'You Can't Eat Sharia'

Egypt is on the brink -- not of something better than the old Mubarak dictatorship, but of something even worse.

Two years after the revolution that toppled a dictator, Egypt is already a failed state. According to the Failed States Index, in the year before the uprising we ranked No. 45. After Hosni Mubarak fell, we worsened to 31st. I haven't checked recently -- I don't want to get more depressed. But the evidence is all around us.

Today you see an erosion of state authority in Egypt. The state is supposed to provide security and justice; that's the most basic form of statehood. But law and order is disintegrating. In 2012, murders were up 130 percent, robberies 350 percent, and kidnappings 145 percent, according to the Interior Ministry. You see people being lynched in public, while others take pictures of the scene. Mind you, this is the 21st century -- not the French Revolution!

The feeling right now is that there is no state authority to enforce law and order, and therefore everybody thinks that everything is permissible. And that, of course, creates a lot of fear and anxiety.

You can't expect Egypt to have a normal economic life under such circumstances. People are very worried. People who have money are not investing -- neither Egyptians nor foreigners. In a situation where law and order is spotty and you don't see institutions performing their duties, when you don't know what will happen tomorrow, obviously you hold back. As a result, Egypt's foreign reserves have been depleted, the budget deficit will be 12 percent this year, and the pound is being devalued. Roughly a quarter of our youth wake up in the morning and have no jobs to go to. In every area, the economic fundamentals are not there.

Egypt could risk a default on its foreign debt over the next few months, and the government is desperately trying to get a credit line from here and there -- but that's not how to get the economy back to work. You need foreign investment, you need sound economic policies, you need functioning institutions, and you need skilled labor.

So far, however, the Egyptian government has only offered a patchwork vision and ad hoc economic policies, with no steady hand at the helm of the state. The government adopted some austerity measures in December to satisfy certain IMF requirements, only to repeal them by morning. Meanwhile, prices are soaring and the situation is becoming untenable, particularly for the nearly half of Egyptians who live on less than $2 a day.

The executive branch has no clue how to run Egypt. It's not a question of whether they are Muslim Brothers or liberals -- it's a question of people who have no vision or experience. They do not know how to diagnose the problem and then provide the solution. They are simply not qualified to govern.

We in the opposition have been urging President Mohamed Morsy and company for months that Egypt needs a government that is competent and impartial, at least through the upcoming parliamentary election. We need a broad-based committee to amend the Egyptian Constitution, which pretty much everyone agrees falls short of ensuring a proper balance of power and guaranteeing basic rights and freedoms. And we need a political partnership between the other established parties -- including those with an Islamic orientation -- and the Muslim Brotherhood, which represents probably less than 20 percent of the country. Unfortunately, these recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.

The Brothers are also losing badly because, despite all their great slogans, they haven't been able to deliver. People want to have food on the table, health care, education, all of that -- and the government has not been able to meet expectations. The Brotherhood doesn't have the qualified people, who hail mostly from liberal and leftist parties. You need to form a grand coalition, and you need to put your ideological differences aside and work together to focus on people's basic needs. You can't eat sharia.

We are paying the price of many years of repression and strongman rule. This was a comfort zone for people -- they didn't have to make independent decisions. Right now, after the uprising, everybody is free, but it's very uncomfortable. It's the existential dilemma between the yearning to be free and the old crutch of having somebody tell you what to do. Freedom is still new to people.

Most of our challenges are a byproduct of the old dictatorship. We still have an open wound and need to get a lot of the pus out. We need to clean that wound -- you cannot just place a Band-Aid on it. But that is what is happening -- relying on the same worn-out ideas. The uprising was not about changing people, but changing our mindset. What we see right now, however, is just a change of faces, with the same mode of thinking as in Mubarak's era -- only now with a religious icing on the cake.

How bad could it get? Different scenarios, of course, present themselves if law and order continues to deteriorate. People are now saying something that we never thought was possible before: that they want the Army to come back to stabilize the situation. Or we might have a revolt of the poor, which would be angry and ugly. There are worse things than state failure, and I'm afraid Egypt is teetering on the brink.

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images


Europe's Basket Case

Has Greece's dysfunction reached the point of permanent crisis?

This spring, a few hundred public school teachers gathered outside the Greek Parliament building in central Athens to do something Greeks have been doing for the last three years: protest austerity measures. They shouted chants against corrupt politicians, clueless eurozone leaders, and greedy bankers. Loudspeakers blared 40-year-old protest music from the resistance against the 1967-1974 military junta. Hand-painted banners declared, "Enough! The madness stops here!"

The demonstration was peaceful -- no Molotov cocktails, no tear gas -- but the crowd was also a fraction of its usual size. One reason was simply protest fatigue. But Katerina Papadimitrakopoulou, a no-nonsense French teacher in a flowing yellow sundress, suspected something more deflating. "Everyone thinks we're the problem," she told me. "They believe the narrative that civil servants don't work and still get paid, that we get our jobs through political favors, that we might as well be dispensable because we are part of some 'bloated' system."

She rubbed her temples as the protest music blared. "Everyone hates the state in Greece," she said, frowning. "And because we work for it, we're bad too."

The state-haters have a point: If there's a candidate for failed-state status in Western Europe, they say, Greece is it.

Of course, the Greek state was dysfunctional long before the debt crisis began more than three years ago, with bureaucracy and associated corruption touching everything from tax collection to urban planning to schools. But after Greece took two multibillion-dollar bailouts, that dysfunctional system had to reform and shrink at the same time -- and at a superhuman pace. The troika of lenders -- the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund -- demanded billions in budget cuts as well as reforms. To make the troika's deficit targets, a succession of governments hacked away at public-sector wages, pensions, and social services budgets.

