Saudi-led coalition that includes half the countries in the Arab world, and the non-violent protestors are busy hiding from the bombs.

Syria was a hard case since the Ba’athist regime, in power for more than forty years, had accumulated a great many enemies. The Alawite (Shia) minority who dominated the regime were terrified that they would suffer from revenge-taking if they lost power, and were willing to fight to the last ditch to keep power.

But it is also true that Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and later the United States as well, encouraged an armed uprising in Syria that undercut the entire non-violent movement. It probably wouldn’t have succeeded anyway, but it really didn’t get tried. And in Egypt, the non-violent revolution actually won.

The Egyptian victory didn’t last long. The Muslim Brotherhood won the election in 2012, and the urban, secular minority who had made the revolution panicked. They asked the army to intervene, and the army was happy to oblige – so now the army runs Egypt again, after a massacre of non-violent Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo in 2013 that was probably worse that the slaugher on Tienanmen Square in 1989.

Egypt is by far the biggest country in the Arab world. If it had not thrown its democracy away, about a third of the world’s Arabs would be living in a democracy today. It was very bad luck, but non-violent revolution is still a viable technique – and democracy is still just as suitable for Arabs as it is for Poles, Peruvians or Pakistanis. It’s just going to take a little longer than we thought in 2011.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“You..worry”; and “These…power”)

Peak Everything

Peak oil is so last year. Now we can worry about peak everything: peak food, peak soil, peak fertiliser, even peak bees.

Let’s start small. We depend on bees to pollinate plants that account for about one-third of the world’s food supply, but since 2006 bee colonies in the United States have been dying off at an unprecedented rate. More recently the same “colony collapse disorder” has appeared in China, Egypt and Japan.

Many suspect that the main cause is a widely used type of pesticides called neonicotinoids, but the evidence is not yet conclusive. The fact remains that one-third of the American bee population has disappeared in the past decade. If the losses spread and deepen, we may face serious food shortages.

Then there’s peak fertiliser, or more precisely peak phosphate rock. Phosphorus is a critical ingredient of fertiliser, and it is the eightfold increase in the use of fertilisers that has enabled us to triple food production worldwide from about the same area of land in the past sixty years.

At the moment we are mining about 200 million tonnes of phosphate rock a year, and the global reserve that could be mined at a reasonable cost with current technology is estimated at about 16 billion tonnes. At the current level of production it won’t run out entirely for eighty years, but the increasing demand for fertilisers to feed the growing population means that phosphate production is rising fast.

As with peak oil, the really important date is not when there are no economically viable phosphate rock reserves left, but when production starts to fall. Peak phosphate is currently no more than forty years away – or much less, if fertiliser use continues to grow. After that, it’s back to organic fertilisers, which mainly means the urine and faeces of ten or twelve billion human beings and their domesticated animals. Good luck with that.

Peak soil is a trickier notion, but it derives from the more concrete concept that we are “mining” the soil: degrading and exhausting it by growing single-crop “monocultures”, using too much fertiliser and irrigating too enthusiastically, all in the name of higher crop yields.

“We know far more about the amount of oil there is globally and how long those stocks will last than we know about how much soil there is,” said John Crawford, Director of the Sustainable Systems Program in Rothamsted Research in England. “Under business as usual, the current soils that are in agricultural production will yield about 30 percent less…by around 2050.”

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 25 percent of the world’s soils that are currently under cultivation are severely degraded, and another 8 percent moderately degraded. (Even “moderately degraded” soil has lost half its capacity to store water.) And the only way to access new, undamaged soil is to deforest the rest of the planet.

All of which brings us to the issue of peak food. And here the concept of “peak” undergoes a subtle modification, because it no longer means “maximum production, after which yields start to fall.” It just means “the point at which the growth in production stops accelerating”: it’s the peak rate of growth, not actual peak production. But even that is quite ominous, if you think about it.

During the latter part of the 20th century, food production grew at around 3.5 percent per year, comfortably ahead of population growth, but the dramatic rise in crop yields was due to new inputs of fertilisers and pesticides, much more irrigation, and new “green revolution” crop varieties. Now those one-time improvements have largely run their course, and global food production is rising at only 1.5 percent a year.

Population growth has slowed too, so we’re still more or less keeping up with demand, but there are signs that food production in many areas is running up against what researchers at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln in a report last year called “a biophysical yield ceiling for the crop in question.” Production of the food in question stops rising, then may even fall – and extra investment often doesn’t help.

