Since 2008, when massive food riots took place, followed by the “Arab spring revolution” in 2011, Egypt has become a land of political, religious and social conflicts (Krista Mahr, “Bread is life: food and protest in Egypt“, Time Magazine, January 31, 2011; Georges Corm, Le Proche-Orient éclaté, 2012), some of them between armed militant and religious factions on the one hand, the police, the military and the secret services, on the other. Meanwhile the civil society strongly emerges.
Beyond spectacular events, the causes of these domestic political and religious conflicts are rooted, among other factors, into international and climate change dynamics.
In effect, Egypt’s society and politics are deeply affected by the entanglement of economic, political, environmental and climate change trends (Werrell and Femia, The Arab Spring and Climate Change, 2013). The current political, religious and security tensions reveal what might be the greatest challenge Egypt, as a country and as a civilization, has ever had to face: the emergence of climate change and the way it could endanger the very fabric of Egyptian society.
Today, Egypt, as all countries and as all the living beings on this planet, is entering a new era, defined by the strengthening of climate change dynamics and their deeply transformative consequences on its national and international security.
The new plagues of Egypt?
The current political life of Egypt seems dominated not by climate change, but by the complex interactions between the military, an emerging civil society (Nicola Brooks, “Egyptians form grassroots movements to tackle urban issues“, Al Arabiya news, 13 April 2014), and religious militants movements and Islamist terrorists (Corm, ibid). In fact, this tense situation is deeply rooted in the dangerous combination of the fragile social, economic, infrastructural realities and the national and international effects of climate change.
The extreme weather events that affected the international cereals market in 2010 and 2011 are a good example of this new global threat, because Egypt is the first importer of wheat in the world and suffered economically and politically of the ensuing food rising prices (Valantin, “Sustainability and security: the future of Egypt?” 2014). This combination has powerful political effects, as it puts the poorest people on the verge of hunger, thus feeds political and religious dynamics of radicalization and violence (Klare, The Coming Global Explosion, 2013).
Another climate related emerging threat lies in the way geography determines the repartition of 80% of the population, which protects itself from the desert by living in Cairo and in the narrow Nile Delta. The littoral of the Delta is almost at the level of the sea, and only 240 km long. This geo-social reality could become a major trap in the years to come, according to the World Bank and the IPCC, because of the expected rise of the Mediterranean Sea of at least 30 centimetres during the next eighty years (World Bank, The impact of sea level rise on developing countries: A comparative analysis, policy research paper 4136, 2007; IPCC fifth assessment, Climate change, impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, 2014).
This risk of submersion is reinforced by the way the ground of the Nile Delta is literally sinking, the river not bringing enough sediment any more, as it is blocked 700 kilometers upstream by the giant Aswan dam, built in 1973.
The rising sea and the sinking ground are thus transforming the Nile Delta into a “topographic danger zone” (Hélène Lavoix, 2014). For more than forty years, the Delta has known a high demographic growth and urban densification, while remaining the main agricultural region of the country. According to the World Bank (ibid), if the sea rises of one meter between today and 2100, more than 10% of the population, mainly in the Delta, would be impacted, and it would hit 12.5% of the agricultural production, knowing that Egypt must already import half of its food.
In other terms, 8 to 10 million people (the Egyptian population is 80 million strong today, and expected to keep on growing) could become inner climate refugees, in a country where the available living space is already saturated and, even worse, shrinking because of the growing demographic pressure. This is happening in a country where some radicalized faith-based movements are committed to armed violence (The Guardian, “6 Egyptian military police killed as gunmen attack checkpoint“, 15 March 2014).
These dangerous life conditions meet the new power games, as explained in the previous post, centered on the sharing of the Nile water, the quasi-only source of water for Egypt (Franck Galland, Chroniques géopolitiques de l’eau, 2014). All of the upstream riparian countries, Uganda for the Blue Nile and Ethiopia for the White Nile, South Sudan and Sudan, need a larger share of the river, given the growth of their populations and, especially for Ethiopia, their economic development (Galland, ibid).
These new needs create political tensions between the riparian countries and Egypt that may only increase, knowing that, according to the IPCC, the rate of annual rain and thus of available surface water may decrease during the coming decades (IPCC fifth assessment, ibid).
However, in the same time, since 2013, Egypt benefits from a renewed political and strategic solidarity from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This new solidarity helps the Egyptian government to cover its financial, food and energy needs and is politically motivated by a common strategy of prevention of any further degradation of the economic, social and political conditions of Egypt (Mada Masr, “Saudi aid expected to flow after the elections“, February 5, 2014).
