Saturday, April 23, 2005

Rationalizing Middle Eastern Politics

I am currently reading Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. Some of you may have read it a long time ago, and I would appreciate your views on it. The book is written in a journalistic style, with many anecdotes; however it also presents some broad analytical lines along which to think, which I found can still be applied to the problems we see today in Lebanon and the region (Of course, those problems are an extension of the events Friedman was writing about in the 80s).

In order to understand the 1982 events in Hama, Friedman identified three different political forces which helped explain the dominant political dynamics of the Middle East. The first and oldest of the ‘traditions’ was tribalism, or tribe-like politics. Friedman defines this as “a pre-modern form of political interaction characterized by a harsh, survivalist quality and an adherence to certain intense primordial or kin-group forms of allegiance”. This mutual loyalty within clan, sect or village takes precedence over allegiances to the wider national community or nation-state.

The second ‘tradition’ is authoritarianism, i.e. “the concentration of power in a single ruler or elite not bound by any constitutional framework”. This force is linked to that of tribalism. Because it is difficult for any clan to voluntarily accept being ruled by another. Authoritarianism may come in two forms: gentle authoritarianism (e.g. The Ottoman Empire in its Golden Age, and to a certain extent Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and the Gulf Sheikhdoms), and brutal authoritarianism. Those countries where society is more fragmented (such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon) are more prone to brutal forms of authoritarianism. As an example of brutal authoritarianism, Friedman cites the foundation of Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad (A.D. 750).
Those of you having taken CSVP 202 at AUB will recall Ibn Khuldun’ s cyclical view of Islamic history: a nomadic tribe with strong blood ties conquers an area by force; once in power though, it gradually is weakened by the corrupting attributes of power, sedentary life, and “civilization”; another tribe then comes along and takes its place. It would be interesting to think about those dynamics in the context of the current Middle East. Is the sectarian nature of Lebanon, in any way a barrier to the emergence of such “authoritarian” takeovers? Can it act as a system of check and balances in a democratic environment?

The third force identified by Friedman is the concept of the modern nation-state imposed by Western powers. And here he quotes from the orientalist Bernard Lewis: “Countries and nations existed; they had names, and evoked sentiments of a kind, but they were not seen as defining political identities or directing political allegiances” [in the modern European sense]. (And we go back once again to the notion of identity already debated in previous posts!!!). Friedman thus concludes that “many of the states in the Middle East today –Egypt being the most notable exception- did not emerge out of a social contract between rulers and ruled.” Of course, with time (and in a powerful example of the adaptive capacities of men), these states no longer represented just an agglomeration of clans, sects or villages; and the first artificial demarcation lines began to harden.

Although most of the ideas presented here come from Friedman, they might be a good launch-pad for further discussion.


Charles Malik said...

I thought that book was horrible. At first I thought it was pretty good. Friedman obviously didn't udnerstand what was going on in Lebanon, but some of his stories were hilarious.
Then he got into the Israeli invasion and the introduction of American and French troops. Ouf! He majorly failed.
At first I wanted to believe him because he gave such an empassioned account of what happened at Sabra and Chatila and Israel's complicity. But then he begins to contradict himself left and right. He claims that Israel knew exactly what was going on on the ground and that they were feeding it to the Americans. And then, in his chapter about American involvement, says that the shady Maronites tricked America into believing they were fighting a nationalist fight, that the Americans were naive and had no idea what was going on. WHAT??!! Two chapters earlier the guy could not stop talking about American connections in the Middle East, his winning a Pulitzer for reporting on Beirut, and Israeli connections to America.

Raja said...


I feel that Friedman does manage to articulate some general characteristics of almost all of the societies in our region. These traits are very connected to the issue of identity politics that I continue to bring up over and over again.

The problem with Friedman's articulation is that the whole purpose behind it was to try to understand the Hama massacre and the Lebanese civil war. But we all know how easy it is to deflect blame of a war and violence on another party... How easy it is to say that it was all the adversary's fault... How easy it is to avoid thinking about it because it would be such a painful exercise.... The end result is that however valid Freedman’s analysis is, I just feel that it’s not too relevant for the problems we face today!

A Lebanese might tell you: “I want solutions to living a peaceful and prosperous life. I don't want any more analyses of war!” Doesn't every taxi driver in Lebanon complain that he can barely feed his kids? Therefore, I think that the best context in which to challenge identity politics is economics and governance because every one of us is directly affected by both of those concepts every day of our lives.

People need to know that societies and political systems cost money. It takes resources to maintain a social order. Ultimately, we need to decide whether our societal structures & norms are sucking up more resources than they are allowing us to produce. The same applies for political systems. Political systems suck up a hell of a lot of resources in order to sustain themselves.

A very good example of the former is helping out your brother when he’s broke. You could have invested that money in a factory that would have hired 100 strangers! Another good example of the latter, is the patron-client network that is such a crucial component of the sectarian system. This all costs, my friends! It costs a lot!

So we have a duty to highlight it, and not only highlight the money lost, but what the money could have been used for. This way, we might get the message across.

Raja said...


so that I'm going off on a totaly different tangent, I want to connect Freidman's concepts with my own ranting:

1. Freidman's "tribalism" characterizes our sectarian society

2. His "authoritarianism" characterizes our political system. all the sects have little authoritarian rulers that rely on patron-client networks.

the only benefit that comes out of our political system is the checks and balances that comes out of it. but, in my opinion, that's the only advantage! We really need to build on it.

JoseyWales said...

