Argument

Sisi 2014!

Egypt’s top general is a shoo-in to win the race for president. Then the hard part begins.

Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hung up his military uniform today, launching a process that will inevitably end in his election as Egypt's next president. Following a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Sisi declared that he has retired from the army and would enter the political arena. "I humbly announce my intention to run for the presidency of the Arab Republic of Egypt," he said in colloquial Arabic in a speech aired on state television. "I consider myself -- as I have always been -- a soldier dedicated to serve the nation, in any position ordered by the people." 

For many observers, Sisi's rise to power represents a dangerous return to the status quo ante of Egyptian politics. Time and again over the last eight months, for example, the Washington Post's editorial page has hammered away at the army chief for the government's human rights abuses and denial of democratic freedoms. The generals, according to the folks on 15th St., are leading Egypt in reverse -- essentially re-establishing the old political order at the expense of the high ideals of the 2011 uprising.

It was just three years ago that Hosni Mubarak fell, but reams have already been written about Egypt's lost revolution. These analyses are accurate -- Egypt is not going to be a democracy any time soon. However, Cairo is also not the barren political environment that critics imagine, in which autocrats enforce their rule solely with tear gas and the truncheons. The country's trajectory is clearly authoritarian, but its politics are likely to be hotly contested, even under a President Sisi. 

To the casual observer, Sisi must seem like the only political force in Egypt. A cult of personality followed closely on the heels of the army chief's emergence last summer: The military-friendly media framed Sisi as "Egypt's savior," and stories quickly emerged of Egyptian brides with the field marshal's visage painted on their fingernails, Sisi chocolates, sandwiches, and pajamas, as well as the standard Middle Eastern strongman-poster-on-every-public-building phenomenon.

But Sisi-mania actually revealed the potential fragility of the army chief's political position. After all, if the field marshal was as broadly championed as the government would like everyone to believe, there would be no need for ostentatious professions of faith to him. Even recent popular votes don't necessarily suggest overwhelming support: Although it is true that 98 percent of voters gave their approval to a new constitution in the January referendum -- a vote widely seen as a proxy to test support for Sisi -- but only 38.6 percent of eligible voters actually went to the polls.

The very fact that the interim government has moved aggressively to suppress dissent suggests that Egyptian leaders are vulnerable to political challenges. This coercion has not been limited to the Muslim Brotherhood -- which, despite denials to the contrary, has employed language implicitly and explicitly encouraging violent resistance -- but is also being used against journalists, academics, and activists who have dared challenge the manufactured consent of the Defense Ministry and its allies. In other words, the Egyptian government is doing pretty much what it has always done: It is using intimidation and punishment to clear the field of those who refuse to toe the line. 

But what, exactly, are the most serious political challenges to Egypt's new rulers? The obvious sources are the Muslim Brothers and the faltering economy, which if not addressed could engender the same sort of demands for bread and jobs that weakened Mubarak. For the Brotherhood, the best political strategy is to marshal its resources from Doha, Istanbul, London, and Washington, while continuing its street protests to delegitimize the government. The prevailing theory that the field marshal's popularity will give him the political cushion he needs to make tough decisions about Egypt's future has it wrong: Rather, President Sisi is likely to immediately confront a ready-made opposition, reducing his margin for error.

The economy, however, is the biggest worry for Sisi, and an issue that opponents of the new political order will surely leverage to their advantage. The 2013 demonstrations against then-President Mohamed Morsi were closely related to the sharply deteriorating economy, and billions of dollars in Gulf largesse has done little to mitigate the grievances of regular Egyptians. Sisi will try mightily to avoid the pitfalls that helped bring down his predecessor, but while he may cut a dashing figure, there will still be a dearth of foreign direct investment, scarce tourists, rolling blackouts, high unemployment, and stunning rates of poverty. Egypt's new ruler may even have to cope with another bread shortage, as the Ukrainian crisis could result in a sharp spike in global wheat prices -- a commodity that Egypt imports more of than any other country. 

