Endgame for Egypt

Robert Musil’s Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften (“The Man Without Qualities”), one of the great novels of the past century, is a portrait of the Austrian elite early in 1914. The readers know that their silly world will come to a terrible end a few months later with the outbreak of war, but the protagonists do not. Musil published a first volume and spent the rest of his life trying to write a second, without success, for it is the sort of story that has no end except for the abyss.

Arab politics today has a Musil-like quality of unreality, for the conclusion will be the collapse of the Egyptian state. The misnamed “Arab Spring,” really a convulsion of a dying society, began with food shortages. Egypt imports half its caloric consumption, 45% of its people are illiterate, its university graduates are unemployable, its $10 billion a year tourism industry is shuttered for the duration, and its foreign exchange reserves are gradually disappearing. In August, the central bank’s reported reserves fell below what the bank calls the “danger level” of six months’ import coverage, or $25 billion, from $36 billion in February, although I suspect that even this number is bloated by $5 to $10 billion of Algerian and Saudi loans and trade credits. Despite reports in the press that food price inflation in Egypt has slowed, Arab-language Egyptian media report that the prices of some staples, like rice and sugar, have risen by 50% or more since March. The military government is distributing bread and propane (the main cooking fuel).

Egypt turned down a proposed loan from the International Monetary Fund earlier this year because the military government could not accept the conditionality attached to IMF money. The Gulf States and the West may keep Egypt on life support, which would leave a large proportion of Egyptians in a limbo of extreme destitution. The fiscal collapse of Southern Europe (and severe problems elsewhere) makes this an inopportune time to come to the West with a begging bowl. As for the Gulf States: they are not even meeting their commitments to the Palestine Authority, and can’t be expected to carry a $15 to $20 billion annual financing requirement for Egypt.

It does not compute. Western economists can concoct all the economic recovery plans in the world, but a country that can’t teach half its people to read, and can’t produce employable university graduates, and can’t feed itself, is going to go down the drain. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak kept Egypt under control by keeping most of its people poor, ignorant, and on the farm, and by warehousing its youth in state-run diploma mills. After sixty years of such abuse, Egypt simply can’t get there from here.

The result, I predict, will be a humanitarian catastrophe that makes Somalia look like a picnic. It’s not surprising that the Egyptian mob might attack the Israeli embassy. The Egyptian street has nothing to do but rise up against perceived oppressors, because nothing good awaits them; and the desperation that will follow the collapse of the Arab “Spring” threatens every Middle Eastern regime, such that the rulers have to try to get out in front of the rage. But what will they actually do? The Egyptian military is hanging onto power by its fingernails. If it attacks Israel, it will lose, and generals will be hanged from lamp posts. The Syrian military is too busy killing protesters to attack Israel, or to assist Hezbollah in a confrontation with Israel.

What we are likely to witness during the next two years will be repellent, even horrifying — but not necessarily dangerous.