Uneasy knowledge: Egypt’s potential collapse

Palacký University, Philosophy Faculty courtyard (photo: Wikipedia/Darwinek)

Palacký University, Philosophy Faculty courtyard (photo: Wikipedia/Darwinek)

The African Studies Centre in Leiden is part of both AEGIS, the European Association of African Studies, and EADI, the European Association of Development Studies and Training Institutes. Every year, EADI organises a directors’ meeting and this time it was in Olomouc in the Moravian part of the Czech Republic. Its Palacký University is one of the oldest centres of higher learning in  Europe. It was established in 1573, two years before Leiden University! And currently it has 24,000 students. The hosts were the Department of Development Studies and they did a wonderful job. They also invited us to attend a conference about ‘Searching for Sustainable Living’. They invited the Energy and Climate Advisor of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, Juraj Mesík, and he presented what could be called ‘uneasy knowledge’. There is much more to say about the directors’ meeting and about the conference, but let me focus on what Juraj had to say.

Juraj shared his worries about Egypt. Many of us have been following events in this African/Arab country on Europe’s doorstep  since its ‘Arab Spring’, and many observers fear that it is on the brink of a political disaster. But perhaps we are missing the point by focusing on the political side of things. As a political environmental geographer I am trained to look at current (political and social) developments through the lens of population growth, changes in resource use, environmental and climatological dynamics and longue durée changes. What Juraj showed us was really threatening. Let me summarise his argument and show you some of his illustrations.

Egypt population 2014: 86,9 million. Data: U.S. census bureau IDB. Graphic: Mazamascience.com

Egypt population 2014: 86,9 million. 33% growth since 2000. Data: U.S. Census Bureau IDB. Graphic: Mazamascience.com

During Pharaonic times, Egypt had about 3 million inhabitants, already organised as a society based on irrigated agriculture using a very small part of the country’s vast area: the Nile and its Delta. Even then, ups and downs were related to the institutional organisation of its grain production. In 1897, the population census showed that the Egyptian population had grown threefold – to almost ten million – and many observers warned of the risks of a very delicate people-resources balance. However, since then, Egypt’s population has increased to 87 million, with one of the highest birth rates on earth. Predictions show that Egypt may reach 150 million inhabitants by the year 2050.

Egypt aerial photo

Egypt’s Nile, aerial photo (geophysics.ou.edu)

Egypt’s arable land is only 2.9% of its total surface and per Egyptian there is just 0.036 hectare available for cultivation. No wonder Egypt needs to import most of its food. However, the Nile waters are increasingly being claimed by upstream countries and climate change analysts predict that major providers of Egyptian imports (primarily the US) will be hit by major droughts and severe heat conditions in the not too distant future. How does Egypt pay for its essential food imports? Basically, there are four ways: by selling oil, by selling its beaches and pyramids to tourists, by exporting its manpower and getting remittances in return, and by getting ‘assistance’, not least from Saudi Arabia. All four are under severe threat.

Egypt oil: 2014 imports increased by 132%. Data: BP Statistical review 2015. Graphic: Mazamascience.com

Egypt oil: 2014 imports increased by 132%. Data: BP Statistical review 2015. Graphic: Mazamascience.com

In 2010 Egypt became a net importer of oil. At the same time, its tourist industry was hit by images of terror and tourist income dwindled. The  Libyan economy collapsed, this was followed by Syria, and a lot of Egyptian manpower returned home and remittances dwindled. Finally, the low oil prices and dangerous situation around Saudi Arabia make it unlikely that Saudi Arabia will continue supporting Egypt at the same level. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is preparing for a confrontation with the Shia arch-enemy, which, in political-geographical terms, is increasingly surrounding the kingdom. Consequently, Saudi Arabia needs its remaining oil funds to bolster its own military strength. So how can Egypt maintain its food sources? It can’t.

Juraj posed a number of pertinent questions: Would Egypt’s (or the wider Arab world’s) collapse trigger events with devastating global repercussions? The near-collapse of Syria, a relatively small state, is already shaking the EU and its ability to survive as a political entity. Imagine the migration wave that would be the result of a famine in 90-million-strong Egypt or that could affect the 360 million inhabitants of the Arab world as a whole? Imagine the global oil shock caused by (civil) war in Saudi Arabia/the Gulf countries? Imagine an all-out religious war between well-armed and hungry Sunni and Shiite Muslims –  and with nuclear power Israel involved? …

Food provision is a foundation of security. When I talk to our military experts, I hear them make the crucial link between food and security. And they are worried about Egypt. Worried about the Middle East. Worried about Africa. Africa, where the population is predicted to rise to 2.2-2.4 billion in 2050 and 3.9-4.4 billion in 2100. Africa has become a net food importer, and this situation will only get worse. Currently, world food prices are at a low. What if they reach the 2008 levels again, or even higher?

Thank you, Juraj, for telling a story I don’t want to hear. But I had better listen. We should all listen! Maybe, as you concluded, the die has not yet been cast – “Alea iacta est”, but we are getting closer.




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