Figures close to the new regime, however, may prove far more dangerous to Sisi than the Muslim Brothers. Mubarak-era oligarchs are looking to make a comeback: Foreign Policy recently reported that the infamous Mubarak crony and billionaire Hussein Salem is negotiating a return to Egypt, as is former Minister of Industry and Trade Rachid Mohamed Rachid, both of whom have been living in exile since Mubarak's fall. Other business figures connected to the old regime who had decamped to the safety and comfort of Dubai, Beirut, and London are also believed to be quietly exploring the possibility that Sisi's rise has made Egypt hospitable for them once again.

There is no doubt about a confluence of interest between Sisi and the business community -- both want stability, and both believe that dismantling the Brotherhood is central to that aim. And Sisi can't just ignore these figures, as they could provide the money and investment that Egypt badly needs. But in turn, these Mubarak-era businessmen have demands of their own: They would like to go back to doing business the way they did in the mid-2000s, during the heyday of Egypt's era of neo-liberal reforms. 

Here is where it gets complicated. The military commanders, whom Sisi represents first and foremost, are statists who have walled off a large portion of the military's business interests from the rest of the economy. These generals have reaped the profits of a state-run economy: Military industries enjoy subsidized labor -- in the form of conscripts -- and raw materials, which allow them to undercut any challenges from the private sector.

The Egyptian military establishment therefore takes a dim view of anything that could threaten its economic prerogatives. That includes the economic policies of the late Mubarak period, which top military officers directly associate with crony capitalism, corruption, and widespread poverty -- forces that were and continue to be threats to social cohesion. 

Sisi, whose only comment on the economic situation has been to refer to it as "very difficult," is therefore not likely to allow Egypt's business barons the same kind of free rein that they enjoyed under Mubarak. Whatever accommodation between the generals and the private sector currently exists, it may very well be short-lived. No one dares openly challenge the field marshal today -- but what if six months after taking up residence at the Ittihadiya Palace, Sisi is unable to arrest Egypt's economic decline, or some exogenous shock produces a solvency crisis? 

No one expects Egypt's CEOs to take to Tahrir Square, but large numbers of Egyptians might -- and that would give big business an opening to press its own demands on Sisi. If some viable alternative to the field marshal were to emerge, the private sector could also shift or split its support. Members of the business community have not been shy about getting involved in politics: After the 2011 uprising, billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris bankrolled the Free Egyptians Party, while other elements of the Egyptian private sector seemed willing to accommodate themselves to Muslim Brotherhood rule during the early part of Morsi's rule, only to back away once the tide began to turn against him in November 2012.

Egypt's fractious "security establishment," however, may be the force that presents Sisi with his greatest political challenge. Journalists and pundits often use that term to refer collectively to the Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, and the General Intelligence Service (GIS) -- but just as there is no single worldview among the military's senior commanders, there is certainly no single "security establishment," given the competing missions and objectives of the big three. 

The world looks different for each of these organizations, and their leaders have regularly engaged in struggles for primacy. The military command tends to view the senior police generals of the Interior Ministry as knuckle-draggers whose job is beneath its own noble work of defending the country. Meanwhile, it is no secret that the Interior Ministry has been working hard for decades to supplant the armed forces as the pillar of the political order, while the GIS is interested in running intelligence operations on everyone.

These rivalries have long helped shape the course of Egyptian politics. When President Anwar Sadat needed to drum up support for his "Corrective Revolution," he promised police commanders that a policeman, not a military officer, would lead the Interior Ministry. More recently, Morsi retired Egypt's entire senior military command in one fell swoop in a bid to secure his authority over the military. To do so, he turned to a commander he believed he could trust -- Sisi himself. 

The late intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who served as vice president during the last throes of the Mubarak era, perhaps best exemplifies these political fissures. Despite the fact that he was a military officer, he was never the military's guy at the GIS. Suleiman had not served in uniform for some time, had a competitive relationship with then-Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and was regarded within army ranks as being tainted by the dirty business of politics. Thus Suleiman was not a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which ruled Egypt following Mubarak's fall -- a sign of the military's distrust of his influence. However, likely because he had files on every member of the junta, Suleiman did not end up behind bars with Mubarak, his sons, and the other leading figures of the era.

