Dispatch

The General Rises

Egypt’s new Field Marshal-in-chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, looks ready to seize the presidency. But is it more than he can handle?

CAIROThe choreographed dance of Egypt's military-orchestrated politics inched closer to its climax on Monday, Jan. 27, as the country's popular army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, moved a step closer to announcing his candidacy for president.

On the official level, Sisi's grasp over Egyptian politics seems stronger than ever. Interim President Adly Mansour promoted the general to field marshal on Monday, a symbolic gesture that could foreshadow his resignation from the army. Meanwhile, Sisi and his fellow officers met in the afternoon, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) subsequently issued a televised statement that praised him for "responding to the call of duty."

"The council looks with reverence and respect at the desire of the masses of the honorable Egyptian people for the candidacy of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the presidency, which it considers a mandate and an obligation," the council said.

The statement stopped short of formally announcing Sisi's resignation from the military, or his candidacy. But it was hard to interpret the language as anything else, coming as it did just two days after tens of thousands of Egyptians descended on Tahrir Square to mark the third anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution that overthrew long-time President Hosni Mubarak -- and declare their support for another military man turned national leader.

"We gave him a mandate with the constitution, and we believe he will save the country from the Brotherhood," said Hoda Badry, a housewife, referring to the charter drafted by the army-backed interim government that was approved by more than 98 percent of voters earlier this month.

But away from the official politics and the spectacle of mass demonstrations, Egypt is more divided than ever. Outside of Tahrir, the celebrations to mark the Jan. 25 anniversary were a bloody affair: The Health Ministry said 49 people were killed, and local rights groups put the death toll higher. Most of the violence was directed at supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, but security forces also cracked down on liberal activists opposed to both the Muslim Brotherhood and the army.

If Sisi takes the presidency, he will have his work cut out for him. The newly-minted field marshal will not only have to face deep opposition from Morsi supporters and a growing terrorist threat, he will also inherit a state plagued by much deeper social and economic problems than anything his predecessor faced decades ago.

"Say what you will about [former President Gamal Abdel] Nasser, but he at least appealed to people's higher instincts, their hope for a better future, for social justice," said Khaled Fahmy, a prominent Egyptian historian. "Sisi is addressing some of the basest instincts not only of Egyptians, but in any people: fear."

Egyptian terrorist organizations, which seem to grow more technologically proficient by the month, seem poised to keep fear as a powerful force in Egyptian political life. A series of four bombs went off across the Egyptian capital on Friday, the day before the anniversary, killing four people and injuring dozens more.

The largest and most spectacular was a car bomb outside the Cairo security directorate that left a deep crater in the street and shattered windows in shops hundreds of feet away. Crowds gathered at the bomb site shortly afterward, calling for the execution of Brotherhood officials.

All four attacks were claimed by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based group that has waged an escalating insurgency against the state over the past several months. And its capabilities are expanding: The group struck again on Jan. 25, shooting down a military helicopter over the Sinai Peninsula with a surface-to-air missile, killing five soldiers.

For a populace already traumatized by three years of post-revolutionary turmoil, the unrelenting violence has given the military-backed government a powerful appeal. But if Sisi can't bring the terrorist attacks under control, he could lose a core pillar of his appeal.

The desire for stability "is why people are giving the government such a free hand," said H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. "But if there's no payoff, people are going to wonder what's going on, and begin to lose patience."

So far, there has been no payoff. Mansour on Sunday promised to assign more courts to prosecute terrorism cases -- but five journalists from Al Jazeera languish in jail, and last week the state security agency detained an American translator and his roommate, an Egyptian filmmaker, accusing them of "threatening national stability." Egyptian prosecutors, meanwhile, seem to be focusing on everybody but actual terrorists, opening investigations in recent weeks into Pepsi and Vodafone, both of them charged with inciting violence through their advertisements.

Some Egyptians, meanwhile, are looking for top officials to be held accountable for the persistence of these terrorist attacks.

"Why hasn't [Interior Minister] Mohamed Ibrahim been fired? Enough," one man shouted at the site of Friday's bombing.

Adding to the instability is the Brotherhood, which is pursuing a seemingly suicidal strategy of near-daily protests despite mounting casualties and arrests. More than 40 of Saturday's dead were from just two Cairo neighborhoods, Matariya and Alf Maskan, where hundreds of Morsi's supporters launched protests.

The Brotherhood-led "Anti-Coup Alliance," an umbrella group of organizations opposed to the new military-backed government, has also hinted that it was losing control over its rank-and-file. "The alliance sees that there is rising anger among the rebellious masses after the crimes of the coup's militias," the group said in a statement on Saturday night. "They [the anti-government masses] look forward to retaliation."

"[The Brotherhood] seems to have made the calculation that if state collapse happens in response or reaction to their strategy, it's OK," Hellyer said. "That strategy, though, is entirely counterproductive, because it's not like if the state collapses people are going to come out from under their rocks and welcome the Brotherhood back."

