I’ve been traveling to Yemen, Syria and Turkey to film a documentary on how environmental stresses contributed to the Arab awakening. As I looked back on the trip, it occurred to me that three of our main characters – the leaders of the two Yemeni villages that have been fighting over a single water well and the leader of the Free Syrian Army in Raqqa province, whose cotton farm was wiped out by drought – have 36 children among them: 10, 10 and 16.
It is why you can’t come away from a journey like this without wondering not just who will rule in these countries but how anyone will rule in these countries.
Of course, we should hope for those with sincere democratic aspirations to prevail, but clearly theirs is not the only vision being put on the table. These aspiring democrats are having to compete with Islamist, sectarian and tribal opposition groups, which also have deep roots in these societies.
No matter which trend triumphs, though, the real issue is whether 50 years of population explosion, environmental mismanagement and educational stagnation have made some of these countries ungovernable by any group or ideology.
In Egypt, Yemen or Syria, it is common to see primary school classes of 60-70 kids with one undertrained teacher, no computers and no science instruction. How are the 36 kids whose three fathers I met going to have a chance in a world where robots are replacing manual blue-collar workers and software is increasingly replacing routine white-collar jobs – and where some of them can’t go back to the family farm because the water and topsoil have been depleted?
Then I go across the Turkish border to Tel Abyad, in northeastern Syria, and I see broken buildings, electricity lines on the ground, half-finished homes and a gaping hole in a grain-storage tower, and I think: Not only are they behind, but this war is still destroying what little they have left. They are in a hole and still digging.
The only way for these countries to catch up is by people uniting to mobilize all their strength. It is for Sunnis, Christians and Alawites in Syria to work together; for the tribes in Yemen and Libya to work together; for the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and liberals in Egypt to do so as well, particularly in implementing the proposed International Monetary Fund economic reforms.
In today’s globalized world, you fall behind faster than ever if you are not building the education, infrastructure and economic foundation to take advantage of this world – but you catch up faster if you do.
To pull together requires trust – that intangible thing that says you can rule over me even though you come from a different tribe, sect or political party – and that is what is missing here. In the absence of any Nelson Mandela-like leaders able and eager to build trust, I don’t see how any of these awakenings succeed.
I keep thinking about a Free Syrian Army commander introducing me to his leadership team: “My nephew, my cousin, my brother, my cousin, my nephew, my son, my cousin.…” What does that tell you?
We can only properly answer the question of whether we should be arming the Syrian rebels if we first answer the question of what kind of Syria we want to see emerge. Before we start sending guns to more people, let’s ask ourselves for what exact ends we want those guns used, and what else would be required of them and us to realize those ends.