Sisi no doubt enjoys broad support across the Defense Ministry, within the police force, and in Egypt's intelligence organs. For them, the prospect of his rule promises the restoration of a more stable -- and Brotherhood-free -- political order. The insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula may also help to hold the soldiers, cops, and spooks together under Sisi's banner. 

However, if the conflict against Islamist terrorism grinds on inconclusively or the economy collapses, the latent rivalries between these different institutions could reemerge. Sisi must also be wary of the very dynamics that he helped set in motion: There have been two military coups in the last three years, and Morsi's ouster set a precedent for Egyptians to seek redress for their grievances outside the institutions of the state. While Sisi is a senior military commander, which might stay the hands of potential opponents within the security services, he could still fall victim to Mubarak and Morsi's fate.

Egypt has always been ideologically richer than it is portrayed. In some ways, politics in Sisi's Egypt will look familiar to those who have followed the news since Morsi's ouster, particularly as it concerns the confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the state. But it is the coming struggle among those within the ambit of the regime that is most interesting and most important.

After all, it was neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square who actually brought down Mubarak. And it was not the demonstrations last summer that brought the Morsi interregnum to an end. Rather, in both cases, it was the machinations of the men in uniform who brought political change to Egypt. When Sisi trades in his military fatigues for pin stripes, he will immediately be vulnerable to all the forces that befell his predecessors.

MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Big Trouble in Farmville

Melting glaciers and superstorms won't matter if the world can't feed itself. 

NGURDOTO, Tanzania — The snow-crest of Africa's highest peak Mount Kilimanjaro glints fleetingly above a wooded ridge before being concealed in morning clouds. The landscape is surprisingly lush: banana, avocado, and coffee trees are flourishing under the shade of towering acacias and orange-blossomed flame trees, remnants of the forest which has been cleared to make room for the region's growing population. My guide is Amani Peter, a thin-faced young farmer from Ngurdoto, a village perched on the slopes of Mount Meru near the northern Tanzanian city of Arusha. 

"My parent's generation used to plant by the calendar in early-March," Peter says gesturing toward the green blades of maize poking up hopefully between clods of dark volcanic soil on his shamba, or small family farm. "But this year, the rains began in February, nearly a month early, and nobody knows when they will end, or if they will be sufficient."

Subsistence farmers like Amani Peter depend on steady and predictable rainfall to produce their crops. Yet nowadays the twice-yearly seasonal rains rarely arrive on schedule in East Africa, and in some years they do not come at all or are frustratingly sporadic: Violent cloudbursts often leading to floods and destructive soil erosion alternate with long, withering dry spells. Spikes of high temperatures, until recently unknown in this mile-high mountain area, have also prematurely wilted the corn.

Even more ominously, Peter's family's well -- along with many others in the village -- has just gone dry.

Welcome to climate change's African front line. Food production all over the globe is in the crosshairs, but East Africa is the prime target. The impacts of climate change are already serious here, and expected to get a lot harsher in coming decades.

It is a story that has not been getting a lot of press in the West. While the public's attention has focused on some of climate change's more visibly dramatic impacts, like rising sea levels and the predicted increase in violent weather events, there has been relatively less discussion on the ways that it is poised to reshuffle the deck of global agriculture. In fact, the tectonic and often unpredictable changes in the environment threaten not only the food security of millions of people, they also pose risks to the economic development and political stability of East Africa, a region that has made significant progress in recent years, and other parts of the world.

The issue is expected to get top billing in the latest report by the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is slated to be released March 30 in Yokohama, Japan. The report, the second of three, synthesizes the work of hundreds of scientists worldwide and will examine the impacts of climate change on farming, the ecosystem, and the global economy. An advance copy of the report that was leaked to the press back in November warns that food security in much of the developing world will be directly affected by climate change. In it, researchers estimated that the price tag for climate change may run as high as 2 percent of global economic output -- a whopping $1.4 trillion annually. Grain yields are projected to decline by 2 percent per decade, while demand will increase by 14 percent. The leaked report also predicts that food prices will rise sharply, leading to more hunger and political instability, especially in Asia and Africa.

