The future of the Egyptian revolution

From The Guardian, an excerpt of our friend Jack Shenker's forthcoming The Egyptians: A Radical Story:

Egypt’s revolution has been misunderstood, and a great deal of that misunderstanding had been deliberate. An upheaval that began on 25 January 2011, and will continue for years to come, has been framed deceptively by elites both within Egypt’s borders and beyond. Their aim has been to sanitise the revolution and divest it of its radical potential. Over the past half-decade the Arab world’s most populous nation has been engulfed by extraordinary turmoil, the result of millions of ordinary people choosing to reject the status quo and trying instead to build better alternatives. Their struggle – against political and economic exclusion, and against the state violence that is required by both for enforcement – is not separate from struggles that are playing out elsewhere, including in Britain, America and right across the global north. In fact, they are deeply enmeshed. At the heart of Egypt’s unrest are forms of governance that structure all our lives, and modes of resistance that could yet transform them.
In the last five years, headlines about Egypt have been laden with insta-emotion: awe at an uprising against one of the Middle East’s longest reigning and best-armed dictators, joy at its success, confusion in its aftermath, sadness that the young protesters were seemingly defeated in the end, that elections were overturned, and that autocrats rose once again. At times, far from being a political inspiration, events in Egypt have felt like a textbook example of why mass protest is doomed to failure; a study in how “business as usual” always wins out in the end. This narrative is profoundly misleading. The revolution, and counterrevolution, has never been just about Mubarak, or his successors, or elections. It is not merely a civil war between Islamists and secularists, nor a fight between oriental backwardness and western liberal modernity, nor an “event” that can be fixed and constrained in place or time. In reality, the revolution is about marginalised citizens muscling their way on to the political stage and practising collective sovereignty over domains that were previously closed to them. The national presidency is one such domain, but there are many others: factories, fields and urban streets, the mineral resources that lie under the desert and beneath the seabed, the houses people live in, the food they eat and the water they drink.

Hamas, the Islamic State, and the Gaza–Sinai Crucible

Interesting summary, by Benedetta Berti and Zack Gold, of the quandary Hamas finds itself in with regards to the Islamic State's supporters in Gaza and Sinai:

In sum, the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip is actively involved in keeping the broader Salafi-jihadi camp from stirring up internal trouble or goading Israeli action against the strip, which includes preventing strong ties between Gaza- and Sinai-based jihadis. Likewise, to end its isolation, Hamas’s political leaders also hope to reverse a deterioration of relations with Egypt, even though the group’s military leaders are deepening their relations with some figures within the very same Salafi-jihadi camp that is fighting Egypt—and which Hamas is fighting in Gaza. This is because the ongoing economic restrictions and aggressive campaign against the tunnel economy have given Hamas’s military wing a powerful incentive to deal with any group—jihadi, criminal, or both—that could provide the weapons and financial resources it needs. In this sense, the Hamas–IS relationship is primarily driven by economic transactions. Such ties, however, also result in ad hoc cooperation, and according to Egyptian and Israeli intelligence sources, the Qassam Brigades are selling or providing weapons and offering training to IS-linked fighters with the goal of clearing its “lifeline” passage. 

So much of the mess in Sinai (and of course Gaza) is due to this disastrous blockade.

They Won’t Miss You When You’re Gone

In  The American Interest, a funny and well-written piece by (former official) Eliot Cohen on the last year of an American presidency:

An administration in its last year resembles a small woodland creature reaching the end of its life, seeking only a quiet burrow in which to meet its demise. Like that moribund animal, an administration will exhibit pointless twitches of frantic activity before the very end. These mostly involve extensive foreign travel to nice or particularly interesting places, which gets you away from the polite yawns of Congressmen and Senators (and worse, their staffs) that meet your opinions back home. But sooner or later you return to Washington, and there realize that your unglamorous duty consists chiefly in leaving the dog’s breakfast of a policy in the least-desperate shape you can for the next team.

The West in the Arab world, between ennui and ecstasy

The West in the Arab world, between ennui and ecstasy

This essay was contributed by Peter Harling and Alex Simon.

