Published: June 15, 2013
MARSA ALAM, Egypt — ON Tuesday, I visited a bakery in Cairo’s dirt-poor Imbaba neighborhood, where I watched a scrum of men, women and children jostling to get bread. You have to get there early, because the baker makes only so many subsidized pita loaves; he sells the rest of his government-subsidized flour on the black market to private bakers who charge five times the official price. He has no choice, he says, because his fuel costs are spiking. You can watch the subsidized-flour bags being carried on shoulders out the side door. “This is the hardest job in Egypt,” the bakery owner told me. Everyone is always mad at him, especially those who line up early and still leave with no bread.
Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times
Josh Haner/The New York Times
These are difficult days in Egypt. It is running out of hard currency and can’t buy enough gasoline and diesel for power stations. Long lines are forming at gas stations, worsening Cairo’s titanic traffic jams, and electricity cuts are commonplace. Around the corner from the bakery, on an unpaved street, a small knot of men have two manhole covers lifted, exposing a sickening black sludge that has backed up almost to street level; they’re fishing down the hole for the blockage with a long, thin rod. There is much arguing about how best to solve this problem. In the background, through an open window, you hear children in a Koranic school cheerfully repeating verses for their teacher.
This is Egypt in miniature — so many problems built up over so many years that are all about to spill onto the street. No one can agree on what to do about them — and the only tool they have looks like a 30-foot-long, jury-rigged, straightened coat hanger.
As if things weren’t bad enough, who should show up to add to Egypt’s stresses but Mother Nature herself. Climate, water, food and population pressures are now interweaving with the political and economic ones in ways that would challenge even the best of leaders, and Egypt today has far from the best. In the last month, Cairo has seen temperatures as high as 113 degrees Fahrenheit, 20 degrees above the daily average high.
And the headline news in Cairo last week was Ethiopia’s construction of the biggest hydroelectric dam in Africa, on the Blue Nile. As the reservoir behind the dam is filled up, the water supply to Egypt is likely to be reduced, and since Egypt’s 85 million people get 97 percent of their fresh water from the Nile, this has become a huge issue. Some senior Egyptian officials speak of possible military action to prevent the dam from being completed. President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, on Monday declared publicly of Ethiopia: “We are not calling for war, but we will never permit our water security ... to be threatened.” Egypt, he said, will keep “all options open.” Ethiopia has responded with defiance, with its prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, saying “nothing and no one” would stop construction.
Invading Ethiopia may be Morsi’s only open option. His government has been a huge disappointment for many Egyptians. Many non-Islamists voted for Morsi — it was the only way he got elected — because they felt they could not vote for the candidate favored by supporters of the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, and because they believed his promise to be “inclusive.” These pro-Morsi non-Islamists are known here as “lemon squeezers,” from an Egyptian expression — when you are forced to do or eat something unpleasant you say: “I squeezed lemon all over it first.”
When you talk to these lemon squeezers today — the liberals, conservatives and nationalists who make up the opposition — you can feel a palpable hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood and a powerful sense of theft: a widespread feeling that the Brotherhood tricked the lemon squeezers and the poor into voting for its members and now they have failed to either fix the country or share power, but are busy trying to impose religious norms. This opposition has mounted a nationwide petition drive that has garnered 10 million signatures so far calling on Morsi to resign and to call new elections. On June 30, their campaign is set to culminate in a nationwide anti-Morsi protest. Morsi still enjoys support in the more traditional countryside, so this could get very ugly.
WHAT to do with such a mess?
In trying to answer that question I did something different on this trip. I did not talk to any politicians, but focused instead on Egypt’s impressive but small group of environmental activists, many of whom were also involved in the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. I focused on them because I believe that while they may not know what is sufficient to fix Egypt (who does?) they do know what is necessary:
Egypt needs a revolution.
Wait, isn’t that what happened two years ago? Not really. It is now clear that what happened two years ago was more musical chairs than revolution. First the army, using the energy of the youth-led protesters in Tahrir Square, ousted Mubarak, and then the Muslim Brotherhood ousted the army, and now the opposition is trying to oust the Brotherhood. Each, though, is operating on the old majoritarian politics — winners take all, losers get nothing.
But the truth is that any faction here — the youth, the army, the Muslim Brotherhood — that thinks it can rule Egypt alone and make the others disappear is fooling itself. (Ditto in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.) Because Egypt is in such a deep hole, and the reforms needed so painful, they can be accomplished only if everyone shares in the responsibility and ownership of the transition through a national unity coalition. In that sense Egyptians today desperately need a “peace process” — not with Israel, but with one another.
Everyone has to take responsibility for the commons, rather than just grabbing their own. That is the real cultural revolution that has to happen for Egypt to revive. And that’s where the environmentalists here have such an advantage over the politicians, because all they think about is the commons — resources that have to be shared. Egypt’s commons — its bridges, roads, parks, coral reefs — are crumbling.
