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 Mubarek 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.