The result? The unemployment rate is now 27 percent, a record; for Greek workers under age 25, it's more than 60 percent (that's right -- 60 percent is not a typo). Tens of thousands of businesses have closed. The number of suicides has doubled in three years. Nearly a quarter of Greeks say they can't afford food.

Unpaid bills, meanwhile, have stacked up for the Greek state. State hospitals have been especially hard hit; they have been short staffed and often have run out of lifesaving drugs. Late last year, when I visited the regional hospital in the northern city of Serres, the overworked doctors there -- most of whom were making about $2,000 a month -- hadn't received months of overtime pay and had run out of basic supplies including bandages, syringes, and surgical gloves. "Some days we don't even have toilet paper for the bathrooms," said Vangelis Papamichalis, a neurologist.

"There was this idea that the crisis would stop corruption and restore order, and eventually something reliable could be built out of the ruins," added his colleague, pediatrician Charalambos Veliotis. "Instead, I am paying for supplies out of my own pocket. I'm treating little kids whose parents have been out of work for a year and no longer have insurance. How long can this go on?"

How long, indeed? Last year, it seemed that Greece was headed for sure democratic meltdown. Many declared the country a failed state, citing not only the very visible pain of austerity on Greeks but violent anti-austerity protests and a political system at an utter impasse. And it's true: Greece is certainly the worst performer in Western Europe on this year's Failed States Index, rising nine spots since 2007 -- to 138th. Of course, this is not terrible relative to the world's true basket cases, the Somalias and Sudans and even the Colombias, but it's certainly not promising for a developed European country that former Prime Minister George Papandreou vowed not so long ago to turn into the "Sweden of the Mediterranean." In 2012, the level of dysfunction -- political and economic -- only accelerated into something approximating a permanent crisis.

Consider that it took two messy elections, the demonization of leftist politician Alexis Tsipras as a euro-murdering crazy, and lots of "Grexit" panic before Greece even got a new crisis government, a coalition led by the conservative New Democracy party. The new prime minister, Antonis Samaras, a Harvard-educated economist from an old-money family, had spent the previous two years declaring himself an anti-bailout crusader before winning the post on the promise to support its terms and keep Greece in the eurozone.

Brussels may have been relieved, but many Greeks remain horrified at what the elections dredged up. In a page out of the Weimar narrative, voters gave unprecedented support to Golden Dawn, a neofascist party known for its Nazi symbolism, violent racism, and labeling of all politicians (other than themselves) as traitors who break laws instead of enforcing them. The party has 18 seats in Parliament and ranks third in public opinion polls.

The Samaras-led coalition government has now been running Greece for a year. That's a lot longer than many Greece watchers expected, and the government is eager to show Greeks that it's enforcing laws, claiming the crime rate is dropping, tax evaders are being prosecuted, and undocumented migrants are being sent home. The government even threatened to arrest schoolteachers planning to strike during the week of university entrance exams. But many wealthy, well-connected Greeks still don't pay their fair share of taxes and continue to pass the burden onto the devastated middle class. Because of the public scapegoating of immigrants, especially poor, nonwhite ones, there has also been a dramatic rise in hate crimes. Human rights groups have strongly criticized the Greek police -- another institution Greeks don't trust -- for refusing to act on these crimes and for racist behavior themselves.

The Samaras government says it has created special hate-crimes units, but Samaras is more interested in showing Greeks that he is leading them out of the worst recession in half a century. We proved the skeptics wrong, he declared on a recent trip to China: "Most of them now witness not a 'Grexit' -- an exit from the eurozone -- but a 'Grecovery' -- a recovery of the Greek economy." Although there are signs of recovery-the Eurogroup approving bailout loans without dawdling, rating agencies inching up the country's credit standing, Greek bond yields dropping to below 9 percent for the first time in three years -- many Greeks see a very different picture on the ground. They see an economy that has shrunk for 19 straight quarters. More than a million Greeks -- about a tenth of the population -- are out of work, and about 800,000 of them have been jobless for more than a year. There are 400,000 families in which nobody earns an income, as well as 300,000 workers who haven't been paid for months. Unless these Greeks see some tangible improvement in their lives, "Grecovery" will just be another myth pushed by politicians they don't trust.

The unemployed often complain bitterly about those in the civil service, who, until recently, could never be fired. But for decades, many Greeks also coveted those jobs. In the years after the dictatorship's fall, when Greeks were desperate for economic stability, Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou expanded the public sector so that people from humble backgrounds could have a chance to nab a "job for life" and enter the middle class. The Greek Constitution even forbade the firing of civil servants. The idea was to prevent new governments from sacking public servants from opposition parties and replacing them with supporters. But the parties still promised jobs for votes during election campaigns, pitting patronage hires who often flouted the rules against hardworking civil servants who had gotten their jobs through merit. Now everyone in the public sector is suspected of being a sycophant, especially by those who have lost their jobs.

The narrative has worn out Katerina Papadimitrakopoulou, the schoolteacher I met at the demonstration. The troika has asked for 4,000 civil service layoffs by year's end. The goal is to cut a total of 150,000 jobs by the end of 2015. The government has vowed to hire any new public servants on merit, not through the old patronage system.

"Well, we'll see about that," Papadimitrakopoulou said, sighing. "Can the same politicians who messed up the state now save it?"

Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images