Even if a President Sisi does manage to get a grip on the security situation, he will have to contend with a stagnant economy that seems increasingly unable to meet citizens' demand for a better life. The economy grew an anemic 2 percent last year, according to the World Bank -- hardly enough to keep up with a country adding 2.6 million people per year. Inflation and unemployment have both climbed to their highest levels in years.

Egypt's economy has limped along since Morsi's ouster thanks to an infusion of $12 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. Their aid probably comes with an expiration date, though, and Sisi has few other options to jump-start an ailing economy.

Even at Saturday's pro-Sisi rally in Tahrir, there were complaints about the economic situation along the fringes of the demonstration. One man, a tourism worker, grumbled about the protests that have crippled his industry. Another, sitting by his parked cab, shooed off a vendor hawking Egyptian flags: "An Egyptian flag? What do I need an Egyptian flag for? I can't eat it. We need bread, we need money."

AHMED TARANA/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Climate of Corruption

How a $50 million graft scandal is pushing Malawi even closer to environmental catastrophe.

MANGOCHI, Malawi — The soil at the base of the Namwera Hills is an almost impossible shade of red. Studded with row after crooked row of stunted maize seedlings, the baked farmland of central Malawi stretches out for miles, broken only by palm groves and the occasional cluster of mango trees. In mid-December, more than a month into the usual rainy season, there is scarcely a cloud in the sky.

"For the last six years, the rains have come late," explained Samson Mussa, a subsistence farmer who has tended a 1.5 hectare plot here for the last 25 years. "Last year, there was a severe drought. I have nothing for food now, so I am working as a day laborer," he said through an interpreter.

Over the last half-century, the average temperature in this landlocked country of 16 million has risen by nearly a full degree Celsius -- considerably outpacing the global average. At the same time, weather patterns have become more erratic, making rain-fed subsistence farming an increasingly risky enterprise, despite the fact that 85 percent of Malawians depend on it for survival. The rainy season, now shorter and less predictable, is also more extreme, with heavy precipitation, hailstorms, and flash floods often damaging what little can be grown during the abbreviated growing season.

The result, in a country where economic fortunes literally ride on the southeast trade winds, has been tremendous volatility and the return of food insecurity on a mass scale. Considered an agricultural success story in the mid-2000s, when it became a net food exporter, Malawi now must ration maize sales as it braces for the possibility of widespread hunger. The government predicts that 1.4 million people will need emergency food relief before the harvest in April. In 2012, it needed $30 million from international donors to keep at-risk citizens from starving.

But shifting weather patterns are not the only forces beyond the majority of Malawians' control that are propelling the country toward crisis. There is also the powerful vortex of greed that has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars away from vital government programs and into the pockets of corrupt officials. Over the last decade, an estimated $550 million has disappeared from government coffers. Fifty million of that went missing under the watch of Joyce Banda, the onetime darling of the West, whose elevation to the presidency in 2012 was supposed to mark the end of all that. The kleptocratic machine, however, kept right on humming.

In a way, the latest scandal, known as "Cashgate," represents an intertwining of these two seemingly unrelated forces: corruption and climate change. International donors predictably recoiled. Britain, Norway, and the European Union, among others, are now withholding a total of $150 million in aid from the Malawian government, which relies on international largesse for 40 percent of its budget. Reduced funding will adversely affect service provision across the board -- impacting everything from health care to education -- but it's especially bad news for long-term climate change adaptation. According to researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, roughly one-third of international aid to Malawi "has the potential to reduce people's vulnerability and enhance their ability to adapt to climate change."

Despite the potential to offend donor sensibilities, Banda has so far moved aggressively to expose the rot. Since September, when the shooting of her budget director -- allegedly by the country's justice minister -- blew the scandal wide open, some 100 officials and businessmen have been arrested. In an interview with a small group of foreign journalists at the presidential palace on Dec. 13, Banda pledged to continue her crusade against corruption even as the scandal threatened to engulf her. "I was warned [against tackling graft] by my colleagues across the continent," she said, because corrupt officials "will fight you back -- they will drag you down and they will suck you into it. You might die there."

Cashgate could indeed kill Banda's prospects in this May's presidential contest, whether because she is overpowered by her corrupt opponents or because she is eventually implicated in the debacle. Regardless of the outcome of the election, the shadow of Malawi's most remarkable corruption scandal in recent memory will linger well into the future. The last time aid was canceled, when Banda's mercurial predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, ran afoul of international donors in 2010, the country tipped into an economic tailspin from which it has not yet fully recovered.

Not that Banda seems worried. Although less flippant than Mutharika, who infamously told donors to "go to hell," Banda has been surprisingly acerbic when it comes to Western anxiety over Cashgate. "They [donors] come and go and come and go, but we are here -- we did not die," she quipped to Britain's Telegraph in November. During the interview in December, she expressed similar frustration with Western aid agencies, implying that they often forget that "we can think and that we know what we want."

