Syria and Egypt are dying. They were dying before the Syrian civil war broke out and before the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Cairo. Syria has an insoluble civil war and Egypt has an insoluble crisis because they are dying. They are dying because they chose not to do what China did: move the better part of a billion people from rural backwardness to a modern urban economy within a generation. Mexico would have died as well, without the option to send its rural poor - fully one-fifth of its population - to the United States.
It was obvious to anyone who troubled to examine the data that Egypt could not maintain a bottomless pit in its balance of payments, created by a 50% dependency on imported food, not to mention an energy bill fed by subsidies that consumed a quarter of the national budget. It was obvious to Israeli analysts that the Syrian regime's belated attempt to modernize its agricultural sector would create a crisis as hundreds of thousands of displaced farmers gathered in slums on the outskirts of its cities. These facts were in evidence early in 2011 when Hosni Mubarak fell and the Syrian rebellion broke out. Paul Rivlin of Israel's Moshe Dayan Center published a devastating profile of Syria's economic failure in April 2011.
Sometimes countries dig themselves into a hole from which they cannot extricate themselves. Third World dictators typically keep their rural population poor, isolated and illiterate, the better to maintain control. That was the policy of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party from the 1930s, which warehoused the rural poor in Stalin-modeled collective farms called ejidos occupying most of the national territory. That was also the intent of the Arab nationalist dictatorships in Egypt and Syria. The policy worked until it didn't. In Mexico, it stopped working during the debt crisis of the early 1980s, and Mexico's poor became America's problem. In Egypt and Syria, it stopped working in 2011. There is nowhere for Egyptians and Syrians to go.
It is cheap to assuage Western consciences by sending some surplus arms to the Syrian Sunnis. No-one has proposed a way to find the more than US$20 billion a year that Egypt requires to stay afloat. In June 2011, then French president Nicholas Sarkozy talked about a Group of Eight support program of that order of magnitude. No Western (or Gulf State) government, though, is willing to pour that sort of money down an Egyptian sinkhole.
Egypt remains a pre-modern society, with nearly 50% illiteracy, a 30% rate of consanguineal marriage, a 90% rate of female genital mutilation, and an un- or underemployment rate over 40%. Syria has neither enough oil nor water to maintain the bazaar economy dominated by the Assad family.
Both were disasters waiting to happen. Economics, to be sure, set the stage but did not give the cues: Syria's radical Sunnis revolted in part out of enthusiasm for the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and partly in fear of Iran's ambition to foster Shi'ite ascendancy in the region.
It took nearly two years for the chattering classes to take stock of Egypt's economic disaster. The New York Times' Thomas Friedman, the benchmark for liberal opinion on foreign policy, gushed like an adolescent about the tech-savvy activists of Tahrir Square in early 2011. Last week he visited a Cairo bakery and watched the Egyptian poor jostling for subsidized bread. Some left hungry. As malnutrition afflicts roughly a quarter of Egyptians in the World Health Organization's estimate, and the Muslim Brotherhood government waits for a bumper wheat crop that never will come, Egypt is slowly dying. Emergency loans from Qatar and Libya slowed the national necrosis but did not stop it.
This background lends an air of absurdity to the present debate over whether the West should arm Syria's Sunni rebels. American hawks like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, to be sure, argue for sending arms to the Sunnis because they think it politically unwise to propose an attack on the Assad regime's master, namely Iran. The Obama administration has agreed to arm the Sunnis because it costs nothing to pre-empt Republican criticism. We have a repetition of the "dumb and dumber" consensus that prevailed during early 2011, when the Republican hawks called for intervention in Libya and the Obama administration obliged. Call it the foreign policy version of the sequel, "Dumb and Dumberer".
Even if the Sunnis could eject the Assad family from Damascus and establish a new government - which I doubt - the best case scenario would be another Egypt: a Muslim Brotherhood government presiding over a collapsed economy and sliding inevitably towards state failure. It is too late even for this kind of arrangement. Equalizing the military position of the two sides will merely increase the body count. The only humane thing to do is to partition the country on the Yugoslav model, but that does not appear to be on the agenda of any government.
David P. Goldman is an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the essay collection It's Not the End of the World, It's Just the End of You.