The “peak” in this context is an early warning that there will eventually be a complete cessation of growth, possibly followed by an absolute decline. Peak maize happened in 1985, peak rice and wild fish in 1988, peak dairy in 1989, peak eggs in 1993, and peak meat in 1996. (The numbers come from a recent report by scientists at Yale, Michigan State University and the Helmholtz Centre in Germany in the journal “Ecology and Society”)

More recent peaks were vegetables in 2000, milk and wheat in 2004, poultry in 2006, and soya bean in 2009. Indeed, sixteen of the 21 foods examined in the “Ecology and Society” report have already peaked, and production levels have actually flattened out for key regions amounting to 33 percent of global rice and 27 percent of global wheat production.

So we are already in trouble, and it will get worse even before climate change gets bad. There are still some quick fixes available, notably by cutting down on waste: more than a third of the food that is grown for human consumption never gets eaten. But unless we come up with some new “magic bullets”, things will be getting fairly grim on the food front by the 2030s.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 7 and 12. (“At the…fast”; “We know…2050″; and “Population…help”)

Three Elections

Last Sunday was a busy day: three elections, in three different continents, all of them offering at least the hope of better times.

First, Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff eked out a second-round victory with 51.6 percent of the votes versus 48.4 percent for the challenger, Aecio Neves. But Neves was quick to acknowledge her victory, and she was equally prompt in admitting that things had to change. “Sometimes in history, close outcomes trigger results more quickly than ample victories,” she said.

Most people took that as an admission that she will have to give more attention to growing the economy and a little less to redistributing the proceeds. This will not come easily to her, for the great project of the Workers’ Party (PT) under both Rousseff and her iconic predecessor Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva has been to raise the living standards of poor Brazilians. They have done very well at it, but there was a cost.

In only twelve years the PT governments have moved around 40 million Brazilians, one-fifth of the population, out of poverty. Brazil’s Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality) has improved from 0.56 at the start of PT rule to 0.49 now. Such rapid change in Gini is practically unheard of – Brazil is now closer to the United States (0.47) than to China (0.61) – and it has transformed a great many people’s lives.

The overall economy grew fast when “Lula” was in office, but it has slowed almost to a stall under Rousseff. That is not surprising, for it is hard to persuade business to invest when you are busy redistributing income. Now Dilma will have to change her priorities and encourage business – without surrendering the improvements in the lives of the poor.

She seems to understand that, and if she can succeed in entrenching those changes while reviving the economy then she really will have changed Brazil for good. The voters have given her another four years to work on it, and that may be enough.

Secondly, Ukraine. The killing in the south-east has tailed off – only 300 dead in sporadic clashes around Donetsk in almost two months since the ceasefire, compared to 3,400 in the previous four and a half months – and the new frontier with the pro-Russian breakaway areas has solidified. That, plus the Russian annexation of Crimea, excluded some three million people from the vote, but for 36 million other registered voters the election went off quite peacefully.

The result was a landslide. “More than three-quarters of voters who took part in the polls gave strong and irreversible backing to Ukraine’s path to Europe,” President Petro Poroshenko told a news conference in Kiev. With half the ballots counted, his own Solidarity Party and the People’s Front led by his ally, former prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk, each had 21.5 percent of the vote, with another pro-European party, Self Help, winning 11 percent.

With the support of several smaller pro-European, pro-reform parties, a coalition government may even enjoy a two-thirds “super-majority” in parliament and allow Poroshenko to pass his long-promised reform programme with little opposition. Pro-Russian parties that were allied with deposed president Viktor Yanukovich (who fled into exile with Russian help), running as the Opposition Bloc, got only 10 percent of the vote.

Ukraine is not out of the woods. Russia can turn up the fighting again, or just keep its gas exports turned off and condemn the country to a grim winter. The economy is still shrinking and jobs are disappearing fast. But at least Ukraine will now have a government that is both legitimate and more or less united.

Last but not least, Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring began – and just about the only one where it did not fail. The surprise there was that the secular Nidaa Tounes Party (Tunisia’s Call), formed only last year, out-polled the Ennahda Party, a moderate Islamist party that led the first post-revolutionary coalition government.

Some kind of coalition will still be necessary, as neither party won half the seats in parliament, and it may be a broad coalition that includes them both. But there is a lesson here for Egypt, although it comes a bit late. As a member of Ennahda’s political bureau told the BBC, “This result is fine. I am not really surprised. Governments that are leading during a political transition are often punished at the polls.”

Egypt threw away its democracy last year, only one year after the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist party, won the first free election after the Egyptian revolution. President Mohamed Morsi was less tactful and more eager to impose his Islamic project on the country than Ennahda’s leaders, but he was not doing anything that would be irreversible after another election.

In Egypt, as in Tunisia, a second election would probably have seen the Islamist party evicted from power; all the disappointed secular leaders of the revolution had to do was wait. Instead, they made an alliance with the army to overthrow Morsi – and now the army rules the country again. Elections are messy, divisive affairs, but they are far better than any of the alternatives.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“In only…lives”; and “With…vote”)