International organizations are calling for concerted action to prepare for the looming crisis. "The heat is on. Now we must act," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in September, after the IPCC announced its finding that global warming is unequivocally the result of human actions. In the meantime, however, the way many local people are responding to the stark changes to their environments is causing problems, too.  Nearly half of Tanzania's population of 48 million people depends on herding to survive, and after the 2009-10 drought that killed off 65 percent of the livestock in the country's central region, many people are now struggling to grow crops in agriculturally marginal areas that were, until recently, devoted almost exclusively to grazing. Scant and erratic rainfall and the herders' lack of knowledge about even basic agriculture, along with rising commodity prices from increased fuel and transportation costs, inflation, and high agricultural input prices, have threatened the food security of the Maasai -- semi-nomadic herders that live in Tanzania and Kenya --  who exist on the fringes of the money economy even during the best of times.

"Climate scientists don't yet have enough data to know with certainty what exactly is going to happen in the future with regional weather patterns," says Andrea Athanas, the Arusha-based program design manager for agriculture and energy at the African Wildlife Foundation. But the way that communities are adapting to recent changes, she says, is eroding the resilience of the ecosystem. 

Visiting a Maasai village provides a better sense of how people are coping with climate change including the tensions and trade-offs they must negotiate. On the way to Loiber Siret, a community of 5,700 people and over 30,000 head of livestock, we pass groups of zebras, wildebeests, and dark-splotched giraffes feeding alongside herds of domestic goat and cattle. We stop at a clearing in the thorn trees where community leaders have gathered. They're meeting to mark out a water management area to protect the flow of their local river which rises out of some springs to the south of here. Village chairman Raphael Matinda is attempting to broker a compromise between competing interests, and the discussion of where to set the boundaries of the catchment area is remarkably polite given the high stakes for the community. During a break in the discussions, I ask Matinda why they need to protect their watershed. "Back in 1975," he recalls, "you used to have to take your shoes off to cross the river. There was lots of water flowing year round."

But the area has dried out a lot since then, and there is no doubt in his mind the cause is climate change. "The impact has been huge," says Matinda. "Our stream all-but-vanishes during the dry season now. We've lost a lot of the habitat, the papyrus, the rich vegetation, and many of the big fig trees, which used to grow here. It is also getting a lot hotter. Droughts are longer. We used to plant and we'd get a good crop; nowadays it is hit or miss."

Limiting grazing and agriculture will help safeguard the watershed from destructive erosion and runoff. It may also gradually allow the aquifer to replenish and bring the dying stream back to life. But giving up precious pasture for their animals is a steep price for these herders to pay, and it is clear that some are uncomfortable with the idea, while other press for a strict ban on grazing in critical areas. 

Laly Lichtenfeld and her husband Charles Trout, who jointly direct the U.S.-funded African People and Wildlife Fund, have been organizing seminars for locals in Loiber Siret and beyond on how to adapt food production to the increasingly tough conditions on the ground.* Lichtenfeld believes that aggressive measures to protect the water supply are worth the risk. "Waterholes dry up more quickly now," she tells me. "Permanent water sources are being overgrazed. In some cases, we've had livestock brought all the way down from Kenya during dry years." 

Other questions locals must contend with are whether they can afford to continue the nomadic open-grazing policies that allowed Maasai from Kenya to share their pastures with one another in times of need, and whether farmers need to turn from maize to other grains like sorghum and millet, which are more tolerant of heat and drought.

Discussions like these, about adjusting or even abandoning longstanding practices, are happening all over the world, as rural people struggle to adapt to rapid changes in their local climate. Not all regions will be negatively impacted, to be sure. Global warming may actually prove a boon in some temperate areas, for instance, where food production is more limited by cold than by heat. The tropics, however, are another story. "You can't grow crops in a blast furnace," Bruce McCarl, a professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University told USA Today. And a blast furnace is precisely what many places in the Global South may become if current projections hold true.

