The end of the Arab affair

The end of the Arab affair
Comment: The creative ways in which postwar plural societies can be governed are dangerously undermined through reductionist binary options of ethno-sectarian federalism and hyper-centralised state, writes Dr. Bassel F. Salloukh.
7 min read
28 Mar, 2016
Historical comparative experience in other postwar plural societies is not reassuring [Getty]

What kind of a Syria will emerge from the wreckage of – so far – more than five years of fighting? This is the question international, regional, and local actors are pondering as ‘proximity talks’ between Syrian government envoys and representatives of the internationally-designated opposition commenced in Geneva in March 2016 under UN auspices.

What political system can restore a semblance of territorial integrity to a country devastated by all kinds of overlapping international, regional, and local wars and crisscrossed by transnational and local salafi-jihadi groups, where sectarian and ethnic identities, never the sole markers of political identity, have been securitised and are now assumed primordial and the main source of political identity and community?

How will communities that have witnessed political mobilisation in the name of the sect or the ethnic group, as well as sectarian and ethnic massacres, accept to live together again under the same flag or inside the same borders?

The inescapable question then is whether postwar Syria will retain its centralised unitary political structure, will be divided along ethno-federal lines, or a middle ground will be devised between these binary choices that may help restore peace to Syria without altering its political geography forever or denying its peoples their justifiable democratic aspirations.

A comparative balance sheet

Comparative experience in other postwar plural societies is not reassuring. Yugoslavia’s wars ended with the country getting divided into seven independent states along ethnic and religious lines. In another case, the central government’s violence against southerners and its misguided hegemonic policies tore Sudan into two states, neither of which is a beacon of stability or democracy. More closely, the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq destroyed Saddam’s brutal regime but created a decentralised federation that is proving impossible to govern or keep together.

Common to all these examples is a history of a hyper-centralised authoritarian states ruling over a plural society, a state anchored on a homogenised post-independence nationalistic narrative in which there is no place for a polyphonic imagining of the nation. The central role played by external actors, always at the service of their own geopolitical calculations and interests, in imposing these postwar settlements is another alarming common denominator among all these cases.

What political system can restore a semblance of territorial integrity to a country devastated by all kinds of overlapping international, regional, and local wars?

Invariably, external actors deploy reductionist lenses through which they view what are otherwise complex societies with multiple and malleable endogenous identities. By this balance sheet of comparative experiences, Syria's future looks bleak indeed.

But Syria is symptomatic of a far more general Arab affair: the pitfalls of the centralised homogenising post-independence state. Whether in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, or beyond, it is this centralised homogenising state that institutionalised the political, economic, and cultural exclusions and dislocations that later exploded in the popular uprisings, subsequently unravelling states and societies, and securitising long dormant but repressed tribal, ethnic, and sectarian identities.

The pitfalls of concentrating political power but also economic development in the centre, so brilliantly diagnosed a long time ago by Frantz Fanon, in the name of the security state, economic development, and monolithic nationalistic narratives alienated whole areas and communities. Whether they are sects, tribes, or ethnic communities, they have now reimagined their histories in recently collapsed states as ones based on linear primordial identities, and reemerged to claim their share of national wealth and political power.

In many ways, the Arab uprisings have exposed this fatal bias for the centralised, homogenising state: a post-independence political affair that wrought so much death and destruction, and denied multiple generations the opportunity for proper economic development.

The tragedy of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria – but also Turkey and Iran – was always there for everyone to see, but the exclusionary narrative of Arab nationalism made sure their rights were conveniently ignored without much fuss or guilt. Even the Lebanese state, so weak vis-à-vis the country's powerful sectarian communities, was built on an abnormal centralisation of state power.

With time, this produced a lopsided economy that created the socioeconomic preconditions for civil war. Demographic changes and a new postwar sectarian balance of power tipped in favour of the Muslim communities is driving their Christian counterparts, the originators of the very idea of Lebanon in the first place, to demand substantial political, economic, and administrative local autonomy.

If not the kind of ethnofederalism that divides the country along sectarian, ethnic, or tribal lines, thus hardening recently securitised vertical identities, then what? Not all is lost in the Arab world, a bit of creativity and humility may go a long way towards restoring and democratising the states and societies torpedoed by the popular uprisings.

But to do so requires moving away from that collective vision of the centralised homogenising state that has monopolised political imagination since independence and is at the core of so much present misery. Decentralising the state is not rocket science; nor is it a euphemism for taqsim, that haunting Arabic term with the illocutionary force of partition.

Decentralisation means devolving much of the post-independence state's political, economic, and developmental functions to local communities who know so much better how to manage their own affairs. Nor should local administrative boundaries overlap with sectarian, ethnic, or tribal identities. There is a plethora of creative ways to redraw administrative boundaries to unleash hitherto repressed counterfactual anti- or cross-sectarian, ethnic, and tribal identities and groups.

What decentralisation does accomplish is a new calculus of political competition and alliances beyond sectarian, tribal, or ethic identities and calculations. It also increases accountability between voters and their elected representatives, thus raising democratic standards and the quality of service provisions.

Syria is symptomatic of a far more general Arab affair: the pitfalls of the centralised homogenising post-independence state.

It is high time we demystify the common assumption which equates any devolution of state powers in the Arab world with the knavish aims of foreign conspiracies. This has always been a pretext for more authoritarianism by the centre, and a recipe for denying different communities, whether minorities or otherwise, their basic cultural, political, and economic rights.

It also assumes that the peoples of the region are permanent preadolescents, unable to take difficult decisions or govern themselves democratically as part of a multiplicity of different communities making a plural society. This is why the institutional arrangement that comes out of the present rubles in Syria is so important for the whole region.

Despite sectarian and ethnic mayhem, the great majority of Syrians continue to reject secessionist and partition options. Even when they declared their own federal region in the northeast of the country, and despite a long history of oppression by the central authorities, Syria’s Kurds made sure to emphasise that what they are talking about is only a measure of self-rule or decentralisation.

There are innumerable creative options other than the binary choices of the centralised, homogenising unitary state or a state vivisected along ethnofederal lines for the real makers of Syria’s future to entertain. A measure of decentralisation can in fact help maintain the country’s territorial integrity and may also unleash creative talents and forces long suffocated by the heavy hand of the centralised security state.

History would be farce indeed if the day after ISIS is defeated, Arab states, with support from regional and international actors, decide to return to a centralised paradigm of political organisation. This would not only condemn future generations to another round of authoritarianism, it will also replicate the exclusions and violence of the past. But history should not always repeat itself.

Dr. Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.