American Elephants

The Illusion of an Arab Spring is Long Gone. by The Elephant's Child


Sunrise at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt

Egypt has problems. Cast your mind back to May of 2011. Egypt is the 15th most populous country at 82,079,636 according to 2011 estimates. Cairo had a population of an estimated 10.902 million, and the median age was 24. Half the population lived on less than $2 a day, and a spike in food prices leads to real trouble. Egypt is the world’s largest grain importer. To rephrase that, they cannot feed their own population. The Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto has estimated that 92% of Egyptians hold their property without normal legal title. Egypt is dependent on revenue from tourism.

If you remember, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year-old Tunisian street vendor helped to start what became known as the Arab Spring, by an act of desperation by setting himself on fire in a public square. That act led to spontaneous uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. The White House and the media spoke breathlessly of Western-style democracy sweeping across the Arab desert. They ignored polls that showed that large majorities of Egyptians were yearning to vote in Islamic law. Skeptics pointed out that the Arab world has no experience whatsoever of democracy, and radical Islamists would soon sweep in.

Obama urged on the rioters and pressured Mubarak to step down. They held elections, the Muslim Brotherhood got 60% of the vote, and Mohamed Morsi was elected President, and promptly dismissed the Generals of the Egyptian Army.

President Morsi has now handed over control of a tourist destination to a party that loathes tourists. On Sunday President Morsi appointed Adel al-Khayat of the Gamaa al-Islamiyya party as Governor of Luxor, a region that is home to the ruins of two temples and several monuments. The party holds conservative views against sunbathing, women wearing shorts, alcohol, and is responsible for the 1997 attack in Luxor that killed 60 tourists. The New York Times reported:

“A fatwa, or religious decree, published on the Gamaa al-Islamiyya’s web site advised members of the group not to build tourist accommodations. ‘Because tourist villages have aspects that anger Allah, including alcohol, gambling and other forbidden things, building these hotels and villages is considered aiding their owners in sin and aggression, and is not permitted,’ the decision read.”

Tourism accounts for more than 11% Egypt’s GDP, and 90 percent of Egyptians employed in  Luxor work in industries that depend on tourism to stay afloat. The revolution and the political turmoil following it has already nearly ended the country’s tourist economy, and this move won’t help.

To cap that off, President Morsi has escalated a fight with Ethiopia this week over a dam on the Nile River. Ethiopia is building a dam upstream from Egypt and expects to start filling in a 74 billion cubic meter reservoir in 2015. Egypt fears the dam will choke off its main supply of water.

Speaking to hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Cairo Monday, Mr. Morsi said that Egypt was ready to “protect every drop of the Nile water,” for which it was ready to spill “our blood.” Conjuring up a conspiracy by domestic and foreign “enemies” to impoverish Egypt, he called on Egyptians to face up to the “threats to the country.”

The combative speech turned up the volume on bellicose noises from Cairo. Last week, the president held a meeting with opposition figures who, unaware they were being filmed live, said that Egypt may need to act militarily in Ethiopia to stop the construction of the dam. The video went viral.

Ethiopia dismissed the Egyptian threats as “psychological warfare” and said it will continue to build the dam.

Morsi has been in office for only 12 months, and none of the promises to make the streets safe or revive the economy have been realized. Youth unemployment is extremely high, and the government’s foreign currency reserves have been depleted. Egypt now depends on handouts from friendly nations like Qatar and Libya to buy food and fuel. The opposition has called for mass rallies across the country on June 30.

Secretary of State John Kerry has promised $4 billion in aid, and airplanes, but this is not an Arab Spring, and our government does not seem to grasp the nature of radical Islam. Now Mr. Morsi has turned to conspiracy mongering and nationalistic posturing. Didn’t work for Mubarak and his generals, and is unlikely to work in the current situation.

What our adventures in Syria will add to the mix remains to be seen. Our government seems remarkably naive in their approach to the Islamist governments in the Middle East.

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