Lost in the recent political jockeying and protest violence leading up to Egypt's May 23 presidential elections is the unfolding public health disaster there. Avian flu and foot and mouth disease are running rampant, killing people and livestock as well as inflating the price of food. It's a serious health and economic issue, but it has potentially much larger implications for Egypt, and this little-discussed crisis is beginning to resemble those that occur in failed states.
The Egyptian state, which was not particularly well-prepared for public emergencies even before the February 2011 revolution brought it into near-chaos, has little capacity to cope with the outbreaks threatening not only Egypt, but also Sudan, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jordan. Egypt's public health infrastructure barely functions. The sort of social service that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have provided over many years, it falls far short of what is needed to combat the current crisis. Cairo does not have the money to throw at the problem, having burned through more than half of its foreign currency reserves in the 15 months since Mubarak's fall.
Ground zero for Egypt's public health emergency is Libya, where last year, in the midst of civil war, foot and mouth disease swept through the country, killing more than 10 percent of its sheep and cattle. Smugglers subsequently brought infected sheep across the Libyan border, setting off a foot and mouth disease (FMD) wildfire that Egyptian officials have been unable to slow.