In South Asia, as temperatures continue to warm, the Himalayan glaciers that feed the Indus and the Ganges -- vital irrigation rivers -- are melting rapidly. To make matters worse, over-pumping is also rapidly depleting groundwater from the region's aquifers, and monsoon patterns are likely to shift and become less dependable, putting millions of farmers at risk. And in Southeast Asia, as sea levels rise, groundwater in large areas of the Mekong Delta is becoming too saline to grow rice. Extreme rain events and flooding as well as withering heat spikes have already led to significant crop losses throughout the region.

Parts of Africa are staring down suddenly expanding deserts. The Center for American Progress reports that "[d]rought and desertification across much of the Sahel -- northern Nigeria, for example, is losing 1,350 square miles a year to desertification -- have undermined agricultural and pastoral livelihoods," as well as contributed to massive flows of migrants into urban areas.

The United States is seeing worrisome changes, too. The Southwest is entering what some scientists are predicting will be a permanent hotter and drier phase, which will increasingly deplete groundwater, limit agriculture, and perhaps eventually threaten the water supply in urban areas like Phoenix and Los Angeles. California's almonds, cherries, and apricots are not getting enough critical winter-chill time for the trees to properly flower and fruit. And parts of Texas that are becoming too dry to cultivate are reverting to rangeland for grazing cattle.

These climatic shifts come at an inopportune time, when agricultural experts are calling for a "second green revolution" to boost food production in order to eliminate hunger and prepare for future population growth. The United Nations estimates, conservatively, that there will be 9 billion humans on the planet by 2050 (there are currently 7 billion), with the fastest growth occurring in sub-Saharan Africa and less developed parts of Asia. While food production has been rising globally, the rates of increase have slowed to a crawl in recent years as the world runs out of new sources of arable land, fuel prices rise, access to fresh water and other natural resources grow more strained, and climate change puts a brake on agricultural growth.

Nobody can say for sure just how severely will farming be affected, because there is no way to know yet how much temperatures will rise; most estimates vary between 2 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, with vastly different consequences at the low end and high end of that scale. Yet a general "rule of thumb," Lester Brown, the founder of the influential eco-think tank the Worldwatch Institute, told the Harvard Crimson, "is that for each one-degree rise in Celsius temperature, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. So it makes it more difficult to expand production, particularly when it comes at a time when water shortages are everywhere."

Brown warns that the world faces a looming "food crisis," caused partly by the mounting stress of climate change, and partly by other developments, such as the conversion of farmland to non-food uses (biofuels, for instance, and grain to feed livestock that supply growing meat markets in China and elsewhere). He predicts that prices for wheat, corn, and other basic staples will soar beyond the level that many in the developing world can afford to pay for them. 

Scholars have argued that this is already happening. Some assert that a sudden sharp rise in the global price for wheat -- caused at least in part by climate-change-related droughts in China and Ukraine -- helped to spark the Arab Spring. And continuing high prices, they say, are likely fueling the ongoing troubles in Egypt and Syria, both top wheat-importing countries.

Costs are also rising dangerously in East Africa, including in Tanzania. Between 2011 and 2013, prices for maize, the source for the staple porridge ugali, nearly doubled. Similar price rises were reported for rice and beans, millet, sweet potatoes, meat, and milk.

No place on earth will be spared the cost of global warming. But the irony is that developing countries like Tanzania, which are least responsible for spewing the greenhouse gases that are heating up the atmosphere, are the ones that will be handed the lion's share of the bill for climate change. That future is already becoming a lived reality here in Tanzania. "People may not know all of the scientific details," Matinda says, taking a break from negotiations to protect the watershed, "but they know about climate change from their own experience."

*Correction, March 27, 2014: This article originally misspelled Laly Lichtenfeld's name and the name of her organization, the African People and Wildlife Fund. It referred to her as Laly Litchtenfeld, at the Africa People and Wildlife Fund. (Return to reading.)

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images