What’s Worse for Egypt: Civil war or State Collapse?
Amidst the debate about Islamism, ideology and civil war, the world seems to have forgotten that a crisis of governance brought Egyptians to the streets. The awful spasm of violence is not, as discussed here, Egypt’s Tiananmen. The better analogy is Mogadishu. Yet despite all the evidence that the Egyptian state is failing, no one is asking the most important question: can Egypt still be governed?
The main grievances listed by the Tamrud (rebel) movement reflect the slow-motion train wreck that was Morsi’s 12 month rule. A surge in violent crime, troubling incidents of vigilante justice, rolling power outages, shortages of diesel, medicines and bottled water; all symptoms of a flailing government and a collapsing economy. The Egyptian pound has lost up to 25% of its value since 2011 and inflation is running at 9.75%. Cairo’s deliverymen have no compunction about suggesting a doubling of the standard tip: ghaaliat’a’dinya – life has gotten expensive – and with the police in retreat, who is going to argue?
This downward trend in state capacity cannot be laid exclusively at the feet of the Moslem Brotherhood. According to the annual Failed State Index published by the Fund for Peace, the deterioration in governance began with the revolution of January 2011. As shown in the FFP graphic, 2011 marked a reversal of Egypt’s improving trend and prompted a “severe worsening” in key weakness indicators such as group grievance, poverty and economic decline, human rights and the rule of law, factionalized elites, state legitimacy and external intervention in state affairs. These indicators bear a striking resemblance to Tamrud’s chief complaints: a failure to restore security, the collapse of the economy, and no justice or dignity for left for Egyptians or the Egyptian state, forced to grovel at the feet of the IMF.
Most alarming is the collapse of internal security and the increasing lawless in many areas of the state, particularly Sinai and the more remote governorates. Human rights, the economy and the rule of law are huge problems for Egypt but they are not new challenges. The 1.2 point decline in the robustness of the security apparatus, however, is unprecedented for a state with a track-record of efficient, albeit ruthless, coercive control. Incidents such as the looting in Minya during the crack-down in Cairo call into question not whether the military government can avert civil war but whether they can regain control.
There is no question that a civil war would worsen this situation, but even if avoided these structural dilemmas still threaten the long term governability of this most populous Arab State. Even if the army pulls back from the brink and the Moslem Brotherhood is somehow brought back into the fold of routine politics, Egypt is still in crisis. The country is utterly dependent on foreign aid to keep what’s left of its economy afloat. A loan from the IMF will require massive cuts in subsidies, including sensitive subsidies on fuel and bread, which will certainly foment serious unrest. Morsi wasn’t willing to take that risk and sought funding from Qatar in return for condemning the Assad regime. The price tag for Saudi funds may well be further repression of the Brothers and an exacerbation of the internal security dilemma. Yet with nearly 63% of its foreign currency reserves burned up since the revolution, there are few options. Egypt needs more than three months reserves to import the wheat it needs to feed its people — a population which thanks to the quiet lapse in family planning funding under Morsi is once again increasing
For all the hand- wringing and mudslinging over the failings of Obama’s Middle East policy no one seems to be considering the implications of Egypt joining the ranks of Yemen, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Syria as a failing or failed states in the Arab World: that’s 205 million people and a land-mass of over 5 million square kilometers that includes 60% of the world’s oil reserves and the Suez canal. The uncomfortable implications of this dismal forecast is that Egypt is likely to be once again captured by military repression and externally financed co-optation.