Diagnosing Failure: The Case of Lebanon

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)

Sound familiar?

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:

  1. The decentralization of administration of municipalities
  2. Devising a new and fair electoral law
  3. Strengthening the judiciary
  4. 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.

Comments (209)

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201. why-discuss said:

KSA feels impotent in front of the rising popularity of Iran, the Shia craddle, that threatened the proselytism of wahabism perceived more and more by moslems are extremist and socially ( especially in the case of women’s rights) innaceptable.
For decades KSA has invested huge sums of money to spread wahabism in Pakistan and Afghansiatan and others, we can see the result: Al Qaeda growth and countries in turmoil. The failure of the wahabbite expansion and in the contrary the successful expansion of Shism is upsetting KSA. Worse , they are seeing Shism getting praised in most arab countries and growing influence in Lebanon supported by Syria. Unfortunately KSA besides their petro dollars and their support from the US seem totally impotent politically to stop that.
As they have not a single charismatic leader, their emotional influence is dwingling. No wonder they are hysterical against Syria. Failing to put back Lebanon sunnis in control will be another political disaster for KSA and will show everyone that KSA has no more influence in the arab world.

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February 22nd, 2008, 10:08 am


202. Enlightened said:

Druze Defiance Guardian Interview with Walid Jumblatt:

If you’re planning to visit Walid Junblatt, it’s best to make sure you’re not in too much of a hurry. And if you’re not in a hurry, wait until the weekend and arrange to call on the Lebanese Druze leader in his ancestral home at Mukhtara, deep in the Shouf mountains south of Beirut.

Junblatt is one of the great survivors of Lebanon’s turbulent and political life, a traditional “za’im” or hereditary chieftain of perhaps the most colourful of the country’s 18 sects. Now aged 58, he is a key member of the western-backed, Sunni-Christian-Druze government headed by Fuad Siniora. He is also an unrelenting critic of Syria, whose humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon he applauded after the cedar revolution three years ago – and who he continues to attack at every opportunity.

Taken that no less than 21 Lebanese politicians, journalists and soldiers who were considered enemies of Damascus have been murdered since the best-known victim – the former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005 – Junblatt risks his life whenever he opens his mouth on the matter, which is most days.

The security arrangements at Mukhtara, a honey-coloured 18th century mansion with a mountain spring gushing pastorally beneath it, are a sobering reminder of the dangers he faces. Visitors must pass machine gun-toting guards, metal detectors and body searches before ascending a stone stairway to a huge front door.

Fear of sudden death goes with the territory and the heritage. Junblatt’s father, the famously ascetic socialist Kamal, was assassinated, almost certainly by Syrian agents, in 1977. Kamal’s father was also murdered. “A Junblatt never dies in his bed,” he used to quip. Not for nothing has Walid been described as a “dead man walking.” He survived an assassination attempt in 1982 after the Israeli invasion. His son Taymur is studying abroad, out of harm’s way.

On a recent Saturday morning, Junblatt sat in his diwan, or reception room with Oscar, his pet Shar Pei, snapping at his heels, and received visitors asking for favours or advice – or simply paying homage. Many, with the Druzes’ trademark bristling moustaches and white knitted skullcaps, stood chatting by the fountain in the courtyard before seeing Walid Beg – the honorific title, equivalent to the English “lord”, dates back to Ottoman times, the very model of a modern feudal leader.

Huddled over a stove by the window overlooking the snow-covered hills, Junblatt — bald, wiry and with bulging eyes — was leafing through copies of the New Yorker and a collection of essays by Susan Sontag, confirming his reputation as an intellectual with a wide range of interests – and talking all the while in Arabic, English and French. His less refined side is reflected in a collection of Soviet-era medals and uniforms and a small arsenal of machine guns and hunting rifles. There are several automatic pistols in reach of his laptop in his private rooms.

Friends in Beirut had warned me Junblatt was busy, and what passed for an interview over a cup of bitter coffee was hurried – but it still gave a strong sense of the man and the leader at a time of mounting tensions in Lebanon. With the anniversary of the Hariri assassination coinciding with continued deadlock over the election of a new president, and the lack of a functioning parliament, the sense is that the country is facing its worst political crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

Just four days after our meeting, tensions soared with the assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbullah’s military chief. That was followed by a mass funeral rally in Beirut’s southern suburbs where the Shia organisation’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, pledged “open war” with Israel – widely assumed despite its denial to be behind the killing.