Friedman: Good anecdotes, lousy and/or shallow analysis. Check this out, especially the part "how to write a Friedman column".


reem said...


You're right that trying to understand the war and the politics purely in terms of the factors highlighted by Friedman is incomplete. As an economics graduate, I should probably stick to that rather than try to venture in political theory which some of the people in this blog master much better than me!
There are many examples which demonstrate that a solid economic base, if reasonably distributed among the people of a country, is probably the strongest base for stability and a functional society.
In this sense, economic disparities and imbalances in a country (at a sectarian or regional level) certainly constitutes one of the significant factors at the origin of the war.
I liked the fact that you highlighted how maintaining a political system is costly. You talked about the opportunity costs of all those resources swallowed up to keep the system functioning. A related example which is generating a good deal of discussion in the UK is the cost of regulation. The state wants to keep markets in check, and that costs a lot of resources. The trick is to find that point where the costs of regulation start outweighing its benefits. The extreme would be an inflated public system, which diverts too much resources at the expense of other areas necessary for growth. I may have diverged too much from our discussion....I apologise for that!

Miguel de Icaza said...

As others have said, the book from Friedman has good anecdotes, but I myself got tired of it one third of the way through because the book focuses too much in himself: it is a big shrine to his courage, his adventures and his reporting. That leaves little to the rest.

I found the following two books to have a much better coverage of the lebanese civil war: "Pity the Nation" from Robert Fisk and "Israel's Lebanon War" by a couple of Israeli journalists from Haaretz.

Fisk's book mixes stories, interviews and a build-up to his research juxtaposed with interviews done at various stages (before, during, after) with the key players, which helps to understand the evolution and the various positions of the players.

Israel's Lebanon War benefits from extensive data and government documents available to the Israelis and reconstructs the events that lead to Israel the 1982 Israeli invasion, but there is quite an extensive research on the negotiations with the Phalange and the plot to take command of the christian forces.

Anonymous said...

While I hesitate to agree too much with Fisk on anything, I think that pretty much any chapter of "Pity the Nation" runs circles around anything Friedman has produced regarding Lebanon. Fisk pointed out the existence of a particular species of reporter that generally remained tethered to the Commodore Hotel - partially from orders from above, partially from fear for one's safety, etc. Consequently reports coming from such journalists tended to revolve around events nearest the Commodore Hotel, neglecting or ignoring stories happening outside this tight little region of west Beirut. Having said that, take another good look at Friedman's stories in "From Beirut to Jerusalem"; Friedman was definitely one such reporter.

Doha said...


You wrote: "The first and oldest of the ‘traditions’ was tribalism, or tribe-like politics. Friedman defines this as “a pre-modern form of political interaction characterized by a harsh, survivalist quality and an adherence to certain intense primordial or kin-group forms of allegiance”. This mutual loyalty within clan, sect or village takes precedence over allegiances to the wider national community or nation-state."

Unfortunately, the oldest of the traditions, assabiyyah, that "pre-modern form of political interaction", is still with us through the present. This only makes me think how in our part of the world, things evolve slowly. Or perhaps we can say that despite the evolution of our political system (namely morphing into a modern nation-state system), old traditions just don't die out. So, just like you wrote, we end up actually having three systems in place, as opposed to only one; no one system is able to eliminate the other.

Raja said...


let me give you another example of how social order "costs money."

A close relative of mine was thinking of opening an agro-industry business in Lebanon. One of the first things he decided was not to open that factory in his own village even though the supply of the particular fruit he was interested in was abundant. The reason? He was scared that if he actually bought the fruits (i.e. his raw material) for what they were worth, he would become the village-outcast! He based his conclusion on experience from one or two of his predecessors.

Of course, these traditions do have their egalitarian nature. It definitely feels good to give people the money that they consider is fair. But, in the context of the modern state, this becomes a very expensive form of charity. On the one hand, the state offers (or should offer) all of its citizens a viable safety net, and on the other, social norms force you to become "charitable" and ultimately uncompetitive as a business. In doha's words, "no one system is able to eliminate the other."

We always talk about how traditions are simply not suitable for running a business or government in today's world. Concepts like nepotism and patron-client relations are thrown here and there; and ultimately loose any meaning - they just become abstract constructs. I believe that if we are able to somehow quantify the losses that can be attributed to tradition (whether in business or governance) we would be able to give new salience to those two concepts. People will really begin to think about the way they behave and might eventually "change their ways."

Since I am no economist, and am only skirting the subject of econometrics, I was wondering how viable such an enterprise is. Is it possible to actually quantify the losses attributable to certain types of traditional behavior?

reem said...


That's an interesting question...I have a feeling it would be feasibale, but let me think about it a little longer. The most difficult thing in such an enterprise, I believe, would be to define 'traditional behaviour' in quantifiable terms.

Rosemary said...

Just to add my point of view...he did not even have to study the ME. That is the way it is in every society. All he had to do was look at early American history. Oh well.

Rosemary said...

I was reading the conversation you were having with Reem when I began to think, "Some changes are slow, some changes are quick. It all depends on what is changing."

Some traditions are good to hold on to. Others are better left to change slowly. Some, like Syrian occupation, are best dealt with quickly to change for the good of all. It all depends on what the specific change is.

I would recommend that you do not change your thirst for education, learning (yes, there is a difference! lol), love of family, love of country, love of humanity. At the same time, each of these may change slighty with time as to the way you persieve them.

The only fact that does not change: Truth. It will always be true. Can it challanged? You bet. Otherwise, how would we know it was true? Have a great day.