To outsiders, the Middle East usually is an intellectual object—a place on a map onto which they project their fears, fantasies and interests. But to many it is a home to live and despair in, to flee and to cling to, to loath and to love. When writing for the truly concerned, commentary has become futile: what is there to say that they do not already know? The ideals and hopes we could once believe in have disintegrated as a bewildering array of players wrought destruction, seemingly teaming up in the region’s devastation rather than fighting each other as they claim—let alone seeking solutions. 

With suffering and complexity relentlessly on the uptick, even well-intentioned observers are tempted to simplify what we cannot fully understand, focusing excessively on the distraction of daily news and drifting toward some convenient intellectual extreme. It is a constant struggle to rebalance one’s positions, resume analysis of meaningful, underlying trends, and attempt to contribute responsibly. At the heart of this ambition is a need for honesty and humility rather than partisan hackery and hubris—acknowledging our failures and our limitations and our inability to fully comprehend, let alone effectively correct, the course of events in the Middle East. From there we may step back and appraise how best to play a positive rather than destructive role in shaping the region’s trajectory. 

The dominant trend, however, has been in the opposite direction. Most conversations are self-centered and reductive. This reality is starkest in the debate about the Islamic State (hereafter “Daesh”) and the Iran nuclear deal, but the tendency is pervasive: the Russian intervention in Syria, a mushrooming refugee crisis, pulverizing wars in Libya and Yemen, only enter the discussion inasmuch as they disturb our “national interests” as we narrowly and shortsightedly define them. In Washington, the brutal execution of one American journalist has approximately the same galvanizing potential as the large-scale persecution and enslavement of Iraq’s Yazidi minority. Both are more compelling than the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees on the shores of Europe, who are in turn of far greater concern than the millions more stranded in their own countries and those throughout the region who are routinely bombed into nothingness.

More than well-defined interests, the Western response to a given Middle Eastern tragedy is often dictated by knee-jerk, emotional factors—cultural affinities (or lack thereof) with the victims, an enduring obsession with “terrorism”, and sheer visual potency (whether Daesh’s horror-movie barbarism or the occasional heart-wrenching image of a drowned child) are but a few. While understandable, these are not a basis for strategy. 

The United States, of course, is not the lone culprit. Key players across the board are acting less on the basis of interest than obsession, pursuing ad hoc and reactive means in support of amorphous and ill-defined ends. While Washington proposes to destroy the mind-bogglingly complex socio-economic-political-military entity that is Daesh through airstrikes (and a dash of social media evangelism and tepid support to whomever appears willing to pitch in), Moscow seeks to restore its prestige and cut Obama down to size by pummeling what remains of Syria’s non-jihadist opposition; Tehran works its way to regional leadership by pumping more weapons, money and hubris into whichever proxy is most expedient at a given moment in a given country; Riyadh clambers to head off presumed Persian scheming by whatever means necessary, while Cairo does the same toward the Muslim Brotherhood bogeyman. And so on and so forth.

Behind all of this posturing are incoherent binaries of good versus evil—typically euphemized in the language of “stability versus terrorism”—whereby states attempt to reduce the pandemonium to one or two irreconcilable enemies, one or two overarching goals and however many direct or proxy wars appear necessary to suppress the former and achieve the latter. In other words, keep it simple: pick your mania, ignore all else, and it will finally make sense. 

The reality, of course, is precisely the opposite. In a region so chaotic and fluid, monomaniacal policies will unfailingly make matters worse, compounding polarization when success rests on building bridges. The result has been a dizzying spectrum of overlapping and ever-shifting alliances, rivalries, and proxy wars that regional and international players continue to escalate despite usually lacking an end game. 
 
Increasingly, this state of affairs feeds into self-enforcing loops where governments seek to reverse or simply distract from their past failures by doubling down on the most belligerent aspects of what were initially ambivalent, multifaceted postures. Iran has shifted in Iraq from a relatively balanced approach to overt, unqualified support for Shiite militias that further alienate Sunnis, divide Shiite and Kurdish constituencies, undermine what is left of a state, and will leave a lasting and dangerous legacy of nihilism; the same can be said of Iranian policy in Syria. Russia has evolved from exercising and imposing restraint in Syria to throwing its lot in with one camp and escalating the war in a manner that almost automatically invites one-upmanship from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Yemen and the Sinai, Riyadh and Cairo have filled their own political vacuum by adopting war as a policy by default. In all cases, fresh escalation makes pulling back all the more difficult.