This Saudi-Egyptian cooperation is hoped to prevent the poorest people to join religious radicalized movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, in reaction to the degradation of the lives of their families. In other words, Saudi Arabia helps the state of Egypt to remain sustainable for strategic reasons, in order to weaken the social support to Islamist movements across the Arab world, movements that both the Saudi and Egyptian governments understand as being dangerous for their legitimacy and their stability (Jason Burke, 9/11 wars, 2011).
The coming politics and strategies of climate change?
These politics and strategies of security and sustainability constitute a first kind of reactions to problems induced by the social-demographic-economic-climate nexus (Fritzsche and Ruettinger, Environment, Climate Change and Security in the Southern Mediterranean, Review report, Adelphi, 2013). In this framework, one must remember that Egypt has built itself on politics and grand strategies elaborated to overcome that very kind of challenge (Jacques Berque, L’Egypte, Impérialisme et Révolution, 1967).
During antiquity, the Pharaonic political system was protecting society from inner struggles, foreign invasion and environmental disasters, such as the yearly Nile floods, turned into the main support for agriculture through vast irrigation works. Thus, the state was ensuring the vital crops that turned Egypt into a “Mediterranean wheat granary” during centuries (Berque, ibid).
Today, climate change and resources depletion pulls the world into a new era of forced adaptation (IPCC, ibid), which, in the case of Egypt, appears to be by now the only alternative to the collapse (Jared Diamond, Collapse, 2005) that could result from the synergy of food, water and sea level rise crises.
A national adaptation to these new and evolving conditions implies to renew the legitimacy relationship between the political authorities and the population, through strategies that are not “simply” of social control, security and defence, but involve the emergence of a common national purpose (Edward Luttwak, Strategy, the logic and war and peace, 2001).
Choosing a future?
As the new Constitution of the Republic of Egypt, approved in 2014, establishes, the state must protect the environment and the natural and economic resources, as well as the infrastructures that the society needs for its sustainability. In order to give Egypt a livable future, the Egyptian government will have to devise what we shall call a “grand strategy of adaptation to climate change”.
The ability or inability of the different political authorities, especially governments (the Mubarak government ousted by the “Arab Spring”, then Morsi’s, ousted by the Tamarod Movement and the military), define the way those political authorities can, or not, protect the population from the vital danger that a pronounced rise in the food and energy prices could bring, and thus, by the same token, these authorities’ very legitimacy. When this legitimacy and authority weaken, the means to protect the population decrease, while the risks of radicalization and violence increase (John Gray, Black Mass, Apocalyptic religion and the death of Utopia, 2007).
Thus, the present political situation shows the importance for the very survival of the country of the way the Egyptian legitimate authorities will shift, or not, to “grand strategies of adaptation” over the next twenty years.
The current struggle between the government and religious extremist factions, while coping with a giant economic and food crisis (Reuters, “Egypt has less than 2 months imported wheat, says ex-minister”, Al Arabiya, 11 July 2013), and the renewed foreign policy that accompanies it, gives us some indications about the path to the future that is currently chosen, between renewed sustainability and collapse (Diamond, ibid). Even if it is in the midst of great difficulties (Fritzsche and Ruettinger, ibid), Egypt seems to be choosing sustainability.
The option toward sustainability permeates the current axes of the new Egyptian foreign policy. On the one hand, the Egyptian diplomacy develops new economic alliances with Arab countries. It also wages, on the other hand, an international advocacy campaign to keep 55% share of the Nile water for Egypt (Michael Klare, Resource wars, 2002), despite the ongoing building of the “Renaissance dam” of Ethiopia, which is going to lessen the downstream flow of water when the regional climate may become ever more arid (IPCC, ibid).
This international strategy will necessitate strong continuity between domestic and foreign policies, as well as the creation of regional ways and means to manage African and Middle Eastern interdependencies in the context of climate change.
These continuities from domestic national security issues to regional and international politics may produce a grand strategy that strengthens the present and future social cohesion of Egypt against the risk of further radicalization of domestic politics, even though the collective life conditions may increasingly be at risk.
The success, or not (Acemoglu and Robinson, Why nations fail, 2012), of this grand strategy, will be the political basis for the legitimacy of the government, and a very important tool to prevent radicalization and violent social chaos by guaranteeing the material and political basis of social cohesion.
Furthermore, a national grand strategy of adaptation to climate change could also be a way to unite the Egyptian people against the common and collectively experienced threat of climate change, as well as a common political unifying goal. The vast endeavours that it would imply, such as the creation of a dike system along the Delta littoral against the rising of the sea, could deeply resonate with the tradition of public works and environmental management, from the building of the ancient pyramids 5000 years ago to the great Aswan Dam.
In other words, and against all odds, climate adaptation could be an innovative way, rooted in its history, for the Egyptian civilization to protect and project itself in the future.
Dr Jean-Michel Valantin leads the environment and security division at The Red (Team) Analysis Society.