Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, February 19th, 2008
by Qifa Nabki
In an article entitled “The Mamluk Conception of the Sultanate” (Int’l Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, xxvi, 1994), the historian Amalia Levanoni discusses the intellectual background of the Mamluk political system. The Mamluks, who ruled Egypt, Syria, and parts of Western Arabia from 1250-1517, were a dynasty of Turkic slaves who seized power from the weakening Ayyubid regime and created one of the strangest systems of government witnessed in human history: a slave sultanate, in which the supreme ruler was chosen from among an elite class of former slave warriors. Remarkably, this system sustained itself for two and a half centuries, withstood the Mongol invasions, succumbing only to rising Ottoman hegemony in the early 16th century.
Rather bizarrely, the recent Lebanese political experience contains a couple of features in common with the Mamluk system, which was a military oligarchy dominated by factions who competed endlessly with each other for power. A few quotes from Levanoni are illustrative:
“After they had seized power, their dominant amirs formed a council and chose one from among their rank as sultan whom they entrusted with their authority and made their representative… Although the choice was sometimes predetermined, the sources all describe decisions of the amirs as expressions of common consent-the phrase used is ittafaqa ‘alaa, "they reached agreement." (375-76)
“That the sultan remained dependent on the support of the mamluks becomes obvious in the sources of this period. They introduce the rather surprising phrase, kaana murashshahan li l-saltana "he was a candidate for the sultanate." As in modern times, the term "candidate" implies that the electors have an advantage over the would-be ruler” (385)
Anyone who has been following the Lebanese standoff cannot help but feel some déjà vu upon reading these descriptions, and they suggest the following observation about the breakdown of the Lebanese government: it is less a function of sectarianism than it is a product of a defective political architecture. Simply put, Lebanon remains an oligarchy dominated by a few important families and political figures, and the state has not yet developed the structures to regulate and eventually break the power of this political class.
Many have said that the solution to Lebanon’s crisis lies in reforming several aspects of its political system. Where to begin? At a Brookings Institution presentation entitled "Lebanon: The Forgotten Crisis" Bilal Saab argues that "the root cause [of the problem] is political representation and power sharing amongst communal groups in Lebanon." The three ways in which the conflict has been typically portrayed (i.e., as a (i) Sunni-Shiite conflict; (ii) a conflict between those who want Lebanese independence and those who want Syrian tutelage; (iii) a clash between "moderates" and "extremists") are all, he says, wrong. Rather:
…the essence of the conflict for almost 2 years now has to do with the fact that the Lebanese political system has reached the point where it can no longer ignore the political aspirations of one large unit in that system, which is the Shiite community.
Saab goes on to say that these aspirations will not be addressed substantively "as long as Hizbullah remains the unchallenged patron of the Shiite community," because of how the militia is viewed by Sunnis, Druze, and a segment of the Christian community. What is needed is not so much a second Ta'if Accord, but rather the full implementation of the existing Ta'if Accord, specifically within four major areas:
The decentralization of administration of municipalities
Devising a new and fair electoral law
Strengthening the judiciary
Abolition of confessionalism (a long-term objective)
One thing that Saab does not mention, but which normally tops the list of clauses from Ta'if that should be fully implemented, is the creation of a senate. Bicameralism is a system of government that would appear to be tailor-made for a country like Lebanon. The Ta'if Accord states:
With the election of the first Chamber of Deputies on a national, not sectarian, basis, a senate shall be formed and all the spiritual families shall be represented in it. The senate powers shall be confined to crucial issues.
Such a formulation is highly (and purposefully) ambiguous, but the gist is that a second legislative body should be created, in which all of the various sects are represented. This system, theoretically, would express the will of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority. Under such an arrangement, the parliament would be elected with no constraints or allotments of seats based on sect, while the senate would give each sect an equal number of seats, much like the American system whereby California and Rhode Island have two senators each but California has 53 representatives in the House, to Rhode Island's two.
Several questions emerge; given the number of Christian sects in Lebanon (over a dozen), this would presumably create a large imbalance, vis-a-vis the number of seats given to Muslim sects. There are other issues as well. The increasing demographic weight of the Shi`a population in Lebanon, coupled with the larger rates of immigration in Sunni and Christian communities may prompt the Shi`a parties to argue against decoupling the logic of confessionalism so thoroughly from Lebanese politics. Finally, of course, there is the influence of Syria, which has mostly obstructed the full implementation of Ta'if since its inception, precisely because of the greater degree of independence that will accrue from these measures.
The Near Term
These solutions are still very far off, and seem to offer little guidance in the way of solving the short-term crisis. In the meantime, both the majority and the opposition must realize that each passing week drives the nail further into the coffin of genuine reconciliation, much less reform. A wininer-take-all endgame, on the other hand, would be potentially catastrophic, given the boiling point reached in the tensions between partisans of the opposing groups. A 10-10-10 solution is the only way, and the majority should be willing to give up a blocking veto to the opposition in exchange for the immediate election of Suleiman as president without any further conditions placed on ministerial portfolios. (If necessary, the more powerful ministries should be appointed by Suleiman himself). This is the only face-saving solution for both sides. Perhaps this is its primary virtue, but it is an important one. Such a solution will undoubtedly lead to more stagnation and bickering, but at least it will be within the context of a functioning government, which will gradually undercut the turmoil and spirit of anarchic conflict in the street, and give the country a much needed feeling of closure.
The government that emerges in the wake of this crisis is going to be a lame-duck (or single issue, at best) government, no matter who wins. There is no trust left between the two sides, and the parties will be almost exclusively focused on the legislative elections of 2009. The single issue that might provide a source of cooperation is the reforming of the electoral law, which has already received a great deal of attention. Both sides should opt for turning 2008 into a recovery year, an opportunity to draw breath, before returning to the trenches in 2009. At that point, there will be a new face in the White House, perhaps a new strategy in Iraq, and with any luck, fresh opportunities for political reconciliation.