Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The heretical idea of loyal oppositions in the Middle East

In the midst of the tempest that Lebanon and the Levant are currently experiencing, I offer a philosophical distraction.
One of the weakest points of regimes in the Middle East is that of having more than one competitor vying for the seat of power. In Algeria, you have the "republican generals" on one side and the fundamentalist Islamists on the other. In Egypt, the picture is somewhat similar. In Syria, the picture is presented to us as "the Ba'ath" vs. the Muslim brotherhood.
The common thread in all of these countries is that you have an opposition that not only seeks power, but also appears to seek fundamental changes in the structure of the state and society, as well as the direction taken by the country with regards to international relations. In short, "the opposition" in most Middle Eastern countries appear to be too extreme in their policy positions, and ultimately illegitimate in the eyes of at least the intellectual and economic elite.
So now the question is: what can be classified as a "legitimate opposition"? What are the conditions that any political entity should satisfy in order to be classified as legitimate?
Here's what Rawls has to say about "loyal oppositions":

One way to see the point of the idea of constitutional essentials is to connect it with the idea of loyal opposition, itself an essential idea of a constitutional regime. The government and its loyal opposition agree on these constitutional essentials. Their so agreeing makes the government legitimate in intention and the opposition loyal in its opposition. Where the loyalty of both is firm and their agreement mutually recognized, a constitutional regime is secure. Differences about the most appropriate principles of distributive justice in the narrower sense, and the ideals that underlie them, can be adjudicated, though not always properly, within the existing political framework.

Therefore, for there to be a secure constitutional regime, there needs to be both a government and a loyal opposition that mutually recognize certain constitutional essentials. What can then be adjudicated by the parties through the political process are two things:
1. the most appropriate principles of distributive justice in the narrower sense
2. the ideals that underlie them
On the surface, this idea of Rawls appears to prescribe very boring politics. I mean, look at the Middle East! So much more is at stake in our politics. Some prominent political players even make it seem that what is at stake are the souls of all citizens, which would end up going to heaven only if they arrive at the helm of their respective countries.
Anyways, sarcasm aside, if we do prescribe to Rawls's idea, we need to answer the following questions: What do Middle Eastern countries have to do to their constitutions so that these documents play the role that Rawls thinks they ought to play? Are the Iraqis doing the right thing by giving the public a chance to vote - assuming that this would create a feeling of ownership? Or are the Turks the ones we should learn from? They have an Islamic party in power - albeit one that "agrees on certain constitutional essentials."
What about content? For a constitution to play an essential role in politics, should it reflect society and its mores, as in Iraq and Lebanon? Or should it reflect ideals that do not necessarily correspond to society's values, structures and sensitivities?
Assuming we wish to see the rise of secure constitutional regimes in the Middle East, of which "loyal oppositions" are essential components, then I believe that this subject needs to be broached more often. This trend across most countries in the region of diametrically opposed political entities, only gives those in power the excuse to hold on to their seats indefinitely and gives them a mandate to crack down on all forms of opposition (even those that consider themselves to be "loyal" in a constitutional sense). Loyal opposition vs. illegitimate opposition: I definitely like the idea.


Doha said...

I agree with your assessment entirely Raja. Look for instance at Syria. What's the alternative to the Baath regime right now? At least the strongest? The Muslim Brotherhood. The MB's notion of state and society are entirely different than those of the Baath. And the same goes for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Unfortunately, most of the "oppositions" these days in the Arab world are religious and extreme in nature; a reaction to years of being excluded from taking part in the system. As for Lebanon, FPM sort of can be categorized as "loyal" opposition, because it does not question the existence of the state; it's an opposition in the sense that within consitutional bounds it needs to take things in a different direction. So I believe that Lebanon is closest (of course relatively) to that notion of "loyal" opposition. What do you think?

JoseyWales said...

The common thread in all of these countries is....

I would say that the common thread to all these parties/groups, whether governing or in opposition, is an absolutist ideology (Baathism/Arabism/Communism/Socialism/

In other words: "We know the TRUTH and others don't" or "We are on the RIGHT path and all others are traitors".

