Syria and Egypt can’t be fixed by the West

Here are some of the latest headlines out of Egypt and Syria.

A menacing war of words is developing between Egypt and Ethiopia over the building of a new dam, and the Arab world is now wondering whether Egypt has lost the Nile.

For untold generations, Egypt has been accustomed to seeing the Nile as its own property, only grudgingly allowing Sudan – which was long under Egyptian rule and considered a sister Arab country contributing to its security – to have a small part of the river’s flow.


Egypt was given full control of the Nile, while African countries were forbidden to build dams on the river or its tributaries; Egypt also had the right to carry out checks to make sure that the treaty was respected. In accordance with the treaty, Egypt still maintains today a permanent delegation of engineers stationed near Lake Victoria, source of the White Nile, to supervise the activities of the countries along the river.

In 1959, the treaty was amended so that Egypt received 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan 18.5, for a total of 87% of the annual flow accrued through the rains – leaving a mere 13% to the Upper Nile countries of Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya and Congo.

The amended treaty gave Egypt the right to build the Aswan Dam, and its Lake Nasser reservoir holds 168 billion cubic meters of water. The dam made it possible for Egypt to boost its production of electricity to 2,100 megawatts and to regulate the flow of the river, putting an end to the annual flooding that impacted Cairo and other areas. Lake Nasser is used to provide water for drinking and irrigation, thus increasing usable lands.

In this way, Egypt has remained an agricultural land and cannot envision a future with no free and steady supply of water from the Nile for its multipurpose uses. However, the past 50 years have seen changes in Africa.


Suddenly, last week – following meetings between Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn – Ethiopia published the communiqué announcing that the river would be diverted to facilitate the completion of the Grand Renaissance Dam. Egyptians are offended at what they perceive as an insult, since Morsi knew nothing of the communiqué. However, on a deeper level, they feel that the very basis of their existence is being threatened.

They have yet to come to terms with the new reality in the region and the needs of other countries.


To make matters worse, Sudan, which Egypt considered its staunchest ally on the Nile issue, has apparently come to the conclusion that it would not be harmed by the dam …


The questions remain: Can the troubled country, threatened by a potential agricultural disaster and widespread famine, understand that now is the time to enter into serious negotiations? Has it understood that only a fair and equitable solution, taking into consideration the legitimate needs of all Nile countries, will end the crisis in time?

The Syrian civil war is now spilling over into Lebanon, with dozens killed in Sidon:

Sniper fire echoed across the Lebanese city of Sidon last night as violence fuelled by the civil war in neighbouring Syria continued. In recent days this usually bustling coastal city has been paralysed, becoming the latest flashpoint in Lebanon to be affected by the war across the border. The fighting has drawn comparisons to events that preceded Lebanon’s own civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and was fought largely along sectarian lines.

Since Sunday the Lebanese army has been engaged in a series of battles with armed followers of Ahmad al-Assir, a radical Sunni sheikh aligned with the predominantly Sunni rebel forces in Syria.


Twelve soldiers were reported killed, although security sources put the toll at 18. Dozens of injuries were reported by medics at the scene. A statement by the military command said the latest violence “has gone beyond all expectations. The army was attacked in cold blood in an attempt to light the fuse in Sidon, just as was done in 1975”.

Meanwhile the West has been wondering what it will take to fix things. Will it take massive injections of cash? Unfortunately, endemic corruption in Egypt has magicked that money into thin air. As Elder of Ziyon remarks:

At any rate, the EU audit proves that any Western money being sent as an incentive to improve human rights and democracy in Egypt is being thoroughly wasted. Just as importantly, it proves that the West is reluctant to reign in aid even when it is shown to be a waste – it is harder to stop a program than to start it. (Think about UNRWA, over sixty years after it was supposed to have disappeared.)

Perhaps we should be arming the Syrian rebels against Assad? It might be strategic suicide to do so.

Barry Rubin explains the wrong-headed thinking of the West, saying that the Middle East is no “Material Girl”:

A reader pointed out that in the West, it is assumed to be obvious that Arabs understand material advancement is necessary for progress and power.


But this is not the real issue. As happened in the USSR, Nazi Germany, and elsewhere in history, the real problem is radical ideology in command of both the leaders and the masses. As a result, the masses of the Middle East don’t care about deficits, but mainly about conformity, hatred of the “other,” killing, revenge, and — to borrow a term — what is politically correct, not factually correct. As for the rulers, they know how devastating in terms of stability the kinds of policies naive Westerners support would be.

Remember, the West saw the fall of communism as the blooming of democracy, whereas the Middle Eastern leaders saw it as the wilting of empires. The West remembers the passing of the Soviet bloc as the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Middle East leaders saw it as the fall of their counterparts, and the placing of Romania’s dictatorial Ceausescus in front of a firing squad. Now, 20 years later, Mubarak is in prison and Qadhafi is dead, murdered.

Is Syria in a state of civil war because the regime failed its people, or because it tried to ride the tiger by toying with the promotion of Sunni Islamism? Perhaps regimes inevitably must fail their people because of a lack of resources, the state of their societies, the nature of the dominant ideas, and the era of anarchy that would have to be unleashed by even the best attempt to address the “deficits.” And perhaps there is a Western”deficit” in understanding the Middle East: a failure to take religion, ideology, and radicalism seriously; the inability to grasp that one is dealing with a different history and culture.

David Goldman confirms Rubin’s thesis in his article “Syria and Egypt can’t be fixed“:

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.


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.


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.

It is an exceedingly depressing thought to consider that there is no quick-fix, or any fix at all, that would improve the situation in either country.

Does this bode ill for Israel or for the West? Or will we be able to insulate ourselves from the fallout?

This entry was posted in Mideast news and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Syria and Egypt can’t be fixed by the West

  1. Brian Goldfarb says:

    I suspect that readers of sites like this one have long known, or at least suspected, this. The major difference with the West, when its agriculture sector started to modernise, was that the towns and cities actually had work to offer the displaced agricultural labourers. There are even those who would argue that for those who survived birth and infancy, the standard of living was higher than for those in the countryside.

    There was also a higher rate of literacy, the possibility for collective action (of a relatively peaceful sort) once trade unions were legalised, and the general rise in living standards as the West industrialised.

    There doesn’t appear to be that route available for the emerging “free” (we hope) societies of the Arab Spring. This makes the recognition by the US that it has a vital strategic ally in the region in Israel all the more vital. After all, were Israel to disappear, things would only get worse, nor better. The continued existence of Israel offers, ironically, the possibility of an economic solution to the problem.

    How so? Trade, especially in advanced technology, would bind the countries together, and make the possibility of real democracy more real. And it is very difficult to find cases where genuine parliamentary democracies have gone to war against each other.

Comments are closed.