Tuesday, June 07, 2005

state vs. tribe vs. clergy : the missing component in our discussions

The key variable that we continually ignore in our discussions about democratization in the Middle East are the crucial mechanisms of authority that are needed to maintain order and control within any society. To avert chaos, humanity has created a plethora of structures that give a minority of people the ability to control the masses. The modern state along with its many appendages (like the political party) is merely one of those structures. The family, tribe and clan are other structures. Religious institutions are yet another. Even corporations and other forms of modern organizations such as labor unions are mechanisms that help bring about some sort of order in society.

In all countries and societies there is a unique concoction of these institutions that bring about order. But you do see trends that cross borders. For example, modern organizations and the modern state are most productively (and democratically) utilized in what is referred to as “the West.” However, the question that we need to tackle as advocates for reform in the broader Middle East is: what would happen if an institution of authority, which has played a paramount role in maintaining order for over half a century in countries like Syria and Egypt, is eliminated (i.e. the paternalistic, authoritarian state)?

Iraq has shown us that rather than create a liberal-democratic state, people revert to primordial institutions of control and authority such as clans, tribes and religious institutions. Their inherent desire for order, predictability, and security drives them to accept what is available and easily applicable, irrespective of how they perceive those institutions. From another perspective, those who are at the helm of non-state authoritative institutions jump at the opportunity to fill the void created by the elimination of the state (which ultimately competed against them and, in most cases, subjugated them). The ultimate goal of such leaders would be to pre-empt the creation of another state that would eventually limit their own authority again.

Whether a state is authoritarian or liberal-democratic is irrelevant to leaders of tribal and religious institutions. A Sheikh who heads a tribe would find any manifestation of the state (be it liberal or authoritarian) as an annoyance since it ultimately curtails his freedoms to do as he wishes. The same applies to religious sheikhs, who see it as their God-given right to control and direct their "flocks" as they see fit (politically as well as religiously). In the eyes of both types of leaders, the end result of a modern state is the same: curtailment of their powers. Therefore, as mentioned above, they will do everything within their powers to curtail the development of a state, or if such a feat is impossible, mold the state in such a way so as to give them as much authority as possible.

In Syria, a dissolution of the Ba’athist regime would, without a doubt, lead to fragmentation, just like Iraq. The different sects will revert to what is left of their parochial institutions, and form corresponding political/military entities. The notion that a liberal/democratic order will emerge from the removal of the Ba’ath order in Syria is simply ridiculous. I’m not too familiar with Egyptian society, so I cannot predict what will happen there. However, from what I know, I also find it impossible to be optimistic that a liberal/democratic order will emerge there either if Mubarak’s regime is overthrown.

Lebanon, in some ways, is no different from other Middle Eastern countries. Tribes, religious institutions and clans have considerable power as authoritative institutions. However, the uniqueness of Lebanon lies in the fact that the state has always been weak. Therefore, primordial authoritative institutions have been given a relatively free hand to do as they please. The upshot to this situation is that there is relative calm in the country because the clans have learnt to deal with each other directly, and the result is a relatively plural order. The down side to this situation is that although there is relative pluralism at the sect/clan level, the individual Lebanese is left with limited political choices and very limited individual rights. Furthermore, since most of the different sects rely on foreign support to improve their political position relative to other sects, local relations between the different political entities is tied very closely to regional developments.

This Lebanese situation is probably the best case scenario for Iraq today. However, considering that the different sects are only now beginning to learn how to deal with themselves directly, it may take the Iraqis years, if not decades to reach the “Lebanon ideal” (unless of course, another authoritarian regime comes to power, or the country splits apart). I cannot expect more from the Syrians or the Egyptians. So the million dollar question is: are there other ways to force reform down the throats of regimes that are simply unwilling to change the status quo? If not, then the other million dollar question is: Will the adoption of the “Lebanon model” in countries like Syria and Iraq lead to better living conditions for the Syrians and Iraqis? If that is the case, then is such an improvement in living conditions worth the bloodshed that will almost inevitably emerge in the transition process?


Raja said...

guys, I just wanted to say that I tried my best to articulate a very complex thought I had in my head. I must admit that I struggled with it for at least a week, and that there are some inconsistencies in the post, as well as some places that need more development.

So, in short, I would appreciate some feedback - be it positive or negative. Where was I unclear, and where did I make some strong points. I like to think of myself as a "dialectical" thinker. My thoughts sharpen as I am faced with more and more questions, so please, bring 'em on!


Hussein said...

Raja, thanks a lot for the post. I found your thoughts very enlightening and refreshing.

Oftentimes, when someone invokes realism (as in: get real dude,…) in a debate about societies, in the back of their minds s/he is assuming that societies are static, obeying certain laws (or stereotypes), and endowed with certain attributes and features that will never change over time. I feel you are making such an assumption when you talk about Middle Eastern societies, that they are static.

A random thought. How about the Turkish model. It is not liberal, neither despotic nor democratic, but has been establishing, over the years, a secular tradition which is a pillar to any democratic liberal society.

Another random thought. You say: “the crucial mechanisms of authority that are needed to maintain order and control within any society.” Wouldn’t you agree that the LEVEL of control needed would differ among different societies. Would you also agree that the level of control exerted by the tribe/clergy ON INDIVIDUALS is considerably higher than that exerted by the state, even though it migh look chaotic if one zooms out and looks at the different tribes interacting together. So the interesting question is: why on earth would people, as INDIVIDUALS, prefer a system that exerts more control at the personal level (which is bad: less individual freedom) but has less control on the grand scale of things (which is also bad: chaos, wars,…)??????/

reem said...

thanks for a thought-triggering post.
I might come back to this topic when my thoughts about it are sharper. I just wanted to point out how much more complex things are in societies where you have religious/ sectarian/ tribal diversity. It's a whole additional dimension that plays itself out in history. Take Eastern European countries: somehow, the transition to "democracies" from centralised regimes and dictatorships seemed easier than it appears to be in the Arab World (taking out exceptions like Bosnia).

you asked why individuals would prefer a system that exerts more control at the personal level. I think a key word here is TRUST. I recently saw a report on the city of Parma (Italy). Italy has a state, yes. But corruption is rife, and it translates itself into what the author termed foedal politics, which is an extreme case of party-politics. The people of Parma could not trust the state or the politicians, so instead they fall back on micro-level social sytems of support (family, community, etc). But of course, at a certain level, it is likely that these will merge with the foedal politics. So what you get is close to what we have with power-cells centered around "za'ims"...