Western states have veered in the opposite direction, attempting to cut their losses and save face in the process. The White House, for all its posturing toward Daesh, has in reality come to view the Iranian nuclear deal as the one issue where it can hope to make a difference, resulting in a largely unintelligible withdrawal from the region that has sucked others into the void—exacerbating the deadly confusion it struggled to grapple with in the first place. In Europe, half-baked attempts at pursuing democratization, sanctioning human rights abuse, engaging Islamists, developing a humanitarian response, resorting to diplomacy and articulating a refugee policy are being eclipsed by one idea: accepting whatever power structures exist that might protect against the Islamic State.  

Underlying all of these tendencies is the disturbing reality that the Middle East has reached a state of such abject convolution that quite literally no one can altogether grasp the dynamics at play, let alone articulate a constructive path forward. In this milieu, everyone seems to be nurturing his own illusory, revisionist vision of a region where his own views would ultimately dominate. Listen to the various parties, close your eyes, and imagine a Middle East that would stabilize through the embrace of Western values; or submit to rising Russian influence as the only sensible alternative; or accept inevitable Iranian leadership; or roll back Persian hegemonic designs decisively; or rid itself of the Islamist cancer; or finally reinvent its true self by bringing the secular anomaly to an end. Now open your eyes, shake your head, and take another Valium.   

Our challenge is to resist two temptations. The first is the comfort of our own hopes, fears and biases, which we are tempted to substitute for hard-headed analysis, in the process compromising any chance of a coherent and far-sighted policy. The second is the desire to retreat altogether in the face of the Middle East’s complexity, washing our hands of problems that we helped create and that will continue to affect us profoundly and unpredictably. 

The rehabilitation of Western policy in the Middle East will, therefore, rest upon a paradigm shift. Its potential contours are outlined in this essay’s conclusion, but a first step is to explore the dynamics that have brought the Middle East to its current state and will continue to shape the region for years to come.

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Magical Thinking about Isis

Best piece I've read about the aftermath of the Paris attacks thus far, by Adam Shatz. Deep thinking throughout but I think this is one of the important points:

In a recent interview with Vice, Obama described IS as a child of the Iraq war. It’s true that if it weren’t for the dismantling of the Iraqi state, and its replacement by a Shia-dominated sectarian system, IS would probably not exist. And in its war against the Sykes-Picot frontiers, IS has paid a peculiar homage to the neoconservatives who have always viewed the post-Ottoman borders as artificial constructs, a map to be redrawn in blood, with multi-confessional states replaced by ethnically exclusive, weak statelets: Christian Lebanese, Kurdish and Shia.
But the problem of IS can’t be laid exclusively at the door of Bush, Blair et al. The war in Libya, and Obama’s accommodation with the Sisi regime in Egypt, have encouraged the spread of IS well beyond Iraq. It is, however, the US’s dangerously incoherent Syria policy that has perhaps done the greatest damage. When Obama called for Assad to step down, apparently confident that his days were numbered because an American president had said so, he raised the expectations of the opposition that the US had their backs, in the event that Assad began firing on them. But Obama had no intention of sending troops, or imposing a no-fly zone. His determination to will the means for Assad’s removal has never matched Russia’s or Iran’s determination to keep him in power. The result was to leave the Syrian opposition exposed to Assad’s war.

 But read the whole thing.

To Beat ISIS, Focus on Economic Reforms

To Beat ISIS, Focus on Economic Reforms

The following is a guest post from Nathan Field, an entrepreneur and commentator on Middle Eastern politics. While Western governments weigh which military actions to take against ISIS, Field looks at the long-term economic reforms that could introduce greater employment, development and therefore stability to Arab countries, and weaken the appeal of extremist ideologies. 

The ultimate outcome of the military struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is certain. ISIS will land some blows but has too many enemies. Eventually, it will lose a war of attrition. The territory it controls in those countries will be reclaimed.   