I’m here looking at how environmental stresses contributed to the Arab Awakening, as part of a documentary for Showtime: “Years of Living Dangerously.” This week we traveled to Marsa Alam, on the Red Sea, with Ahmed el-Droubi, a campaigner forGreenpeace in Egypt, and Amr Ali, the head of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association, or Hepca, a Red Sea conservation group, to look at how overbuilding, overfishing and rising water temperatures have led to the bleaching of some of the Red Sea’s spectacular coral reefs. As we set out for a dive to look at these reefs, Droubi tried to explain Egypt’s central problem to me by using the example of Cairo’s jammed traffic, among the worst in the world.
“The other day,” Droubi said, “I was standing on a main intersection in downtown Cairo, where two one-way roads meet. As I stood there, I saw cars going both ways down both one-way streets — cars were coming and going in four different directions — and other cars were double-parked. I was standing next to a shop owner watching this. ‘This is a complete mess,’ he said. ‘No one has any civic responsibility. They each only care about themselves getting to where they are going.’ ”
A few minutes later, Droubi continued, a car that was parked right in front of the man’s shop drove away and a new car tried to slip in. “This same owner came out with a chair, put it in the parking space and told the new driver not to block his store but to double-park and block part of the street instead!” Droubi told me. “So, the shop owner saw the problem. He knew the reasons for the problem. He knew the solution, but he wouldn’t do his part because he thought others would not do theirs. The net result was that the traffic was worse for everyone. We have to break this cycle — to show people if they act in the common good they will each benefit more.”
What happened on Cairo’s roads happened along the Red Sea coast. Each hotel owner looked out for himself, while a corrupt government looked the other way. Some hotel owners, to expand their land or gain some beach, simply put landfill over the coral reefs on their shores. Marine activities were unregulated, stressing dolphins in their own resting areas, where they try to sleep safe from the sharks. Fishermen overfished — especially for sharks, which they sold for meat and for fins — and they used dynamite and mesh nets that killed the multicolored reef fish, along with the grouper they were trying to catch. As a result, the whole reef ecosystem became less resilient to global warming.
“In 1997, one of the hottest years on record, coral bleaching became a problem around the world,” but not in the Red Sea, Ali told me. Coral bleaching means that the photosynthetic algae that give the coral its rainbow of colors and nutrition are evicted by the coral after it is stressed beyond certain natural limits and it all turns bone white. But in 2012, when water temperatures in the Red Sea rose by about two degrees Celsius above their average, said Ali, the coral died “all over the place,” especially in the most tourist-filled and fished areas. Healthy coral are critical for fish spawning.
Hepca was formed by the diving community in 1992 to protect the reefs. “These coral reefs are the rain forests of the marine environment,” Droubi explained. “There are 800 species of coral here and 1,200 species of fish.” It all, though, requires a healthy ecosystem, starting with the apex predator — the sharks. If too many sharks are killed, too many of the midlevel predators survive and they then eat too many of the smaller plant-eating fish that keep coral healthy by eating the algae off substrates to clear space for coral to colonize. A reef rich in herbivores will be more resilient.
But for a long time the local government and fishermen were not interested and certainly could not grasp global warming’s impact on the region. So Hepca helped them understand the problem by putting it in their vernacular. They estimated that every shark in the Red Sea was worth about $150,000 a year in business from tourists (who fly in to see or swim with the sharks) and lived for 30 years, while a shark killed for meat and fins for soup brought in about $150 one time. So if everyone worked together, if the government passed new zoning laws where people could fish, and dive-tour operators respected them and Hepca was empowered to enforce the regulation with its own speedboats — the Egyptian coast guard has no boats — everyone would be better off. It sounds simple, but it was a revolution here.
“The national government was not really interested in helping,” Droubi said, “but the local government and fishermen realized they were losing, so everybody came together for a local solution,” which was creating protected zones. “Everybody realized that they were stakeholders,” he added — the environmentalists because of their priorities, the local government, which wanted the tax base from tourism and fishing, and the tourism and fishing industries because this was their livelihood. “We made everyone aware of how their interests intersected if they worked together. It was all about revolting against an old paradigm and creating a new one.” So far the results seem promising.
I HAVE no illusions, and neither do Droubi and Ali, about how hard it would be to bring this kind of “shared commons” thinking to the national level here, but the absence of it is what ails almost every one of these Arab Awakenings today, where one group or another thinks it can have it all and too few people are thinking about the common good and how it has the potential make them all better off. Syria is the most extreme version of this disease, but Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen are all struggling with the same issue.
What is different about Egypt, though, is that it is bursting with talented young people who understand that Egypt needs an inclusive, long-term, sustainable plan for national renewal. And what they also understand is that those who say that the Arabs have tried everything — Nasserism, socialism, Communism, Baathism, liberalism and Islamism — but that nothing has worked, are wrong. There is one ism they haven’t tried: environmentalism. The only way Egypt and the other Awakening states will have sustainable democracies with sustainable economies is to elevate an environmental ethic to the center of political thinking. Without that, it’s all just musical chairs.