A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, May 4, 2009

One More Take on Eric Davis' "Ten Sins": Sin #6

I've already posted several times in order to give my own riffs on Eric Davis' "'Ten Conceptual Sins' in Analyzing Middle East Politics": an introductory comment here, and longer comments on Sin # 1 and Sin # 7: all my posts on the subject are aggregated here. I don't plan to post on all of them, but I definitely want to deal with one more at least: Sin #6: Seeing the Middle East politics through binary thinking. Davis comments:
Western analyses of the Middle East is to view political events in either “black” or “white” terms. While we can be very critical of many actions of the so-called Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi) between 2003 and 2007, when it lost much of its power, it was, and still is, one of the largest social service providers in Iraq. The fact that it, not the central government, provides a wide variety of social services, such as jobs, health care, education, and security, should make us realize the need to distinguish between its armed elements, who often engaged in despicable behavior, such as ethnic cleansing and criminality, and its social service providers, who have tried to help a population in need.
I agree with the point, but I think there's something else at work here. Americans, and our British forebears and allies, have a tendency — born of our heritage of Parliamentary democracy and relatively stable government — to expect normal governance to function within an essentially two-party system. Although Britain may technically be a three-party system the Liberal Democrats have never governed by themselves, and we essentially are used to a "Government" and "Loyal Opposition" model. This is hardly universal: it isn't even that common on the European continent, where multiple party systems and shifting coalitions are the norm.

Middle Eastern politics is obviously not functioning on a two-party model. Israel is almost a definition of multiple party coalition maneuvering. The other two countries that at least arguably have a genuinely pluralistic politics — let's agree on Turkey and Lebanon and argue about others later — have rather different traditions. They don't fit either the Anglo-American binary or continental coalition models.

Insofar as participatory politics has a history in the Arab world (a major issue in its own right) it has usually emerged not from the national level but at the local level. In the Nasser era in Egypt the regime and the security services ran the country with an iron hand, but local villages chose their own headmen. (That is no longer generally the case, so in a way things have been retrograde since Nasser, despite his strong security state.) Unions and professional syndicates had greater independence 30 years ago than they do today, and the judiciary still has an independent streak. That's one reason Egypt is not and has never come close to being Saddam Hussein's centralized and totalitarian Iraq.

There is another tradition, the old tribal concept of shura: consultation., The sheikh of a tribe might rule, but he ruled with the advice and consent of the elders and clan leaders, of his own family and other leaders. It was not by majority vote, but it also was not by dictatorial whim. It was done by consensus. Not everyone was a part of that consensus of course, not the women and children nor the uninfluential males, but it was not one-man-rule either.

There is still, I think, in much of the Arab world a preference for rule by consensus. Even in the Gulf monarchies there is still the tradition of the royal majlis, in which the ruler meets with his subjects, hears their complaints, and seeks to offer them remedies. It is a sort of benevolent despotism, a monarchy tempered by listening to one's subjects' complaints.

When Lebanon has worked best, it has worked through Shura: consultation and compromise among the various confessional, sectarian, and quasi-feudal allegiances that make up the country's varied communities. When it has worked least well (1958, 1975-1991, arguably since 2005) is when it has been drawn, either by its own internal stresses or external rivalries (the "Arab Cold War", as Malcolm Kerr called it, in 1958, the regional Arab-Israeli dynamics during the civil war, and the Western crusade for democratization since the Hariri assassination in 2005), into a binary, zero-sum, if they win we lose sort of equation. The Lebanese instinct is to be inclusive and non-zero-sum; the Western tradition is to interpret everything in a government-opposition model. Westerners have trouble figuring out how Walid Jumblatt, whose father was killed by Syria, spent years supporting Syria (though he's now against it again), or how Michel Aoun, rightwing Maronite general driven out of power by Syrian force of arms, is now an ally of both Syria and Hizbullah. But the key is it is not a zero sum game, since that leads to something like the civil war of 1975-1991. One bargains, one deals, one balances interests and finds a consensus. When Lebanon does that, it works. I have sometimes argued that not only does the Lebanese term za‘im come pretty close to the concept of "godfather" in the Mafia sense, but that the concept of the five families dividing up territory is not a bad analogy either. That may be a patronizing oversimplification, but it is not, in my personal opinion, unhelpful. (Bottom line: if the "opposition" wins in the June 7 elections, don't expect the apocalypse. If the "government" wins, don't expect it either. Left to themselves, the Lebanese will work it out. Their problem has always been that no one — regional neighbors or superpowers — leaves them to themselves.)

A binary view — one which encourages a zero-sum assessment — is not likely to work well in the Middle East, but it is the default paradigm for analysts from an Anglo-American background. I hope these thoughts add a bit to Eric Davis' wise assessment.

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