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Reframing Egypt's Collapse

Several high ranking Muslim Brotherhood officials have resigned from the Egyptian government on the heels of yesterday’s army-issued ultimatum, culminating most recently in the Foreign Minister reportedly stepping down. Morsi himself has remained defiant, but his ability to stay in control looks shakier by the minute.

How will this all end? With fast-changing situations like this, it’s hard to say. But having more context than you’re getting from the MSM certainly can’t hurt. And as our colleague Adam Garfinkle argued yesterday in an excellent, sweeping essay analyzing the situation, not having the right context has led to some pretty silly framing of the story by the press:

This drama has never been about the fate of democracy or liberal attitudes and institutions. That was our passion play, not Egypt’s. This drama has always been about the fractionation and dissipation of traditional sources of social authority in a country that has tried and failed now at least three times since Napoleon’s 1799 invasion to come to terms with the press of modernity. There has been significant and positive social change in Egypt in recent years, but not enough of it to command the political heights–not yet. And maybe not ever, for it has now come down, in the summer of 2013, to the survival of order, any order. It has vanishingly little to do at this point with elections or constitutions or certainly with the U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relationship. American pressmen who think otherwise suffer from the standard failure of our Enlightenment-“lite” imagination.

Adam’s blog has been essential reading for any reader interested in getting a fuller understanding of what’s been going on in the broader Middle East for the past few years. Definitely go read his latest, and then spend some time surfing his archives. It will be time well spent.

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  • NormanJohn

    Egypt’s economy is sliding into the abyss because the
    country can no longer afford to subsidise it’s own people.

    This is resource depletion happening on our TV screens right
    now, not some theory of our future, Egypt is our future. They are rioting
    because of a future they recognize as hopeless. They have enjoyed a period of
    delusion (just like the rest of us) where they had cheap food and fuel, and the
    jobs derived from it.

    They saw the country falling apart under Mubarak—so they got
    rid of him. Morsi was equally powerless, so the mob wants his head too.

    This is not a political problem, it’s resource problem.
    People with jobs and full bellies don’t riot

    is happening in Egypt right now is the world in microcosm (though not so micro
    maybe). Their current population stands at 80 million, in 35 years time it will
    be twice that number. Their land produces enough food for 55 million at most.
    This is the real frightener than no one dare mention, yet they scream at
    elected leaders, and demand change’ as if prosperity can be voted for. Much the
    same thing is happening throughout the middle east, and by definition the rest
    of the world. It has nothing to do with politics or religion, the Egyptian
    economy is subsidized at a rate of 30%, fuel is sold at about 20% of its real
    market value, some basic foodstuffs at a seventh of real cost. This is
    unsustainable, and there is no answer to it. Jobs also depend on cheap fuel. One
    way or another we are all living on subsidized food and fuel. If food and fuel
    don’t appear at these prices, then people riot. when our food and fuel goes
    into short supply, we will riot, just like the Egyptians. The truth is the Egyptian
    government has an annual trade deficit of $20 billion, and can no longer afford
    to subsidise bread and fuel, and they have no more to offer. Things are going
    to get a whole lot worse, Egypt is just the start of it, The civil war in Syria
    is driven by resource shortage, where farmers have been forced off the land and
    into cities because of drought. Saudi can only hold itself together so long as
    they have oil to exchange for food. When their oil runs out, Saudi will
    collapse too. Morsi is no doubt aware that this really is the end of the
    oilparty, whoever takes over from him faces the same catastrophe.

    • rheddles

      “Their current population stands at 80 million, in 35 years time it will be twice that number.”

      Re-read your post. After doing so, you might want to reconsider that statement. If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.

      • NormanJohn

        The population growth rate is 2% pa. That means a doubling in 35 years or so. I agree that it can’t go on, therefore something will happen to prevent it,
        that something will be a catastrophe that no political system can stop.
        However, we must work with current figures. Right now, Egyptians are convinced that they can continue as they are and regain some form of prosperity by political means
        They can’t, so we can only watch and learn. We have the same problems to look forward to in the not too distant future. (remember 44 million Americans are already on food support)
        A bankrupt economy with a disregard of population growth and a depleting energy supply leads to an inevitable conclusion

        • rheddles

          Our problems are much smaller in proportion and our ability to cope is much greater.

          We do not import 50% of our staples. Our producers are far more amenable to improvements in productivity. How many of the 44 million Americans on food support are obese? How many of the 44 million have gone on in the last 5 years as a result of aggressive efforts to increase government dependency?

          • NormanJohn

            as energy (and by the same token, food,) goes into depletion, exactly the same situation will manifest itself in USA and elsewhere. Climate change will cause food scarcity, you cannot vote that away, anymore than you can vote to increase oil supply.

          • rheddles

            Now you’ve identified our areas of disagreement with which I am happy to live.

      • Corlyss

        “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.”
        I used to find this concept both amusing and comforting. But recently it has paled in the face of QE 1, 2, and 3. I’m not a kid anymore. I want to see the end to some of those obscene things that can’t go on forever. If I don’t outlive ’em, they might as well go on forever. 😉

  • Pete

    You’re right, Mr. Mead: Adam Garfinkle’s piece is well worth reading, especially when he observes that a significant percent of the Arab population is “pre-modern who flat-out flunk abstraction. They cannot run a centralized modern state.”

    No kidding. And the sun rises in the East, too.

  • Corlyss

    After 9/11, the always informative and insightful Robert Kaplan quipped, “Radical Islam will fade in the next 20-30 years because there is no Islamic way to fix a car.”
    If one conservatively dates radical Islam from the beginning of the Russian Invasion of Afghanistan (more useful perhaps than the wartime German mischief in north Africa), we’re 30 years into this phase of Islam’s war on modernity. It’s been about a decade since Kaplan made the observation, and the Islamic world shows no signs of smartening up.

    One of the hallmarks of a successful culture is its ability to adapt to changing conditions. I suggest that Islamic culture is fundamentally a failure because it has left its adherents frozen in a small village/tribal shamanistic world view escape from which means either the real or cultural death of the followers or their abandonment of Islamic principles.

    So here’s my question: how incumbent is it upon the rest of the world to make room for this group of primitives who behead people to the gruesome cheers of onlookers and post the videos on the Internet?

  • Corlyss

    “standard failure of our Enlightenment-“lite” imagination.”
    Does anyone know what this phrase means? If so, please explain.

  • Vadim Pashkov

    I have shortest version : Egypt need to import 50% of its food and some fuel and in global distribution of labor there is no place for Egypt

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