Egypt's Bad News May Get Worse

May 7, 2013 Topic: Economics Region: Egypt Blog Brand: The Buzz

Egypt's Bad News May Get Worse

An absurd accidental assassination attempt highlights Egypt's deepening problems.


Even the most secure countries occasionally suffer deliberate attempts on the lives of their leaders. Yet only an absurdly insecure country would see its leader attacked with deadly force by accident. This is what happened in Egypt on Sunday, when a gang of young men in a pickup truck—apparently on their way to a fight—drove into the midst of Prime Minister Hisham Qandil’s motorcade. Qandil’s bodyguards fired warning shots to keep the truck away, prompting one of the men to return fire. Luckily for Qandil, the two volleys of birdshot didn’t hit him (though a bystander may not have been so fortunate). Yet the incident was a distillation of Egypt’s deepening troubles, troubles that eventually may overwhelm it.

Egypt has become an increasingly violent place. Tahrir Square, catapulted into the spotlight as the focal point of the 2011 revolution, has become an open sore, unsafe to visit at night, home to “criminals, former prison inmates freed during 2011 prison breaks, and drug dealers,” and occasional fits of random destruction. Women who venture into the area are sometimes sexually assaulted by mobs; when the police deign to help the victims, they have been known to urge them not to file a report.


Police indifference, in fact, is a key component of Egypt’s problem. Footage from a deadly April attack on a funeral service at a Coptic cathedral appears to show officers doing nothing to interfere with a man firing a pistol at the church; they did manage, however, to arrest four of the mourners. Though the police don’t bother to deliver safety, abuses—sometimes deadly—are widely reported. Reforms are unlikely. President Morsi reportedly fears that police strikes—already a major concern—will spread further if he takes serious action; the police, in turn, fear Morsi aims to bring them under Muslim Brotherhood control.

East of Egypt’s Nile core, the situation is still worse. The Suez Canal area continues to suffer aftershocks from a deadly 2012 soccer riot, and has been an epicenter of police resistance. In the Sinai, antigovernment violence continues to resemble a low-level insurgency and has seriously hindered Egypt’s exports of natural gas, while Salafist terrorists from the Gaza Strip used the area to fire rockets into Israel.

Yet as bad as the security situation has become, disturbing economic trends suggest things could go further downhill. Egypt’s foreign-currency reserves are dwindling and inflation rates are uncomfortably high. Foreign investment is hard to come by, idling Egyptian factories. There are fuel shortages. Children are already going hungry, and there are fears that Egypt’s massive demand for wheat might not be met—the government bet on increased production, but the economic problems are harming agriculture, too. And in spite of all this, Egypt continues to dawdle on taking a big IMF loan that could at least kick the crisis down the road.

In the long run, it’s no prettier. Climate change will be particularly unkind to Egypt, and farmers in some areas are already facing saltwater intrusion from the Mediterranean. Growing demand for water in countries higher up the Nile could combine with decreased rainfall and increased evaporation to reduce the flow of Egypt’s essential river. Birth rates—a key indicator in an overcrowded, underemployed and import-dependent country—have spiked to highs not seen in more than twenty years. Egypt may become a place where an ever-growing public struggles for a piece of a smaller and more expensive pie.

This may be pessimistic. Egyptian officials think they can significantly boost agricultural yields with improved techniques and reduced waste. Reforming the bloated subsidy system so that it helps the poor more than the rich would yield significant savings while reducing the distortions in Egypt’s economy. Getting the police back on the streets might restore some stability and create a better investment climate. So would more predictable politics rooted in a strong constitution. Yet many of these would be tough to realize—and tougher still given the Egyptian state’s current problems. In the worst-case scenario, Egypt continues its slide. The economy shrinks, the population booms, insecurity and intolerance become constants. And with sub-Saharan Africa booming, Egypt could become the new land of international pity.