The bigger, long-term challenge is the spread of Islamic State’s ideology in the broader Middle East, as opposed to the presence of the group in Syria and Iraq. This ideology of extreme utopian populism is caused at a most fundamental level by the socioeconomic stratification of Middle Eastern societies, a problem that is aggravated by the weakness of Arab economies in the global marketplace.

This has created a division between roughly the top 20% of societies, which is in a position to thrive and obtain status, and the vast majority that can mostly only hope to achieve the same. While such gaps have always existed, they are now being amplified by the explosion of the internet, social media and smartphones. For a growing number of young men, Islamic State’s utopianism offers a sense of purpose, meaning and masculinity that they don’t believe they can obtain by playing according to the conventional rules of society.

Economic reform, therefore, will be the key to undermining the group’s broader ideological appeal throughout the Muslim world-- with one major caveat. To succeed, it must not be a mere intensification of the neoliberal reforms that have transformed Arab economies since the 1980s. Those efforts generated unprecedented macro-economic growth, but failed to distribute the gains to different segments of society in a socially optimal way. Socioeconomic stratification increased, and that has directly contributed to the ongoing surge of radicalism.   

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In Translation: A modest proposal to fix Egypt's economy

Economist, former government minister and rare voice of reason Ziad Bahaa Eddin presents a list of sensible suggestions for what Egypt should do, undo, and not do to right its sinking economic ship. Pity that they will almost certainly fall on deaf ears. This installment of our In Translation series is brought to you as always by the professional translation team at Industry Arabic

Recommendations for Dealing with the Economic Crisis

El Shorouk newspaper, October 20 1015

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin

One cannot describe the current economic situation as only a minor bump, one that we can deal with using the same tools and methods the state has grown accustomed to using over the past years, and which exacerbated the crisis in the first place. I am not referring here to the disturbances in the exchange market that recently grabbed the media’s attention: they are a symptom of an underlying sickness, the expression of deeper problems in the management of the economy. The principle of these problems are weak levels of investment, exports and employment and the rise in both internal and external public debt. The most important of these problems, though, is the government’s lack of clarity in its economic policy and the direction it intends to pursue. For citizens, the steady price increases, especially in food, the continuing decline in public services and the scarcity of employment opportunities are the real indicators of the Egyptian economy’s performance. For them, these issues are more important than figures for growth, reserves and the public debt. 

We can, of course, blame the slowdown in world trade, global conspiracies, or the regional situation. None of these, though, are sufficient to explain the rapid worsening of the economic situation over the past few months. We can also demand that minister after minister step down or cabinet after cabinet be replaced every time there seems to be a slowdown or a failure or every time the media calls for an immediate change. However, the gravity of the current situation requires us to stop and reassess our position and to build a minimum of consensus around certain important priorities instead of searching for a scapegoat or trying to satisfy the media’s thirst for a new victim. Here is what I propose:

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In Translation: Egypt's president reads the constitution, sees a problem

Shereef Azer writes: I’ll Show You “Tinkering with the Constitution”!

Online magazine 18+, Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi recently dismissed the country's constitution as founded on unrealistic "good intentions" (this same constitution was celebrated, when it was approved in January 2014, as basically the best in the world). In the latest installment of our In Translation series, brought to you as always by the translation professionals of Industry Arabic, Shereef Azer imagines what might have led the president -- now that a parliament that will share some of the powers he has monopolized for the last two years is finally on the horizon -- to change his evaluation. 

Long ago, we were told that “constitution” is a Persian word that means “father of the law.” Yet it appears as though its current meaning in the corridors of the Egyptian government is “to hell with the law.” The regime’s approach is obvious, as it manipulates the law and the legislative process as it pleases, in the absence of a working parliament. Even so, to now hint at amending the constitution is both extremely provocative and unacceptable.

In his speech at the opening ceremony of University Youth Week, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stated that “the constitution granted broad powers to parliament, and with good intentions, but the country cannot run on good intentions alone.” Of course, these words represent a great insult to the Committee of Fifty that drafted the constitution. They presume that this committee had no idea what it was doing and that its members merely wrote, with good intentions, what was in their hearts. This is not something that a proper president of the republic should be saying.