Hizbullah was certainly uppermost in Junblatt’s thoughts – and sights – when we met. “We have a party that is run by remote control by the Iranians and the Syrians, that is very well armed and trained and is paralysing the whole of life and is not willing to accept the rule of the Lebanese state,” was his blunt opening gambit. “They are part of the parliament but they want to impose their will to declare war and peace whenever they feel like it. They are using Lebanon as a platform for their own advantage.”

Junblatt’s strongest sentiments were reserved for Syria, his ally after the Israeli invasion in 1982 and the subsequent peace agreement between Amin Gemayel, Lebanon’s Christian president, and Israel. Druze PSP fighters went to war, along with all the other militias. His choice, he insists, was between the sea, Israel and Syria – a no-brainer for any Arab nationalist. But his disenchantment with Damascus deepened to breaking point after 2000, when Israel finally withdrew its troops across the international border while the Syrian army and intelligence agencies stayed firmly put.

President Bashar al-Assad, Junblatt charged, would “do anything” to sabotage the UN tribunal investigating the Hariri killing, and was allowing Hizbullah to smuggle rockets into Lebanon – its arsenal reportedly fully replenished since the 2006 war with Israel. “Hizbullah has a formidable security infrastructure and the Syrians couldn’t have done all their bloody murders without the facilities offered by Hizbullah and other allies of Syria,” he insisted. “All the people who were killed were opponents of the Syrian regime and key figures in the military.

“For Syria, Lebanon is just a province, part of Syria. As for the crazy Iranian [president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, Lebanon is a platform to be used against the Israelis and the Americans and he is trying slowly but surely to establish his Hizbullah state in Lebanon. Lebanon is paralysed … we won’t have stability and peace in Lebanon as long as these bloody butchers are there. It’s a long story.”

Junblatt’ language is strong and provocative, but clearly deliberate: the following day he went public with a stark warning to Hizbullah. “You want anarchy? We welcome anarchy. You want war? We welcome war.”

The Druze leader is as fatalistic as he is fluent, preferring to discuss books than his country’s tangled and perhaps insoluble political problems. Had I read Gunter Grass’s Peeling the Onion, he asked eagerly, or the latest Jose Saramago? “It’s better to read literature and get away from Hizbullah and the others,” he smiled mournfully.

“Lebanon is in an existential crisis,” Junblatt concluded. “Either we survive as an independent state and a democracy or we disappear under the killings of the Syrians and the Iranians and their allies. Up to now I’ve been able to survive, but at a price.”

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February 22nd, 2008, 10:38 am


203. Nour said:


I think the US plan has been clearly described. The division of the Middle East into smaller, weaker statelets, and the destruction of any and all resistance, to make the region more suitable for Israeli dominance. You keep saying you don’t know what the plan is, but that’s probably because you really don’t want to believe that such a plan exists. I know it’s much easier for us to close our eyes and not see the agenda that the US is pursuing in our region, because it’s easier to just accept the status quo and not resist US/Israeli hegemony. I am of the opinion, however, that if we do not stand up in these crucial times and thwart all US efforts at achieving their goals, our children and children’s children will curse us in our graves.

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February 22nd, 2008, 11:01 am


204. Shai said:


My friend, I understand your fears. I’ve put myself in your shoes on numerous occasions (conceptually), and never found I liked or lived at peace with what I saw. Indeed the way America is behaving in the region, it would seem that its goals entail dominance. Israel, too, has been behaving in a way more suitable to an Apartheid regime than to a nation made up of tolerant, peace-loving people. The Palestinian people, more than anyone else, have suffered the results of this behavior. But I ask you, as a decent human being who can probably sense out other decent human beings, to believe me when I say that Israel, and Israelis, are not interested in dominating this region. We have no expansionist illusions, we are not interested in land in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, or Egypt. In fact, when signing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, we gave land back. The same is happening with the Palestinians (Gaza), and will happen in full (West Bank) once the two sides can agree on a final solution.

Once there’s peace with Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians, the rest of the Arab world would soon follow, and no one will still view Israel as having goals of dominance. If I may say so, what you now need to stand up to, are any and all extremists that have a clear goal of thwarting peace in the region, even a fair and just one. We, on our side, have to do the same.

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February 22nd, 2008, 11:45 am


205. Qifa Nabki said:

Yossi, what a nice surprise! Your mother is one of the great scholars in the field of Mamluk studies (as I’m sure you know).

But please don’t show her the article… she will scoff at my dubious comparisons. 🙂

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February 22nd, 2008, 1:57 pm


206. Qifa Nabki said:


Israel already dominates the region. Our region is already a global backwater, with societies crippled by poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, limping economies drained by armies that don’t fight, etc. America doesn’t need a grand master plan to further assure Israel’s dominance. Israel dominates by default.

