Ancient Mediterranean religions seem to have taught that the job of the king was to please the gods, with the divine favor assuring good crops and plenty of food. If the crops were bad, the solution was obvious: kill the king, sprinkle his blood on the fields, pick a new and more righteous ruler, and wait for the boom when the new harvest came in.
American elections can be viewed as a mild form of this practice today. In fact, presidents don’t have as much influence over the economic cycle as we pretend, but it makes us feel better to oust the incumbent when the economy does poorly, so we do.
In Egypt, they are facing a new problem. They’ve changed rulers, but the crops still won’t grow. As this Washington Post piece shows, the Egyptian economy has been going downhill ever since Pharaoh Hosni began to tremble on his throne. This is a bigger problem in Egypt than bad times are in countries like the US. In America bad times can mean cutting back; during bad times in Egypt, poor people don’t eat.
In a way, Egypt is lucky. The economic downturn was inevitable. An economy that depends on tourism and foreign investment isn’t going to flourish in a time of upheaval. Throw in the European crisis and slow growth elsewhere, and an Egyptian recession was baked in the cake. But because Egypt has had an interim military government, the soldiers bear the blame for the downturn. The Muslim Brotherhood will have a clean slate when and if its election victory turns into the power to form a government.
Unfortunately, it is not very likely that the economy will improve very fast. Despite its very strong endorsement of business friendly government, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist background is going to make foreign investors — and tourists — nervous. Europe is still a mess and the US doesn’t have a lot of money for generous foreign aid programs. The worst case scenario for Egypt probably involves a moderately Islamist government steadily pushed toward more extreme positions by popular discontent as the economy continues to do badly.
The good news is that the new government will have to reassure foreign partners, investors and tourists to have any economic hope at all. The bad news is that the relatively moderate Islamists could well fail, opening the door to the more dangerous forces waiting in the wings.
If the Muslim Brotherhood can’t make the crops grow, Egypt will start looking around for a new ruler more likely to win divine favor. That will be the moment the Salafis are waiting for.
Let’s hope the crops start to grow.