Last December, I was in Egypt for a few days during their elections, which predictably reinstalled Hosni Mubarak, age 77, as president. It will be his fifth six-year term, the first having begun in 1981, when he took over from his assassinated predecessor, Anwar Sadat.
Cairo and its environs were pleasant in December. It had been about 30 years, practically a lifetime ago, since I’d been there. Little had changed. Which was surprising, on the one hand, and to be expected – since this is the Muslim world – on the other. One difference, though, was the traffic: it’s horrible now, with a lot more cars than 30 years ago, but nonetheless better than it was.
I say that as an involuntary connoisseur of Third World traffic accidents. On a previous visit, I rode a taxi on an expressway from downtown Cairo to Giza. Cars and trucks were weaving as fast as they could between the slower donkey carts, tractors, and bicycles headed in more or less the same direction – all while mobs of pedestrians tried to cross the expressway’s eight lanes. I well remember a young woman, carrying a bundle on her head, who got whacked by a taxi a few yards ahead of mine; it was bloody mess, but I don’t think she was killed. The passenger in that cab, another woman, jumped out and seeing that I, too, was a Westerner, asked if she could get in. We drove on. I’ve always wondered what happened to the victim. But I can tell you, being a poor cripple in a poor country is an unpleasant fate. Then again, nobody, not even billionaires, gets out of this world alive. Anywa~ the donkey carts are gone now, and today there are pedestrian overpasses at intervals.
The first time I was there, Cairo impressed me as one of the dirtiest, crowded, and chaotic cities in the world. But even though its population, and that of Egypt, has more than doubled in the interim, it seemed a much mellower place this time.
Perhaps the government’s economic growth figures of about 5% per annum are more truth than fiction. Or maybe high oil prices have brought the place a veneer of prosperity. Or maybe some of the $2 billion or so per year with which U.S. taxpayers have been subsidizing the country for the last generation (as a reward for maintaining cordial relations with Israel) have actually gone into the local econom~ rather than into various ministers’ Swiss bank accounts. Part of the answer is probably that, mirabile dictu, the world actually does tend to become better over time because of improvements in technology and the natural inclination of people to work and save. And, like most Islamic countries, Egypt has a stock market.
The Cairo exchange has a fairly long (since 1903) and volatile history. In the’40s, when the extravagant and outrageous King Farouk ran the show, it was the fifth-largest exchange in the world. Then he was deposed by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, who nationalized almost everything in his search for the Egyptian path to socialism. The exchange was dormant from 1961 to 1991. Then desperation forced a modicum of liberalization on the government. So there is some reason for optimism, with the government now privatizing many state companies. But I’m not a believer in a rosy future for the land of the pharaohs.
Egyptian Economics – Such As They Are
You’ve got to ask yourself about any place, but especially about a country like this: how do the people (80 million, in this case) survive? What do they produce? Guesstimates are that in ancient times Egypt supported a population of about 6 million, and rather comfortably for the era. In those days almost everyone was a farmer, and the annual flooding of the Nile ensured both water and nutrients for crops that made Egypt the breadbasket of the ancient world.
There are still plenty of farmers in Egypt, but since the As- wan High Dam was built by the Russians in the ’60s, the Nile doesn’t flood anymore. Today the dam generates about 12% of the country’s electricity! but it’s silting up with the estimated 4 million tons per year of alluvial fertilizer that flows down from the highlands of Ethiopia and Uganda. Now Egyptians have to buy a million tons of chemical fertilizer per year. Of course, a gigantic river that floods everything annually doesn’t fit well with an industrial society. When 95% of the country’s people live within twelve miles of the river, it’s one thing for them all to get wet if they’re dirt farmers walking behind oxen, but another thing if most of them are living in apartments.
So the Aswan Dam is a mixed blessing in many ways. Although philosophically I’m of the “pave the planet” school, since I believe mankind’s ultimate destiny is in the stars and that the Earth is an insignificant mote in the cosmic scheme of things, I’m naturally suspicious of megaprojects built by economically illiterate socialist governments. They may wind up destroying enough capital to keep people trapped on this planet, like serfs in a medieval village. Militarily, the dam is a boon for Israel. One small nuke and Egypt will be washed into the Mediterranean. Literally. But farming and the dam, while important, don’t bring money into the country. There are basically five things that keep the place going.
