Say Goodbye to Egypt

In 2011, the clerical intellects in Egypt proposed that the pyramids be destroyed because they were idolatrous reminders of Egypt’s pre-Islamic past.  Egypt’s real problem is more prosaic -- the mismatch between an agricultural system that can feed 40 million and a population of 84 million.  Egypt had been a grain exporter for thousands of years.  It is estimated to have had a population of 4 million at the time Napoleon Bonaparte visited its shores in 1798.  By 1960, the population had risen to 28 million and they were importing one million tons per year of wheat.  Grain imports, wheat and corn, are now running at 15 million tons per year. 

With a population growth rate estimated at 1.8 percent per year, another 1.5 million Egyptians are created every year.  On a spare, almost completely vegetarian diet of 350 kg per year of grain, each year’s cohort of new Egyptians will require over half a million metric tons of grain as adults.  Thus Egypt’s grain requirement ratchets up by half a million metric tons every year. Egypt’s ability to grow grain has peaked, limited by the available water from the Nile.  The switch from high-water-consumption crops such as rice and cotton to wheat has already taken place.  On the current trajectory of rising demand, the import requirement will be 28 million metric tons of grain by 2030. 

The situation may very well be worse than that.  There has been a population explosion in the last three years after the Arab Spring.  Between 2006 and 2012 there was a 40% increase in the number of births in Egypt, with births in 2012 560,000 higher than in 2010. 

What holds Egyptian society together for the moment is subsidized bread.  Three-quarters of the population have ration cards that entitle the holders to subsidized bread, sugar, cooking oil, propane, and gasoline.  The total food subsidy system costs about $4.4 billion per year.  With the bulk of the population’s calories provided by subsidized bread from effectively communal bakeries, there is almost no resilience in the food supply system in Egypt. If the imports or the subsidies stop, Egyptians will starve. 

Whatever his failings as a fair and just ruler, Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, ran the country as an ongoing concern.  By late 2010 the country’s foreign exchange reserves had risen to $35 billion.  Following his resignation, Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves began to fall at the rate of $2 billion per month.  By early 2013, they had fallen to $13 billion. President Morsi was overthrown in a military coup not so much because he is an Islamist but because Egypt’s only potential savior, Saudi Arabia, would not contribute to Egypt’s treasury while the Muslim Brotherhood was in charge.  The Saudis duly tipped in $5 billion within a fortnight of Morsi’s overthrow. 

Even the Sun is ganging up on Egypt.  NASA researchers have found some clear links between solar activity and Nile River levels.  The Nile water levels and aurora records tracking solar radiation have two somewhat regularly occurring variations in common -- one with a period of about eighty-eight years, known as the Gleissberg cycle, and the second with a period of about two hundred years, called the de Vries cycle.  Solar activity is now declining to levels last seen in the 17th century.  That decline will result in drought in East Africa at the headwaters of the Nile. 

Egyptian society has a number of unpleasant features.  The female genital mutilation rate is 90 per cent.  The rate of consanguineous marriage is very high, at 35 per cent, giving rise to a high incidence of congenital defects.  Christian Copts, who constitute about 10 percent of the population, are less inbred than the Moslem Egyptians.  As happened to the Armenians in Turkey on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago, the Copts are likely to be slaughtered first during the collapse of Egyptian society -- forfeiting Egypt the sympathy of the West in its plight.

President Obama’s backstabbing of President Mubarak and his support of the subsequent Muslim Brotherhood regime, which earned the United States a reputation for double-dealing and the enmity of the Egyptian people, happened just in time.  If Egypt had stayed in the nominally pro-Western camp, there would have been a period during which the United States and perhaps other Western nations would have thrown money into the black hole that will be Egypt in collapse.  The Mubarak regime collapsed in part because of withdrawal of support by the Obama Administration.  This is a case of the right result for the wrong reasons.    

David Archibald, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of The Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century Will Be Nasty, Brutish, and Short (Regnery, 2014).