By Eurasia Group analysts Hani Sabra and Willis Sparks
When governments take actions that stoke controversy, critics often hunt for Machiavellian motives related to local politics. Nowhere is this phenomenon more obvious than in the Middle East, particularly where religious tensions are involved.
So when the Egyptian government announced a decision on April 28 to combat the spread of swine flu by killing all the country's pigs, some analysts quickly reached for a sectarian political motive. Since the move will actually do nothing in the near-term to reduce human-to-human transmission of the H1N1 virus, the theory went, the government must have acted to appease Muslim fundamentalists by depriving minority Christians of one source of their income -- and one that is offensive to many Muslims. It's a satisfying theory that dovetails nicely with the long-running narrative about worsening relations between Egypt's Muslims and Christians.
No one can deny that there are inter-religious tensions in Egypt. Institutional discrimination against Christians is well-documented. Some spiritual leaders with an interest in stoking tensions will exploit this event. But while President Hosni Mubarak's government can fairly be accused of many things, anti-Christian bias isn't one of them. One of the government's most powerful figures, Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali, is among the most high-profile Christians in the country. A significant number of Egypt's most influential business leaders are Christian. Antagonizing Christians is not in the government's interest.
So if the Egyptian government knows that culling pigs won't really solve the epidemiological problem and isn't trying to curry favor with religious Muslims at the expense of Christians, why is it slaughtering all those pigs?
Remember bird flu? Outside of Asia, bird flu has killed more people in Egypt over the past three years than anywhere else in the world. In the two months preceding the latest swine flu outbreak, Egypt suffered a surge in bird flu cases. In late April, three more bird flu-related deaths were reported. In 2006 and 2007, angry Egyptians accused their government of reacting far too slowly to the bird flu crisis. To inoculate themselves against charges of making the same mistake twice, officials decided to move quickly and decisively to sacrifice pigs.
Yes, it's easier to antagonize a minority than the majority -- for many reasons. But in this case, the likelier motive is economic and logistical. First, the poultry industry plays a much larger role in Egypt's economy than the pork industry ever will. And to appear active and in charge, it's a lot easier and less expensive to kill all of the country's 300,000 pigs than to cull literally hundreds of millions of chickens and an unknown number of wild birds that migrate into and out of Egypt each season. Pork is not a significant part of the Egyptian diet. (Compare Egypt's 300,000 pigs with the 70 million across the United States.) But chicken is a staple of the Egyptian diet, particularly given the high beef prices that have made chicken an affordable substitute.
Yet, killing the pigs did not silence the critics. Following a fresh round of press complaints that killing swine won't address the spread of swine flu, Egyptian authorities quickly claimed that the cull was ordered mainly to reorganize pig farming and to make it more sanitary.
What's the lesson here? First, government actions that invite sinister interpretations are often simply a result of bureaucratic preference for a path of least resistance toward avoiding public criticism. Second, when presented with evidence that their actions are rash and ill-considered, state officials often stick to their guns to avoid an appearance of weakness and incompetence. Finally, Egyptians, especially the country's poor, have little voice in government decision-making.