Links for March 24 to April 3 2010

I have been lax in posting links, sorry. They're after the jump, but first I wanted to talk about one ElBaradei piece among the many written lately (see below as well as here) that irked me.

It's a completely baseless assertion in Ilan Berman's article on ElBaradei in Foreign Policy:

Politics can offer some strange second acts. Just ask Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate turned would-be presidential candidate who is now flirting with joining Egypt's main Islamist party.

So it doesn't matter that ElBaradei keeps expressing secularist ideas and keeps insisting he won't join any party, suddenly he wants to join the Muslim Brothers?

The rest of the article deals with Ikhwan support for ElBaradei, which is at best — and it's really a stretch — partial, only because ElBaradei advocates certain reforms that the Brothers and virtually every other component of the Egyptian opposition agrees with. And the rest of the analysis is full of bromides and unsubstantiated assumptions, notably lending tremendous power to the Brothers, who have been pummeled into a retreat for the last few years. If he was so interested in the Brothers, why does he endorse secularist positions such as not putting religious restrictions on eligibility for public function? Just because he went to the mosque one Friday?

It's all terribly shoddy, esp. as Berman seems to be writing this purely from following the news wherever he's based. It's almost as bad as Bret Stephens' moronic idea that Lagy Gaga inspires Islamist terrorists, much ridiculed this week (see below).

Now for the links.

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Some major ElBaradei stories

I don't have time to go into details here, but I wanted to flag some important stories on Mohamed ElBaradei and Egypt's future that appeared yesterday.

First, Jack Shenker has an interview and profile in the Guardian. Jack writes:

The Guardian's interview with Mohamed ElBaradei was published in three news and feature stories across a double-page spread today; if you haven't already seen the articles then they're available here:

More interestingly for those engaged in Egyptian and Middle Eastern political analysis, a full transcript of the interview is now up online. It includes lots of material that didn't make it into the news stories, and is available here.
How good of him to make the full transcript available — it's worth reading. I like this bit:
What I want to do at this stage is call for a constitutional revolution. I’m trying to break every political rule of the game, and I think it’s much more effective not to focus on individuals. And wrongly or rightly, I think everyone is doing what they think is good for the country. That’s my message now: I do not want to reopen the past, we have too much on our hands for the future. So I’m discussing policies, not individuals; I can criticise policies, but I’m not questioning the intentions or actions of individuals. And I think at this stage, that’s the right way to do it. I said from day one that I want to coalesce the Egyptian people around one great idea, which is their salvation – a move from authoritarianism to democracy.
The New Yorker also has a "Letter from Cairo" by Joshua Hammer that gives an overview of ElBaradei's challenge to Mubarak, and the prospect of a Gamal presidency. It's subscription only, but you can get an abstract here. I read the full piece, it has a good quote from Saad Eddin Ibrahim describing Gamal as a "solid C student" when he taught him at AUC, but does not offer much new.
More later, now I have to catch a train.


Is Egypt's Delta going to drown, or not?

Yesterday was too packed a day to continue the short post I put up.

But I do want to report on one highlight of yesterday's conference at the Biblioteca Alexandrina on the UNDP's latest Arab Human Development Report, on human security, and specifically the challenge of climate change and water management in the Arab word.

For a few years now scientists have warned that rising sea levels in the Mediterranean threaten the sea's coastline, and Egypt's Delta in particular. We've seen dire predictions — 4500 km2 of land flooded, 6-14 million people displaced — as well as the threat of infiltration of seawater into aquifers, making agriculture in areas not affected by the floods more difficult.

What I had not quite realized is that while some have said the predictions are a bit too alarmist, there is actually quite a healthy debate among the specialists about the nature of the threat. Two diametrically opposed views were presented yesterday, delving into issues of sea level rise, currents patterns, erosion patterns, possibilities for mitigation and a lot more stuff that a non-specialist like me can't fully appreciate.


The first view, endorsed by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says that the threat is very real and good parts of the coastline (mostly around and Alexandria and towards Port Said) are at risk. It also stresses that the impact on aquifers is extremely serious, and that climate change will almost certainly have a devastating impact on Egypt's agricultural heartland, with 15% of the country's arable land affeted. It proposes the construction of a LE20 billion (about $3.5 billion) underground wall by the shore, made of a substance called plastic concrete, that will protect underground freshwater from seawater, as well as as protection for land, and other drastic measures to face the possibility that seawater may rise by up to 1.5m by the end of the century. 

The other view says that the data that IPCC endorsed is flawed, and that newer and more complex models exist that suggest that while a rise in sea levels is a real prospect, its impact on Egypt's coastline can be much more easily controlled. It points out that there are a lot of natural defenses, most notably dunes, on the coastline and focuses on preserving them and funding research to understand them better. It argues that one (overground) wall near Port Said built in 1820 by Muhammad Ali still exists and has done its job fine. It says there are a few problem areas, and these need to be addressed, but that the focus of efforts should be understand patterns of erosion, currents, etc. on the coastline and have more systematic monitoring to be able to address the problem.

I can't evaluate the science of either claim. The IPCC regularly reviews new data as it becomes available, and the next review of this question will be in a few years. Perhaps new data will change the prediction, or confirm them. Either way there is a serious problem to deal with, and there is general agreement about risks of groundwater penetration. What the first view has in its favor right now is its endorsement by the IPCC, and that the alternative scenario has yet to be peer-reviewed. 

But the conference was a really good example of real debate about climate change, away from the recent controversy over emails by IPCC scientists. It's grounded in a very specific area, and the researchers on both sides are Egyptians who have a real, direct concern for their country's environment.

There is also growing civil society involvement around this, trying to mobilize the government to dedicate appropriate resources to the problem. The problem is also being internationalized institutionally (naturally the problem is international by definition), with a Mediterranean Action Plan backed by the EU about to go in action for coordination between the 21 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. One way or another, the time to act is now, first with more research, and then with solutions. We may be a few years away from starting a megaproject of dikes and underground walls, but efforts to preserve natural defenses (for instance by stopping construction companies from taking sand from the shore) can be implemented now. And that means tackling issues of corruption and governance — Egypt's perennial, overarching problem.