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April 24, 2014

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Egypt might not be doomed to failure

Anyone who has followed Middle East politics knows that this is a region where extremists tend to go all the way and moderates tend to just go away.

But every once in a while — the 1993 Oslo peace negotiations, the 2006 Anbar uprising by Iraqi Sunnis against al-Qaida, the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon against Syria and Hezbollah — the moderates rise up and take a stand. And when they do, America needs to be there to support them. It is the only hope for moving this region onto a more positive path. I’d put last week’s popular uprising/military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood-led Egyptian government in this category.

I do not arrive at that conclusion easily. It would have been far more preferable if President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s party had been voted out of office in three years. This would have forced the party to confront its own incompetence and popular repudiation. I wish the Egyptian army had not been involved. But perfect is not the menu anymore in Egypt. In fact, even food may not be on the menu anymore for the poor. A large number of Egyptians felt that waiting three years could have pushed Egypt over the edge. The country is so short of foreign currency to pay for fuel imports that gas lines and electricity shortages are everywhere. It was clear that Morsi was not focused on governing and appointing the best people for jobs. He was focused on digging himself and his party into power, so, by the time of the next presidential elections, Egypt could have had the worst of all worlds: an invincible government and an insoluble economic and social disaster.

The best way for Egypt to quickly earn foreign currency to buy food and fuel would be to revive tourism, which accounts for 10 percent of the economy. On June 16, Morsi appointed 17 new governors. In Luxor, the heart of the tourism industry, he appointed Adel al-Khayyat, a member of the Islamist militant group Gamaa al-Islamiyya, which had claimed responsibility for the massacre of 58 tourists in 1997 — precisely to destroy tourism and hurt Hosni Mubarak’s government. Gamaa abandoned violence about a decade ago, although it has never repudiated the 1997 attack. Morsi’s own minister of tourism resigned in protest, and Khayyat eventually quit, too. But it gives you an idea of what was going on.

Rather than punishing Egyptians for desperately trying to change course before they go over a cliff, America should use its aid and influence with the army to get the most out of this crisis. That starts by insisting that the Brotherhood leaders be released from jail and that the party and its media be free to contest the next parliamentary elections and have a voice in the constitution-writing process. Anyone who tries to govern Egypt alone will fail: Mubarak, the army, the Muslim Brothers, the liberals. Egypt is in a terrible deep hole, and the only way it can get out is with a national unity government that can make hard decisions and do the required heavy lifting.

Indeed, the big question for Egypt is not only who rules but how anyone can rule. Can a fragile new democracy make progress in the face of such deep economic dislocation and distress? I just returned from Egypt. It is falling apart. A few weeks ago, I sat in a teahouse in Cairo, interviewing Mahmoud Medany, a researcher at Egypt’s Agricultural Research Center and one of the country’s top environmental experts. Medany, 55, recalled that some 40 years ago, when he was in middle school, “we used to sing this song about how the whole world is talking to the 20 million Egyptians.” When Mubarak took over in 1982, “we were 33 or 34 million. Today, we are over 80 million.” Also, the steady compacting of soil in the Nile Delta, he added, combined with gradual sea level rise due to global warming, is leading to more and more saltwater intrusion into the Delta. “The Nile is the artery of life, and the Delta is our breadbasket,” said Medany, “and if you take that away, there is no Egypt.”

This confluence of population, climate, unemployment, water scarcity and illiteracy may be making Egypt ungovernable. I hope not, but I do know this: Egypt can’t just keep oscillating from a secular/military regime that isolates the Brotherhood and a Brotherhood regime that isolates the other side.

Daron Acemoglu is co-author of the book “Why Nations Fail,” the simple thesis of which is that nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions and fail when those institutions become “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of a few. Acemoglu said Egypt is a classic extractive society. What it needs most is a leader who can combine a spirit of inclusion with a brutal honesty to tell the people they have wasted so many years and really need to start over, by strengthening education, shrinking the state, stimulating entrepreneurship, empowering women, and reforming the police and judiciary.

There was no chance that Morsi was going to rise to this moment. If new elections and a new constitution can be implemented and a broad national unity government formed, there is still a chance that Egypt can manage all the problems that it can no longer avoid and still avoid the even worse problems that it cannot possibly manage. But it’s only a chance. America’s job is to nudge all parties toward such a national unity coalition.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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