That is the basis of these groups, whether their members actually believe the above, or just use it to stay in power and kill the opposition.

No room for doubt, no room for debate, no room for "loyal" opposition.

Anonymous said...

Raja, you fail to understand the true meaning of democracy. Democracy is not a regime in which the majority can do what whatever it wants. Democracy is a political system where the majority rules but cannot violate a set of minimal principle or right aka human rights.

There's two aspect of democracy: 1° elections
2° enforcing the human rights for everybody, respecting minorities and acting in good faith.

If you enforce the first aspect but you don't enforce the second, then you don't have democracy, you have a populist regime, like the one of Hugo Chavez.

Therefore a legitimate opposition is an opposition that believe in a basic set values of human rights. In France, the socialist are a legitimate opposition. In the US the democrats are a legitimate opposition. I am not trying to excuse the Arab dictatorships, but the Muslim Brotherhood or any islamist party cannot create a real democracy and are not a legitimate opposition.

Raja said...


I agree. Recall that I asked the question of what kind of constitutions would be needed in our region for them to play the role that Rawls assumes they should. If we make the assumption that constitutions are the product of ideology (or visa versa) then I guess you and I are saying the same thing.

Raja said...

Anon 9:22,

there are limits to how "fringe" a legitimate opposition may be. You mention Socialists in France... but can neo-nazis come to power? No. Respect for minorities can only go so far. You can limit freedoms and individual rights by asserting that if any individual or entity seeking to harm other individuals (either directly or indirectly) will no longer enjoy their rights.

So you and I agree and disagree. Yes, democratic regimes should respect individual rights. But, yes, the political system should be stacked against certain fringe (i.e. extreme) elements from rising to power.

Samer said...

The post mentioned something about Lebanon's constitution representing society's common values and that any opposition should be loyal to that constitution. In a country where various factions have completely divergent views on social justice and the basic citizen rights and responsibilities, our constitution chooses a funny way to represent the people's values. In Lebanon, a citizen does not rely on the constitution to preserve his rights, but on the decency and humanity of people in power, on "wasta", and most importantly on the representatives of his religious group. The Lebanese system delegates (or outsources) the preserval of human rights to the individuals and families who represent a citizen's religious group. If the only opposition I can practice is one that is "loyal" to that system, then I wouldn't hesitate to leave the country. I'm still hoping that's not the case...

Ramzi S said...

Why are there only "extremist" opposition in the Arab world? Because those in the opposition who work within the system instead of against it are assassinated, deported or put in jail.

When the Arab regimes treat the moderates in this way all that is left are the extremists.

Which works out nicely for them because then the regimes can say. "Look the alternative to us is a lot worse". And the sad thing is the public believes it!

Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

mehlis report is available on ... It's a catastrophe for Syria.

Don Cox said...

The Americans faced all these problems back in the 18th century. The checks and balances in the US constitution are well designed to prevent violent swings from one bunch of extremists to the other. Those guys basically got it right - allowing for a few important amendments. I think one should start with the US constitution, and there needs to be a good well-argued reason for doing anything different.

Raja said...


I disagree. If constitutions are to play the role they ought to, then there has to be some sort of connection with the environment they are in. The copy-paste model has almost no precedent of working.

Brazil, for example, copied the American constitution word for word. Doing so did not prevent military coups and dictatorships.

That of course does not mean that certain characteristics within constitutions can be considered universally good. I hesitate to include checks and balances though because the Brits don't have that, yet seem to be doing very well.

Don Cox said...

"If constitutions are to play the role they ought to, then there has to be some sort of connection with the environment they are in. "___I think the environment is human nature. The US constitution is designed in the expectation that politicians will be gredy and dishonest and power-hungry. It is true that it did not prevent the Civil War, but it is still IMO the toughest constitution around. I don't know enough about what went wrong in Brazil to comment on that. Time to read a good book on Brazilian history, I guess.___The Iraqi constitution seems to me to be much too starry-eyed.

JoseyWales said...

Brazil, for example, copied the American constitution word for word. Doing so did not prevent military coups and dictatorships.

Now we agree Raja, culture (political and other) primes law and constitution.

Back to Mehlis, we'll revisit all that some other time...