The problem is that when you get to thinking about this statement, you necessarily arrive at the conclusion that the president fears something in this constitution and that he wishes he could change it in order to serve some goal. It becomes clear that the president wants to run the country according to his whims and without anything standing in his way. Well then, let’s see what in the constitution might be angering our president and getting his knickers in a twist.

First off, it’s clear that the president has gotten into a jam with all this parliament nonsense – even though he had tried to avoid it for quite some time – and he has finally been forced to take a look at the constitution and its meaning. If there’s going to be a parliament one way or another, he figured, then at least he should see what it’s all about. He opened the constitution and (Oh God, please let it be good!)…there right in front of his face was an absolute disaster. This upcoming parliament has the power to remove the president. Now, I’m not claiming to be a mind-reader, but I’m certain that the president reacted to this particular article of the constitution with a certain four-letter word. Surely, certain thoughts began to cross his mind, but thank goodness he said “good intentions” instead – otherwise, he would already have had the Committee of Fifty arrested and tried on charges of planning to overthrow the government.

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"We told you our shitty Syria policy would fail"

This (from the NYT) is pretty disingenuous from the Obama admin:

WASHINGTON — By any measure, President Obama’s effort to train a Syrian opposition army to fight the Islamic State on the ground has been an abysmal failure. The military acknowledged this week that just four or five American-trained fighters are actually fighting.

But the White House says it is not to blame. The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

. . .

In effect, Mr. Obama is arguing that he reluctantly went along with those who said it was the way to combat the Islamic State, but that he never wanted to do it and has now has been vindicated in his original judgment. The I-told-you-so argument, of course, assumes that the idea of training rebels itself was flawed and not that it was started too late and executed ineffectively, as critics maintain.

. . .

“It is true that we have found this to be a difficult challenge,” Mr. Earnest said. “But it is also true that many of our critics had proposed this specific option as essentially the cure-all for all of the policy challenges that we’re facing in Syria right now. That is not something that this administration ever believed, but it is something that our critics will have to answer for.”

If it was convinced this was the wrong idea, then it should not have done it and come up with another alternative. This kind of half-assed abdication of responsibility seen in Syria and Libya (support the overthrow of the regime, but in the first case don't do anything serious about and in the second pursue regime change with no day-after strategy) is really a disgrace. Foreign policy is one matter where the president usually has to compromise less, particularly with his own cabinet. If he disagreed with Clinton and others inside the administration then Obama should have told them to stuff it, not meet them half-way.

IN TRANSLATION: WESTERN SUPERIORITY AND ARAB DENIAL (Part 2)

Below is the second installment of a two-part piece (see part one for a longer introduction) by the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel -- an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. Upon reflection, one trigger for this jeremiad might have been the recent focus on conspiracy theories, notably in Egypt where a military official recently spoke on television of fifth-generation warfare plots to cause earthquakes and alter weather, which an increasing number of commentators are slamming.

Brought to you as always by the great professional translation team at Industry Arabic

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In Translation: Western superiority and Arab denial (Part 1)

In a long two-part article, the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel has written an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. I'm not sure what triggered the timing, but it is probably related to the collective hand-wringing about the state of the region, and the Syrian calamity in particular, that the picture of Aylan al-Kurdi and thousands of other refugees from Syria has triggered. Much like some segments of the Western press about the West's response, there has been much questioning as to whether enough is being done for Syria by Arabs. (Of course, there has also been much opportunistic blame-shifting by the various sides of the Syrian war.) 

Al-Dakheel's jeremiad, an increasingly common type of article by Arab intellectuals in these dark ages (although one could trace the style, at least, to Sadik al-Azm's Self-Criticism After the Defeat), is about something more general, though. It appears as an exasperated antidote to the widespread strain of fuzzy, conspiratorial, delusional and self-aggrandizing rhetoric that dominates so much of public discourse in the region. It has little interest in focusing on the colonial and neo-imperial roots of the Middle East's troubles, seeing them as a way to deflect responsibility for Arab countries' and societies' faults and choices. Yet in its flattering (and somewhat provocative) assessment of Western superiority, it still remains trapped in the us-versus-them logic that it decries as so poisonous. This is part I of his article published in al-Hayat, part II will be published on Wednesday.

