Never in the modern history of the Middle East have so many countries experienced such intense, often violent, domestic conflict or political paralysis. The ongoing wars or severe ideological confrontations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, and Bahrain have sparked a new industry in explaining what is really going on in this region: Sykes-Picot-crafted artificial borders collapsing, Shia-Sunni and/or Saudi Arabian-Iranian tensions sparking proxy wars, or failed state-centered nationalism being replaced by sectarian identities.
Turmoil and violence are most evident in the inability of formal institutions of governance to achieve credible power-sharing or even serious consultations on decisive issues. In some countries, this has led to military clashes or recurring terror attacks, leading to near national collapse in a few cases (Syria, Somalia, Libya Iraq).
Even when serious attempts are made to establish formal institutions of governance that are pluralistic and democratic, progress remains spotty at best. We see this now in the Libyan, Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni endeavors to create new constitutions, parliaments and governments, or elect new presidents. Otherwise rational men and women cannot sit down together and hammer out agreements on fair power-sharing, representation, decision-making, and accountability.
Central government positions, like cabinet posts, often become vehicles for different sectarian or ethnic groups to gain a share of power and the resources of the central state, which they then share with their own people in the form of jobs, contracts and other benefits. If one or more parties do not get what they feel is their share of power, they withdraw from consultations and shut down the system — as has happened in Lebanon for years — or they take to the streets and sometimes take up arms — as we are witnessing in Yemen these days with the Houthi pressure on the government.
The baffling thing to my mind is the great contrast between this immaturity, violence and immobilization in the conduct of the affairs of state, on the one hand, and the much deeper tradition of individuals and families of different ethnic or religious groups getting along just fine in their daily lives at the local level. Sunnis and Shiites, Christians and Muslims, Kurds, Amazigh and Arabs or any other combination of citizens of different identities have cooperated, inter-married, shared businesses and coexisted respectfully for centuries at the community level all around the region, and this is still the pattern that defines most communities that have not been wrecked by war.
This happens because each individual respects the ethnic/sectarian identity, values and rights of his or her neighbor who has a different identity; they also cooperate easily on matters in the public sphere that require them to work together for the common good. A typical example is what I experienced in my own life for 27 years living in Amman, Jordan, as a Christian in a Muslim-majority society. On major Islamic holidays like Adha and Fitr, we would visit our Muslim neighbors to wish them greetings of the season, drink coffee, eat a sweet, ask about the family’s health and well-being, and say how much we enjoy seeing our children play football in the street every afternoon after school. They would do the same by visiting us at Christmas and Easter, with identical rituals of food, drink, greetings and neighborly good wishes. This was often the only regular interaction we had, other than friendly greetings in the street during our comings and goings.
The mutual messages were clear, and very meaningful. Though we had different personal identities, we recognized and honored the identity, values and rights of our neighbor, with whom we repeatedly and ritually expressed our mutual desire to coexist in equality, friendship and peace — not just in the realm of tolerance, but going beyond that to mutual solidarity that would see us protect each other in times of need. This kind of fraternal coexistence crossed all possible lines, such as Muslim-Christian, Palestinian-Jordanian, Arab-Druze-Armenian-Circassian, and any other such identities. It also translates all around the Arab region into millions of cases of mixed marriages, business partnerships, best friends at school, and cultural/artistic collaborations.
But when it comes to the business of governance — electing a new Lebanese president, agreeing to parliamentary and constitutional advances in Yemen and Libya, defining who can participate in public politics in Egypt, reforming the parliamentary system in Kuwait or Bahrain — these long and solid traditions of communal mutual respect and coexistence break down.
There seems to be a huge disconnect between the solid values of ordinary people in the Arab world in their family and community lives, and the dysfunctional and often violent conduct of political leaders who represent these same citizens in the national political arena. This suggests a strong case for much more decentralized governance systems that anchor power more at the regional and local levels, without concentrating assets and arms in the hands of central government that has often abused that power in modern Arab states.
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global