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Leadership vacuum, not locusts, is Egypt's greatest plague

Mohamed MorsiShootingsPulitzer Prize AwardsMoody's CorporationThe New York Times

A plague of locusts swept through Egypt a few weeks ago, an estimated 30 million of the critters.

Egyptian officials tried to downplay the phenomenon, hoping to quash any biblical analogies. They noted that locust swarms show up in the spring every now and then. But more earthly indicators suggest that the blighted Egyptian government is in such deep political and economic trouble that perhaps the analogy is apt.

Experts and senior government officials worldwide are warning that Egypt's economy is hurtling toward collapse. D&B Country Risk Services classifies Egypt as "deteriorating" and "very high risk."

What's more, almost every day the street war pitting the Islamic government and its allies against the secular urbanites seems to be growing angrier and darker.

But the central problem behind all of this is Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. He quite obviously has no idea what he's doing. The Brotherhood hadn't governed anything of consequence before Mr. Morsi took office -- certainly not a fractious nation of more than 82 million people, the largest in the Arab world, with a $230 billion GDP.

Mr. Morsi seems baffled, even paralyzed, as he relies on Egypt's quickly vanishing foreign-currency reserves to keep the nation afloat. They've fallen from $35 billion to $11 billion in a matter of months as Mr. Morsi continues drawing from them just to pay the bills. The value of the Egyptian pound against the dollar is plummeting -- by 10 percent just since January. Inflation is rising. Unemployment is creeping up toward 13 percent.

Food prices are soaring; flour and sugar cost 50 percent more than a year ago, while the price of common vegetables has doubled. Part of the reason: A severe shortage of imported diesel fuel is ricocheting through the economy. Diesel not only powers the nation's commercial-transport truck fleet -- fights are breaking out at gas stations -- but also irrigation pumps used by millions of farmers to grow wheat and vegetables.

Tourism has dropped to near zero. Previously it brought in as much as 20 percent of the nation's revenue. In most Cairo hotels, average occupancy has fallen below 15 percent. The Luxor area, home to tombs of the pharaohs, is usually teeming with tourists. Now it's reported to be a ghost town. Ninety percent of Luxor's half-million people had worked in the tourist trade.

Given what potential tourists see on the news, is it any wonder that they're staying away? Mr. Morsi made headlines worldwide this month when he ordered the arrest of television comedian Bassem Youssef, often compared to American TV comedian Jon Stewart. Mr. Youssef had made satirical jokes about Mr. Morsi on air.

The arrest brought a sharp rebuke from Washington. And much of the commentary since then has made the point that Mr. Morsi seems to be more passionate about controlling public criticism than righting the wounded economy. In fact, Mr. Morsi's government just issued arrest warrants for five bloggers and tweeters, accusing them of mocking Mr. Morsi online.

Also drawing the world's eyes is his government's tacit approval of recurring attacks on Coptic Christians.

Last week, several photos went viral online showing the attack on Cairo's St. Mark's Cathedral this month in which four Christians were killed. In one grainy shot of the attack in progress, you can just make out the caps and helmets of several police officers, standing by and watching -- doing nothing. A few days later, more Muslim youths attacked the funeral services for the dead Christians. Another was killed during that assault.

Mr. Morsi's government said not a word about this or any of the other atrocities committed against Christians in recent months, passively encouraging more assaults. In fact, Mr. Morsi holds himself blameless for all that's going on. Last month, Moody's Analytics downgraded Egypt's bond rating, saying political instability has "significantly weakened" the economy. But Mr. Morsi's government blames this, and everything, in fact, on his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

Nasser el Farash, a government spokesman, said the problem is corruption left over from the Mubarak regime. And yet Mr. Morsi's attacks on critics seem a direct copy of Mr. Mubarak's strategies.

Mr. Morsi even struck back at criticism from Washington over his arrest of Mr. Youssef, the TV satirist, and other negative foreign comments. Egypt, he warned, will deal "firmly" and "decisively" with any foreign attempts to interfere in his country's affairs. In other words, any foreign official who dares to criticize him.

How long can this irresponsible man be allowed to mismanage arguably the Middle East's most important state? For the sake of Egyptians, religious and secular, let's hope not much longer.

Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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