What Arabs chafe at is this silly neo-con term “creative destruction,” which is hardly a new idea. Major changes in any society require a certain degree of destruction, sometimes minor and sometimes major. This is the nature of revolution, and the tenor of Hizbullah’s rhetoric is suffused with it. Tear down the walls of parliament, bring down the antiquated and corrupt political class, to the barricades! So there’s nothing necessarily neo-con-esque about creative destruction.

A Middle East that is composed of strong, democratic, prosperous nations will not be an existential threat to America or Israel. It may be a threat to certain racist and millenialist elements in the political classes of Israel and America respectively, but it won’t spell the end of American dominance. To the contrary, stronger economies, higher GDP’s etc, will mean larger markets for American exports, more dependence on American technology, companies and institutions.

I believe it’s time for us to focus on our own problems, and agitate for their solutions. Sometimes, these solutions will run contrary to American/Israeli interests (as with the ousting of Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000), but sometimes they won’t. Rather than assuming that America is to be resisted at all costs and in every quarter, why don’t we try focusing on the problems themselves? Our children and children’s children will thank us.

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February 22nd, 2008, 2:14 pm


207. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:


I couldn’t agree more!

Off comes the tarboush again.

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February 22nd, 2008, 3:14 pm


208. kingcrane jr said:

Qifa Nabki,
I have a simple transliteration question: are you Qifa Nabki with a QAF (thus your nom de plume means let us both stand and weep) or rather Kifa Nabki with a KAF (and thus your nom de plume means let us stop weeping)? I gathered that you are Lebanese and not Syrian, and that you are thus not Kifah Nabki, a member of the SSNP who, to become anonymous, uses the originative attribute to the city of al-Nabek (Nabaki or Nabki) instead of his last name (greetings, Kifah, if you read this post).

I happen to agree with you on several key aspects of how the Mameluks and the feudal lords of Lebanon are similar, but the Mameluk Sultanate was very functional while post-1946 Lebanon is a model of how dysfunctional an elito-oligarchy can be. The Mameluks inflicted on the Mongols the first ever military defeat at Ain Jalut, starting a new era of relative peace and relative prosperity in the Middle east, and probably also in Europe and in Persia. In comparison, the Lebanese military has been criplled by incapable leaders who are only interested in the army as protection against the other sects or lords.
Interestingly, I read once (As’ad Abukhalil is very well informed) how the battles of succession occur in the KSA, and it also reminded me of the Mameluks.
In Lebanon, the political system has consocional appearances but only the oligarchically anointed clans are able to rise to the position of leadership.

As to comparisons between Syria and Lebanon, the older generation (kingcrane and the hundreds of people in the USA and Canada he talks to every week) knows very well that there were very few differences between Syria and Lebanon until those in favor of the union with Egypt raped Syria in the fifties, and committed the ultimate crime in 1958.

My lyrical side has a problem equating the powerful Mameluks, ass-kickers of the mighty Mongols with the irresponsible “leaders” of modern-time Lebanon, hence:
Samir Geagea, Walid Jumblatt, and Saad Hariri,
Thought they were mighty like the Mameluks,
But were to afraid of committing heroic Harakiri,
And we thus realized they were just Saaluks.

PS: There are far more differences between a Syrian from Lattakia and a Syrian from Qamishli than between a Dimashqi and a Beiruti.

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February 25th, 2008, 9:19 pm


209. SimoHurtta said:

Once there’s peace with Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians, the rest of the Arab world would soon follow, and no one will still view Israel as having goals of dominance. If I may say so, what you now need to stand up to, are any and all extremists that have a clear goal of thwarting peace in the region, even a fair and just one. We, on our side, have to do the same

…and no one will still view Israel as having goals of dominance. Are you serious Shai. Israel’s mighty IDF has long ago stepped out of role of a defensive army. Does Israel really need those hundreds of nukes, long range flight capacity, nuclear bomb sending capable subs etc to defend the tiny area of Israel. 10 nukes would be enough to “keep the Arab states out”, but now Israel has the capacity of destroying a couple of continents. For what?

What do you Shai think the Germans spy ships + numerous other European and Asian nations on Lebanese and Syrian border are listening and observing. Certainly not Hizbollah is their main target of interest.

Of course through military dominance Israel seeks also political dominance and control. If not, why use so much money (= US money) to build such a oversized military force? What would Shai Israel do with its numerous WMD’s if there would be peace in the region? Destroy them or allow the neighbours to do the same as Israel has done to keep the military balance?

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February 25th, 2008, 11:22 pm


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