Why the Arab Spring should not Fear Tribalism and Factionalism – Institutionalizing Diversity.

Ever since the people of the Arab world, from Iran to Morocco, started rising up against their authoritarian and dictatorial regimes demanding accountability and representation, a lot has been said about the perils and obstacles of their undertaking.  From historical and cultural legacies, to economic and political shortcomings, nothing looms as a larger obstacle than the specter of tribalism and factionalism (the divergent ethnic/religious/linguistic/cultural identities that divide people throughout the Arab world).  When it comes to the Arab Spring, most informed commentators proclaim a long and hard journey of transition (if not full-out failure) due to the significance and potency of tribalism and factionalism in the region.

It is true, of course, that there is not a single country in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) that is not composed of (often) more than one different ethnic or religious groups of people.  The factionalism of the populations could prove detrimental to the long-term success of any governance system that emerges in the various MENA nations.  The right form of governance for the right society has never been easy to identify under the best of circumstances.  Most of the current systems of governance around the MENA region were imposed to them by past colonial masters or short-sighted post-revolutionary uprisings.  Therefore, the present revolutionary nations of the Arab Spring need to be very careful when it comes to choosing their new forms of governance.

Which system of governance is best suited to accommodate tribalism and factionalism in the emerging democracies of the Arab Spring?  Is it possible for nations that are comprised of diverse ethnic/religious/linguistic/cultural groups to stay together and prosper?  How can Libya, Yemen, Syria and Jordan, (but also Tunisia and Egypt) deal better with their internal tribal and factional divisions?

Diversity through Political Leadership

There are some recent examples worth considering.  Nations such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Bosnia & Herzegovina, have to contend with similar internal divisions of ethnic or religious or linguistic or cultural nature.  While Lebanon and Bosnia have only stayed together due to external intervention, Iraq is often on the verge of sectarian violence and separation.  Therefore, in Iraq and Lebanon, balance among the factions is being maintained through the selective appointment of political leaders from the respective sides.

In Lebanon, the most recent statistics indicate that approximately 27% of the population is Sunni, 27% Shia, 21% Maronite, 8% Greek Orthodox, 5% Druze, 5% Greek Catholic, and 7% other Christian sects.  Therefore, under constitutional mandate, the President has to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the Parliament a Shia Muslim, and the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament Greek Orthodox.

In Iraq, according to some estimates, around 75%–80% of the population is Arab, 15%-20% Kurds, and other groups like Assyrians and Iraqi Turkmen could be up to 5%.  On the other hand, although 95% of the population is Muslim, they are split among Shia (60% to 65%) and Sunni (30% to 35%).  Therefore, the convention that has emerged in the post-Sadam Iraq has been to elect a President that represents the Kurdish people, while the Prime Minister has to come from the Shia community, and the Speaker of the Council of Representatives (parliament) from the Sunni community.

On the other hand, in Bosnia & Herzegovina, they tried a more ‘equitable system’ where every level of the executive and legislative branches has been proportionally divided among the three ‘constituent peoples’ in proportion to their population (1/3 for each group: Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats).  The result (if you can keep track of the many institutions) is a three-member presidency (with one president from each constituent group), a bicameral legislature (where each group is represented equally in each chamber), and a sub-national structure of cantons for each of the three groups (a Bosniak-Croat federation, and a Serb republic).

The Great Compromise – Bicameral Legislature

Tribes and factions can be vital to the political and economic transition of the Arab Spring nations.  They can fill the gap at the local level, since often in Arab countries with large tribal populations (like Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, and the Gulf oil monarchies) the state’s local administrative boundaries are drawn mainly on the basis of tribal lines, and local tribal sheiks are the local administrative officials.

For the MENA nations in transition, the impulse to follow the example of Iraq and Lebanon will be great.  For a populous that has always been ruled by strongman (of either royal or military background), it’s only natural to gravitate towards ‘a few good man’ as leaders.  However, the best way forward might be through the constitutional and institutional formalization of the various tribes and ethnic/religious factions, rather than rely on charismatic leaders to represent their respective tribes and factions.  A governance structure which legitimizes the role and place of tribes/factions in every society, in proportion to and in accordance with conditions on the ground, will be more equitable then relying on just a handful of individuals at the executive level for representation of these ethnic/religious factions and tribes.

The key to such institutionalization could be the utilization of bicameral legislatures.  In the U.S., just like the UK, bicameral legislatures were adopted as ‘the great compromise’ between the people and colonies/states (or between the people and nobility in the UK).  In both countries it was recognized that all political power must arise from the legislative branch, and by adopting two legislative chambers of equal powers but divergent jurisdiction they were guaranteeing the fair representation of all parties involved and they were guarding against any overreach of power.

