Thursday, March 14, 2013

As Arab inequality grows, Lebanon looks like a model

In finding a theme to explain the so-called Arab Spring, it is difficult not to fall back on two related causes. The first is that the countries affected were bastions of brutal authoritarianism. The second is that in most cases their social contracts never properly addressed the relationship between minorities and majorities.

When discussing minorities, the tendency is to focus on religious or ethnic minorities, but most Arab social compacts have made little room for a wider variety of groups, including sexual minorities and social dissenters. In some countries, this situation has led to dynamics in which minorities came to control majorities through elaborate mechanisms of repression. This was the case in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and in Syria under the Assad family.

The failure of Arab countries to adequately regulate communal relations, whereby minorities can be integrated into the state and reassured about their future, has been a fundamental flaw of the Arab state system for many decades.

There were several reasons for such a situation, depending on which country one was observing.

The first was ideological. The Arab nationalist state - as in Egypt, Syria or Iraq - by its nature was intolerant of minority identity. Those who took power in these countries, even when they hailed from a minority, sought to draw attention away from this fact and depict the state as the embodiment of broad national agreement, and the culmination of an Arab desire for emancipation from outside powers. To recognise divisive minority identities detracted from the more perfect unitarian identity regimes in these states sought to project.

Consequently, Arab nationalism came to justify despotic political orders, as minorities of all stripes - religious, ethnic, social or intellectual - were sacrificed at the altar of obligatory unanimity. Why unanimity? Because regimes, to maintain control over their societies, could not allow exceptions to the political line they had laid down. Unanimity when it came to identity was a foundation of the political unanimity centralised regimes enforced, even as they claimed that Arab nationalism was for the greater good of all.

A second reason why social contracts never properly acknowledged minority rights, and why minority regimes repressed majorities, is that there has rarely been a process of consensual nation-building in the Arab world. Instead, regimes have often come to power through coups, or have inherited authority. In both cases, the political orders they upheld were naturally predisposed against constructive dialogue and compromise.

For many Arab leaders, compromise is another word for concessions, which is anathema to the unforgiving systems they created, often after years of plotting in the shadows. That is why challenging the status quo is interpreted as a form of subversion, a way of defying the existence of the regime itself, which invites violent retaliation.

A third reason is that minority demands can often come with serious geographical consequences. That is the case, for instance, of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, as well as in Turkey and Iran. The Kurds have long been oppressed by regimes in these countries, and not surprisingly this has reinforced their desire to form autonomous or independent entities. Their motivation has been little different from that of many Arabs during the 1950s and 1960s: to come together in a state unifying a people separated by borders.

A fourth, more controversial reason, has to do with religion. This issue involves ideology, but also much more than that. Many minority religions in the region are viewed as being incompatible with a dominant Islam, which has led to marginalisation of minorities. The Copts in Egypt, for example, have long had an uneasy relationship with the majority Muslim population, especially with regimes using Islam as a legitimising factor to implement unpopular policies.

Similarly, few Jews remain in the Arab world, to a great extent because they were harassed for allegedly representing an Israeli fifth column. In many countries the community had an ancient pedigree, yet in the last half-century Jews have all but disappeared from most Arab societies. Opposition to Jews may have been political rather than religious, and yet politics has become so entwined with religion and identity that the distinction among the three is routinely blurred.

One Arab country, Lebanon, has tried to adopt a political system that would manage relations between its minorities. The country functions according to a power-sharing arrangement (known as the Taif Agreement) that divides senior leadership posts among the major religious communities. However, far from inspiring other countries to imitate its model, Lebanon has been dysfunctional, enduring a civil war between 1975 and 1990, while in recent years sectarian relations have usually been defined less by cooperation than by obstructionism.

Yet the philosophy at the heart of the Lebanese communal pact is defensible, even admirable. Against a contrary predisposition in the region, the Lebanese sought to put in place institutions of coexistence and conciliation. One reason is that no single community has the wherewithal to rule over all the others, while the confessional system prompts communities to form alliances to contain any side or coalition that becomes too powerful. In theory this imposes modesty on all, but when it doesn't the system can slide into conflict.

In times of discord, a power-sharing mechanism can mean deadlock, as communities that for one reason or another feel their interests are not being taken into consideration gum up the system by refusing to participate in decision-making.

Minority-based fears are among the most difficult to resolve, because religious or ethnic minorities usually think in terms of existential threats. The Arab world has not given much thought to this vital problem, even as its travails today point to the urgency of doing so.

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