Egypt, which was once the breadbasket for the Roman Empire, is now one of a growing number of food basket cases. A thriving center of trade and industry centuries ago, it is now marked by unemployment and dependence on tourism. Instead of dealing with these mounting problems, the Mubarak regime has swept everything under the rug and skimmed billions from the country. No wonder the population is in revolt.
Egypt has always been dependent on the Nile river, which was the foundation of what may have been humanity’s most ecologically sustainable agricultural system. In dry regions like Egypt and the Middle East, and even in areas with inadequate rainfall like much of the American West and northern China, irrigation is required to produce a large crop, normally of grains like wheat or rice. The problem, which is becoming more and more ominous, is that irrigation can destroy the soil and water on which agriculture depends. Too much water for too long a period in the wrong kind of soil, and the soil becomes salty, which doomed another ancient center of Middle Eastern civilization: the Sumerians. Or the water for irrigation might use up ancient reservoirs of water called fossil aquifers. This depletion is threatening food production from the American plains to India to China.
The Nile, on the other hand, always flooded the Nile valley annually, thus depositing nutrients and water at just the right time to grow plants but receding at just the right time to prevent too much salt from accumulating. It did this, that is, until the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960s, which prevents the Nile from flooding. The benefit is that the flow of water is dependable, because the Nile would often over-flood or under-irrigate, and the Dam can be used for electrical generation. The problem is that many areas are now becoming salty, the nutrients, or silt, are building up behind the Dam, and now Egypt is dependent on fossil fuel-based fertilizers for its agriculture.
Even with the Dam, Egypt has become the world’s biggest importer of grain, requiring foreign grain for 40% of its needs. Since it doesn’t have much industry, it has to trade tourism and some fossil fuels for this grain, and as a result, even university graduates have a 30 percent unemployment rate and only 3 percent of the population consumes 50 percent of goods. Meanwhile, instead of creating an industrial base that could be used to produce the goods to trade for food, the current regime either takes the money itself or spends it on useless military equipment (although much of that money comes from the US, but that’s another story). Egypt therefore has become dependent on the global economic system for its survival; it needs the food, industrial goods and fossil fuels from the global system, but it has very little to give back. This is one reason that 3 million Egyptians work outside the country, sending back badly needed money to families at home.
It is quite possible that if the Aswan Dam was actually torn down and a different water storage and drainage system was constructed, and if Egypt took advantage of the massive amount of sunlight that falls on the deserts near the Nile to generate its electricity from solar power, it could create a sustainable economy. It would have to do all of this, just to add another wrinkle, while it created a sustainable plan for the use of the Nile’s waters.
At least 80 percent of the water that reaches Egypt actually comes from Ethiopia, where most of the Nile originates, and most of the rest comes from Sudan. There has been a long and varied history of tension among these nations concerning the use of the Nile’s rivers, as told by Steven Solomon in his book “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization”. So an ecological solution to Egypt’s problems requires coordination with its neighbors to the south. On the other hand, if it is to industrialize it would probably be greatly aided if it partnered with Israel and with other Middle Eastern nations, all of which have similar problems. Together, they could all create a Middle Eastern common market, to use a term from the European Union’s past. This idea of an integrated, industrializing Middle East was the vision of Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel who was cut down by a fundamentalist Israeli.
I don’t think that the current regime can pull off this balancing act. Mubarak’s choice for vice president, Omar Suleiman, has been directing the notorious “rendition” program whereby people that the United States wants to torture are “taken care of." This policy led to the false information that provided the “proof” of an Al Qaeda-Iraq connection; as James Ridgeway explains, “our loyal ally Egypt provided the fake information used by the United States to justify going to war in Iraq." The regime is so accustomed to using force and violence as a means of governing that it hatched the plot that fizzled to have “pro-Mubarak supporters” literally beat the protesters out of Tahrir square. As the New York Times explained, “Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt has long functioned as a state where wealth bought political power and political power bought great wealth." A regime based on corruption and violence cannot pull off the feats of industrializing, spreading the wealth, working with its neighbors, and most importantly, insuring that its unique ecosystems survive. It will require a regime that has real legitimacy, one that is elected democratically.
Egypt is not the only country facing the problem of an ecologically unsustainable path, the need for industrialization, the replacing of fossil fuels, and in many cases, the need for democratization. As Lester Brown has pointed out recently, there is a global food crisis emerging. It is being driven by the abuse of agricultural ecosystems and water; by using grain for ethanol and for livestock; by the inefficient use of water; and oh yes, by climate change. Let us hope that Egypt's example will not only spur change in the Middle East but create change around the entire planet.
Jon Rynn is the author of Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the City University of New York.