The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Egypt vs. Lebanon vs. Morocco

Elijah wonders about Lebanon and Egypt, a comparison I've often made myself:

Coming from Egypt, all this Lebanese success actually annoyed me. If Lebanon—a few years after a 15-year civil war, and with no natural resources to speak of—can do so well, why is Egypt so screwed up? OK, there are only something like 4 million people in all of Lebanon, or about the population of Shobra and Bulaq. But is population all there is to it? Egypt borders two seas, it has the Suez Canal, natural gas reserves, unparalleled tourist destinations, and it hasn’t just emerged from a long civil war. You’d think that’d be enough to outweigh the population differences. So why is Lebanon so nice?
Indeed, it's sometimes mind-boggling.

Lebanon is so bizarrely screwed up yet such a great place. I think the setting itself alone explains a lot -- especially Beirut, which is as beautiful as Cairo is ugly. On the one hand you have a city built on hills along the sea. On the other you have a city build on marshlands between a muddy river and a dreary desert. Egypt has beautiful places elsewhere, but Cairo isn't one of them. And then of course you have the differences in the people. I tend to prefer Egyptians, but you have to hand it to the Lebanese for the way they carry themselves. Of course only being four million and almost entirely literate helps. Probably also the fact that it was a divided country for centuries, with rivalry between (and among) different groups also helps -- especially compared to the centralized economic and political elites that dominated Egypt over the centuries.

Perhaps a fairer comparison is between Morocco and Egypt. After all, both have large populations (a little over 70 million in Egypt, 30 million in Morocco), high illiteracy and poverty rates, and similar socio-economic problems. But Morocco remains (for the middle classes at least), in terms of quality of life and environment, way ahead of Egypt even though it's considerably poorer -- no oil or gas, strategic assets like the Suez Canal, or anything of the sort. Just a bunch of phosphates and sardines. Not to diss Egypt, which I love and whose people are my favorite anywhere on earth, but you have to wonder...