Brought to you, as always, by the excellent professional translation team of Industry Arabic

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In Translation: In Lebanon, the status quo reeks

In Translation: In Lebanon, the status quo reeks

 

In the latest installment of our In Translation series – brought to you as always by the crack translation team of Industry Arabic – we look at commentary from within Lebanon on the “You Stink” movement. These protests, sparked by the failure of municipal garbage collection services, have taken on an unexpected amplitude, targeting corruption and the political impasse (the country has no president and its parliament’s mandate expired in 2013) created by its sectarian politics. The article below, from An-Nahar newspaper, discusses the attempts by the Lebanese factions to use the protests to resolve the impasse over the presidency to their advantage. 

“All of Them Means All of Them”: A Third, Civilian Way for Rights and to End the Gridlock?

Rosana Bou Moncef, An-Nahar31 September 2015

The countries now closely observing the situation in Lebanon would like to see the political authorities take up the popular demands that have brought thousands of people out into the streets. People are hurling charges of corruption against officials, although some of the officials are trying to exempt themselves from these charges and shift the blame to others, while they continue to huddle around the Cabinet table or around sectarian leaders complaining of insult and neglect. Most of the countries watching would not like to see the current order seriously disturbed, although they would like to see the Lebanese people form a peaceful civil force or a third force that could compel officials to take the interests of the people into account, or grant them more attention than they do to their own. This is based on the idea that the Lebanese people and Lebanese youth in particular have a dynamism that obliges them to confront the political class and claim their rights, rather than emigrate and leave officials to run their fiefdoms and tend their personal interests.

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The Arab Spring was a revolution of the hungry

Thanassis Cambanis, writing for the Boston Globe about food riots and the dependence on imported grain in Arab countries:

THE ARAB STATES are the world’s largest net importers of grains, depending on exports from water-rich North America, Europe, and Central Asia.
So it follows that bread riots will break out every time there’s a disruption in the global food supply. Anger will bubble up every time there’s a drought. Or when oil profits fall and it becomes harder to pay for grain imports. The Middle East North Africa region consumes about 44 percent of global net grain imports, according to Eckart Woertz, author of “Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East”: “Self sufficiency is not an option in the region,” he said in an interview.
Still, most scholars now accept the idea first proposed by the economist Amartya Sen, that food shortages and famines are usually caused by political mismanagement, not by an actual lack of food.

I don't think he gets it quite right. Apart from the poorest states, Arab states have largely been able to cover their grain imports – either by spending a lot of their budget on it, or with aid. And the era of regular food riots (even if cost of living – in Egypt for instance a poor household will spend a disproportionate part of its income on food – was part what spurred of the Arab uprisings) is over. Morocco used to have these food riots on a regular basis until the early 1990s, they were often brutally suppressed. The last major for riot in Egypt was in 1977, even if there were clashes over the malfunctioning of bread distribution in 2010-2013. The sharp rise in commodity prices of 2008 was handled in the short-term by these governments, even if it may have contributed to the 2011 uprisings.

In other words, states are actually able to sustain food subsidies. Moreover, there are interest lobbies that want them maintained, particularly since traffic in subsidized flour is lucrative. Better management of bread supplies is clearly needed; and arguably delivering on that makes you popular – in Egypt, since 2011 the army's (partial) takeover of bread distribution was widely seen as successfully putting an end to shortages. The point here is that local droughts are less important than fluctuations in commodity prices and the ability of the state to raise funds to cover these or insure against them, since essentially many of these states import not just their calories but also their water in the form of grain. And that is more sustainable than it seems, because these governments do have access to funding (and it is far more sustainable than spending on fuel subsidies). In fact, droughts may be more important how they impact the agrarian economy than how they affect the food supply – arguably the long drought of the late 2000s in Syria, and the rural-urban migration it caused notably in the north-east, was an important cause of the rebellion there but not because it disrupted food supply at a national level.