1. Tourism. Roughly 5% of GOP. In Egypt, this means foreigners taking pictures of monuments built largely between 3,000 and 4,500 years ago, capital provided by the locals’ distant ancestors. And it means other foreigners lying on Red Sea beaches, provided by nature. The tourists keep coming, but every few years they’re scared away when a hotel is bombed or a tour bus is machine-gunned.
2. Remittances. Egypt’s most reliable export is workers, who send money home to their families.
3. Oil. Net exports ran at roughly 300,000 barrels per day during the last couple of decades, but now the fields are in steep decline, and net exports are down to only 100,000 barrels per da)’, on the way to zero by the end of the decade.
4. The Suez Canal. Built in the 1860s courtesy of Europeans, it is becoming less important as ships get larger (too large to use the Canal) and air transport grows.
5. Foreign aid.
Unfortunately, none of these things is a sound foundation for prosperity. They’re not economic pillars, they’re reeds.
For the time being, however, Egypt’s balance of payments (which takes into account remittances, investments, and aid) is positive. But the balance of trade (which is much more important because it’s a better indicator of what Egyptians produce that other people want) is in the red by $5 billion a year. And there’s $25 billion in foreign debt. That’s a lot for a country with an $81.5 billion GDP.
Noone with any sense has much confidence in government figures, certainly not those from struggling Third World countries. But, to use an old saw from this part of the world, it’s not hard to read the writing on the wall, and it’s scary. The population is growing at something like 3.5% per year. And unemployment is about 25%, which means that the ranks of young, unemployed, unmarried males – unquestionably the most dangerous creatures ever to have walked the Earth – are swelling. Meanwhile, when you look at the five income sources listed above, you can see that Egypt is relying on nothing but accidents of history and nature, and the kindness of strangers.
From a strictly economic perspective, Egypt is a disaster waiting to happen. But the same is more or less true of all the Islamic countries (with the minor exceptions of the Emirates and Malaysia). All of them, like Egypt, produce little that can be traded. Economically, all are saddled with gigantic, entrenched, concrete-bound bureaucracies that serve no use-
ful purpose, but stop anything productive from happening. Politically, they’re all basically authoritarian, one-party states. Sociologically, they’re all highly traditional, conservative, and, outside major cities, tribal. Technologically, there’s zero innovation; practically everything more recent than 18th-century products either is imported or made under license and with foreign capital.
Why might this be the plight of a huge swath of humanity? What do these countries have in common that might account for their striking similarities?
There’s only one thing I can think of: religion.
Clash of Civilizations
Islamic societies are so much poorer and generally more backward than the West mainly because of their religion and the worldview it’s engendered. Islam still has a fixed world- view, basically stuck in the 7th century, when the Prophet composed the Koran. The West would be in the same sorry state today had it not broken with religion. That’s never happened in Islam. And until it does – and especially after the oil runs out – Muslim parts of the world will remain backwaters.
In a 1993 paper in Foreign Affairs, Samuel P. Huntington proposed that the next step in mass human conflict wouldn’t be between princes or countries or ideologies so much as between civilizations. That makes sense to me – a lot more than Francis Fukuyama’s foolish “End of History” notion, which surfaced at about the same time. Fukuyama actually posited that “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war his- tor)’, but the end of history as such: that is, the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Although democracy is today’s secular god, it’s really just mob rule in a coat and tie. As such, democracy has little to do with personal freedom, free minds, or free markets. In any event, before the French Revolution, many wars just amounted to conflicts between rulers, who used the lands and people they controlled as chess pieces. The pawns had no passion for the game. Then the paradigm became wars between nation-states
The ranks of young, unemployed, unmarried males – unquestionably the most dangerous creatures ever to have walked the Earth – are swelling.
supported by considerable public enthusiasm – the French vs. the Germans vs. the English, etc. Then, after the Russian Revolution, it became a battle of ideologies – capitalists vs. communists vs. fascists.
With the collapse of the USSR, we entered a fourth stage of conflict, between civilizations. And here there are four serious players – the Western, the Chinese, the Islamic, and the Hindu. They’re very different in their values and in the ways they see the world. And none appreciates impingement by a different civilization.