Similarly, the legislative process in the Arab world should be vested in a bicameral legislature, where one chamber represents the people while the other represents tribes or ethnic/religious sub-group of each national.  Furthermore, both chambers should be equal in power in the legislative process, but with divergent responsibilities.  For example, the people’s chamber might be responsible for selecting or consenting on a prime minister and a cabinet, but the tribal/factional chamber could be responsible for the appointment of judges, ambassadors and military generals.  Competition among the two legislative chambers will help to strengthen the overall legislative process and provide a platform on which tribal/factional issues can be addressed (instead of resorting to ‘street justice’).

Economic Benefits of Decentralization and Devolution

On the other hand, during the early stages of the ‘democratic’ transition, when the national government and political institutions are busy debating and type and form of the new governance system, administration of the local economy is paramount.  It is important to recognize the valuable role that sub-national administrative units (most naturally drawn on tribal/factional lines) can play in both administering and leading the local economy.

Existing tribal and factional institutions, which already have some degree of socio-political power over local people could better manage and administer the affairs of their communities.  Formalizing administrative decentralization through the transfer of management, planning and administration to lower levels of government could relieve inefficiencies generally endemic in central government bureaucracies – especially in countries going through a political/constitutional transition.  After all, although certain governing functions are best handled by the central government, others should be managed by lower levels of government.

In order to jump-start local markets and promote economic activity at the lowest lever, the central government will have to transfer the administration and regulation of local markets to local authorities.  This will allow for the more efficient operation of these local markets, and free the central government to tackle bigger issues.  Therefore, the collection of taxes and promulgation of licenses and local regulations will have to be performed at the local level, with respect to these local markets and small/medium size companies.  Tribal and factional groups could fill that role much better at the local level, especially if they are also represented directly at the national legislature.

Such a decentralization, will allow the central government to concentrate its efforts in providing the necessary infrastructure (roads and transportation systems, power grids, telephone, internet), and venues/methods for adjudication and dispute resolution (courts and other legal services) – all very necessary for the proper functioning of a local economy.

The Need for Consensus Governance

Libya’s Transitional Council has been criticized as being week, indecisive, and at times disorganized, but it’s advancing a great cause for the region: leadership by committee.  The people on the street think that what Arab countries need is strong leadership – but strong leadership is what turns into ‘authoritarian leadership’, and we have seen what that has done for the region.

Tribes and factions throughout the MENA region have often been skeptical of central governments because they have been abused and mistreated many times.  Tribes and factions will always try to assert their influence over each-other and the central government because they don’t trust anyone.

A strong bicameral legislature, devolution of power to the local level, and meaningful representation for all societal factions – that is how you incorporate tribes and factions into the governing process.  This is how you preserve the Arab Spring through this tumultuous transition process!

Some Sources:

Tribes and Tribalism in the Arab Spring, by Khaled Fattah.

Arab Spring: Does Tribalism Affect Democracy in the Middle East? by Jen L. Jones.

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About Nasos Mihalakas

I am an Assistant Professor of International Business and Government policy, and a former U.S. Government policy analyst. I have over nine years of experience with the U.S. government as a trade policy analyst, and U.S.-China trade relations. I have worked for both a Congressional Commission advising Congress on the impact of trade with China and for the U.S. Department of Commerce investigating unfair trade practices. However, my education has been on constitutional and comparative law, with an LLM from University College London, and a JD from the University of Pittsburgh. Currently I am writing a book on the evolution of Federalism in the U.S., and the application of Federalism as a form of governance around the world. You can contact me at: nasos.mihalakas@gmail.com
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2 Responses to Why the Arab Spring should not Fear Tribalism and Factionalism – Institutionalizing Diversity.

  1. Some really interesting information you included; I didn’t know Lebanon was so diverse!
    “It is true, of course, that there is not a single country in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) that is not composed of (often) more than one different ethnic or religious groups of people.”—When reading this, I couldn’t help but think that, well, the USA, Europe and Australia (along with many other nations) are composed of many different religious and ethnic groups, and they manage to govern themselves! I think the Arab governments need to continue secularism (so as not to offend anybody who is not part of the majority in their countries) and focus on human rights as a basis to government, rather than just “what so and so culture wants.” Good post.

  2. Pingback: DS: Alternative Newsweek Cover | rachmehdii

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