But if Banda isn't concerned about the impact of an aid shut-off, she is in the clear minority. "This is a curse that will haunt … people for a long time," said Charles Jumbe, an associate economics professor at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who co-authored a comprehensive assessment of Malawi's agricultural-sector policies aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change. "It will incapacitate the implementation of various government programs that benefit the rural masses."

Already, the Malawian government has curbed public procurement and limited disbursements to its ministries. Gladys Gandali, a spokesperson for the minister of environment and climate change management, confirmed that the ministry's outlays have been slashed. "Our monthly funding … has been reduced since what happened," she said, referring to Cashgate. "[It] has really affected the running of the ministry."

Two of the Malawian government's main partners in its National Climate Change Program, Norway and Britain, have suspended aid in the wake of the Cashgate scandal. The overarching goal of the program, run by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Management, is to formulate a framework to support government institutions as they develop long-term climate-resilience strategies. Right now, according to Jumbe, "the country has yet to develop a [an overarching] climate change policy and strategies to coordinate efforts to address climate change."

The challenge will only become more vexing with time. Rapid population growth -- the country has nearly twice as many inhabitants as it did 25 years ago -- and environmental degradation have conspired to make Malawi even more vulnerable to the vagaries of wind and weather. "Malawi is even more dependent on rainfall than when I left," said Alan Eastham, who served as U.S. ambassador to Malawi from 2005 to 2008. "And if it doesn't rain, they don't eat."

Malawi's outlook wasn't always so precarious. As recently as 2009, international newspapers were filled with headlines touting the country's "maize miracle" as a model for the rest of the African continent. "Malawi Shows Obama's Goal for African Self-Reliance Is Possible," boasted one particularly optimistic 2009 headline from Bloomberg News. After a disastrous harvest in 2005 that left 5 million people in need of emergency aid, Malawi did something that was tantamount to treason in free-market-obsessed international development circles: It started subsidizing fertilizer and drought-resistant seeds for roughly 1.6 million poor farmers. The Farm Input Subsidy Program was an overnight success, and by 2007 Malawi was exporting surplus maize to neighboring countries. In the program's first two years, maize output more than doubled and average annual GDP growth spiked from around 2 percent to 9 percent.

"Malawi had pointed the way to a new Green Revolution for Africa," Jeffrey Sachs, a development economist at Columbia University who lobbied Britain and the World Bank to fund the subsidy program, would later write in the New York Times. Western aid agencies did eventually come around -- roughly 10 percent of the program is now donor-funded -- but there were those who doubted the sustainability of such stellar results from the beginning. As Eastham, who arrived as ambassador during the early phase of the subsidy program's implementation, recalled, "After the fertilizer subsidy program was instituted, it rained and Bingu [wa Mutharika] said, 'Look: It worked.' But I would attribute it more to the rain than to the fertilizer and seed inputs."

An independent study commissioned by the United States and Britain found that there were "substantial direct benefits" from the subsidy program, but conceded that it had clearly "benefited from two good rainy seasons" in 2006 and 2007. Since then, a range of factors has contributed to the return of food insecurity. Many smallholders complain they no longer receive the seed and fertilizer vouchers to which they are entitled. Others say they must pay more than the discounted rate to corrupt Agriculture Ministry officials. The sharp devaluation of the Malawian kwacha over the last 18 months, meanwhile, has caused a spike in the price of household goods. More than anything, however, it has been the weather that has refused to cooperate.

"What good is fertilizer to me if it does not rain?" asked Chief Kwataine, one of Malawi's traditional authorities, as we toured one of the 211 villages he oversees in central Malawi, all of which depend on small-scale agriculture. "The program is very good, but the rains were not predictable."

There are other reasons to think that subsidies alone will not solve Malawi's food insecurity problem. For one thing, long-term fertilizer use degrades soil quality, unless it is paired with other practices, such as growing legumes, that restore organic matter. For another, a subsidy program on the scale of Malawi's -- which, in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, consumed 16 percent of the national budget -- necessarily drains resources away from other projects that could reduce the country's dependence on rain. One such project, the so-called Green Belt Initiative, which aims to irrigate 1 million additional hectares of farmland near lakes and rivers, has languished for years because of lack of funding.

But Malawi may be running out of time to adapt, even as the government remains fixated on Cashgate -- a mass trial of 69 people caught up in the mega-scandal is due to open next month -- and is unable to devote the necessary resources to planning for the future. The World Bank projects that in the next 30 years, rising temperatures could lead to substantial desertification in southern Africa. Across the continent, farmers could see half of their farmland disappear. Even with careful preparation, environmental shifts of this magnitude will place enormous strain on countries like Malawi. Without it, they foretell almost certain catastrophe.

"Ten, 15 years ago, it was very predictable when we would have the first rains. It was October and November. Now, we cannot predict," said Chief Kwataine. "People are coming to my house begging.… There is hunger looming around."

This reporting was made possible by the U.N. Foundation.

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