That’s why stationing Western soldiers in Islamic countries is such a disastrous policy. Whether we feel they have reason to be there or not, Islam – representing well over a billion people – is feeling mightily provoked. The reason is not so much the insinuation of Western culture through movies, music, and McDonald’s franchises; Islamic traditionalists don’t like these things, but they can insulate themselves. The big problem, as Osama bin Laden has said (but nobody in the West seems to- have listened), is threefold: 1. They don’t want foreign troops in their countries. 2. They don’t want foreign interference in their politics, especially the installation and maintenance of puppet regimes. 3. They don’t like America’s one-sided support of the state of Israel, which is viewed as a violent and illegal occupier of Palestine.
These actually are reasonable complaints. The U.S. has bases in well over 100 countries, is constantly meddling and fomenting “regime change,” and for years has been propping up repressive quisling dictators everywhere – the Shah, Saddam, Mubarak, the Saudi royals, the Kuwaiti royals, Musharraf, Suharto, a bunch of new penny-ante thugs in Central Asia, etc. That is how the current conflict between the U.S. and Islam began and what it’s all about.
The conflict escalated with the U.S. invasions of Afghani- stan and Iraq. But now the situation seems about to get totally out of control. If the U.s. or Israel (it doesn’t matter which) bombs Iran, the pot is likely to boil over.
It seems to me we’re facing the most serious crisis since the Cuban missile showdown 42 years ago. The Iranians believe they have a right to their own nuclear program and their own nuclear weapons – like Pakistan, India, China, Israel, and North Korea. They certainly can argue that nukes have kept Israel from being invaded by its neighbors and protected North Korea from being invaded by the U.S.
Israel and the United States say it’s unacceptable for the Iranians to have nuclear capability and have threatened to bomb, their facilities – which apparently they’ll have to do in the next few months or risk spreading radioactive material everywhere. Indications are that this can’t be a simple strike, such as the one the Israelis made on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. Further, the Iranians have said they won’t take it lying down.
What to expect? Forget about oil coming out of the Persian Gulf. Expect a massive escalation in Iraq, perhaps including an Iranian counter-invasion to liberate the country from the Crusaders, and serious anti-American violence all over the world. Perhaps these events would trigger the long-overdue overthrow of the Saudi rulers.
It’s a trainwreck of historic proportions in the making.
What To Do?
One of the interesting aspects of a war is that, with few exceptions, “the other guy” is always the one responsible for the conflict. I’m sorry to say that, in the War Against Islam, the finger points at us. It didn’t start with 9/11. We have to look back a lot further. And even after 9/11, attacking Iraq was like bombing Peking because the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Rather than Iraq, a bigger danger is Pakistan, which still will have nukes after the fundamentalists overthrow Musharraf – but that’s another story.
Idioticall}’, the U.S. is committed to expanding its War on Terror, even though 1 / terrorism” is just a concept, a tactic – like cavalry charges, frontal assaults, or artillery barrages. It’s a tactic used by people who feel threatened but are conventionally (militarily) powerless. There is no defense against terror tactics but to remove the reasons people want to use them.
For amusement, let’s look at what Bush should do. My suggestions are fourfold, in answer to Islam’s threefold complaint.
1. Withdraw U.S. soldiers from foreign bases everywhere. Not only will the natives like and respect it, withdrawal will go a long way toward staving off U.S. bankruptcy.
2. Stop meddling directly or indirectly in other countries. As a bonus, that will allow the abolition of incredibly costly and dangerous agencies like the NSA and CIA.
3. Treat Israel like any other of the 200-plus countries in the world. And discontinue all foreign aid to everyone.
4. Apologize, sincerely, for having interfered in the past, and promise we won’t do it again. (Bush isn’t very good at apologies, but it’s something he could do and gain respect
Although philosophically I’m of the “pave the ‘planet” school, since I believe mankind’s ultimate destiny is in the stars, I’m naturally suspicious of megaprojects built by economically illiterate socialist governments.
for doing.) Welcome the friendship of all people – Muslims – and try to be like the America everyone used to love.
I believe that would end the War on Terror, avoid the impending War on Islam, and allow us once again to wear shoes in any airport. Will it happen? Fuhgedaboudit.