Foot-and-mouth crisis is a sign of Egypt's malaise

The foot-and-mouth outbreak in Egypt highlights a fundamental problem: amid the political turmoil, Cairo is poorly prepared to deal with a crisis.

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On Tuesday, Egypt's military council defended its economic interests and policies, claiming that it had stockpiled six months worth of basic commodities in case of a crisis, Al Ahram newspaper reported.

Amid the political row over the constitutional assembly, and the question about a Muslim Brotherhood candidate for president, a quieter news story has been almost overlooked: a crisis may already be at hand.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that unless urgent action is taken to contain the latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Egypt, a major food security crisis could spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

The Rome-based organisation reported that 4,658 animals had already died of the disease with more than 40,000 other cases suspected. It could get far worse: estimates are that 6.3 million buffalo and cattle and 7.5 million sheep and goats are also at risk.

And while international health agencies have pledged to help develop a vaccine and implement other prophylactic measures, it remains unclear how prepared, or even inclined, Egypt's rulers are to deal with the epidemic.

To be sure, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and transitional government have been kept busy over the last year dealing with the aftershocks of the revolution that brought down the Mubarak regime. Protests are still common, basic security is precarious and all sides are wrangling over the eventual political order.

But Egypt's government still has to act like a government. It is incumbent on the generals who hold power to ensure that the country's institutions continue to function. In that sense, Cairo has a responsibility to the country's farmers, the population at large and neighbouring states to address health hazards such as this latest outbreak.

With reports of animal carcasses left to rot in mass ditches, it would seem that responsibility is not being met. That is a recipe for further spread of the disease. The consequences for Egypt's farming industry and beleaguered economy at large could be devastating.

Egypt cannot afford to be complacent as the disease spreads. A food crisis could precipitate an even greater political crisis; if the disease spreads to pastoralist communities across Africa, it could have untold consequences.

Egypt's first priority must be to contain this disease. Who is in charge in Cairo is only important if the government continues to function.