The new political forces that are coming into view in shattered countries like Syria and Iraq are not necessarily the ones Westerners expect to see, says Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. In a recently published book, he describes new political alignments based on community allegiances rather than parties or nation states.
“According to western perception,” he says, “there must be a democratic transition to a political settlement that is based on elections and on transparency in state institutions. This is unlikely.”
The model of the Arab nation-state also no longer applies, Salamey argues. This is the model that prevailed during most of the twentieth century. Motivated by the ideal of the Arabs as one nation, it resulted in centralized, secular, one-party states held together by force and the personal authority of a single ruler.
“Many Arab intellectuals and academics remain loyal to this view,” Salamey said. “They see it as a defense against imperialism and divide-and-rule policy by foreign powers. They are reluctant to let it go.”
Salamey uses the term communitocracy to describe the political form he sees coming into view, and discusses it in his new book titled The Decline of Nation-States After the Arab Spring: The Rise of Communitocracy (Routledge, 2017).
Communitocracy, as Salamey describes it, is a form of political legitimacy based on loose agreement between communities. The twentieth-century Arab state breaks down when a person’s main loyalty is to the community he belongs to and with which he identifies, rather than to the state. In Arab countries the main forms of this kind of community are tribe and religion; Salamey proposes that these are the building blocks of any new political settlement that will emerge from this period of Arab civil wars.
An example of this trend—a development that has yet to reach a conclusion—is described in a new paper by Faleh Jabar and Renad Mansour, published by the Carnegie Middle East Center. The paper describes the growth in post-Saddam Iraq of a multitude of volunteer militias (“popular mobilization forces”). Their members are all Iraqi Shi’i Muslims; their allegiances are not to the state but to Shi’i religious leaders in Iraq and Iran. The militias are informally organized but they are highly motivated and have been effective in fighting Islamic State in Iraq. When Islamic State fighters captured Mosul in July 2014, the uniformed army of the Iraqi state crumbled almost instantly, despite their vastly greater numbers. The challenge facing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is how to accommodate the militias into a new political settlement, after the complete fall of the Islamic State. He ignores or opposes them at his peril.
In his book, Salamey writes that the rise of the community at the expense of the state is an unintended consequence of globalization. Globalization has undermined the power of the nation-state to control its own economy. It also undermines the state’s control of information. No matter how hard Arab states try to crack down on social media and communication applications such as Skype, Viber, and WhatsApp, information inevitably leaks through any digital borders governments try to create.
Salamey acknowledges that his analysis has a Lebanese flavor. He is Lebanese; he lives in Lebanon and teaches at a Lebanese university; and his previous book was The Government and Politics of Lebanon. Lebanon would seem to be a country where one can already see communitocracy at work. Its political system is based on maintaining a precarious equilibrium between the interests of its main confessional communities: Shi’i, Sunni, Druse and Christian.
But isn’t this system notoriously dysfunctional? The Lebanese parliament hasn’t passed a budget in ten years; two years of legislative paralysis elapsed before they could agree on a president. Lebanon is a small, comparatively wealthy country, yet there are daily power outages, and the government seems chronically unable to organize collecting the garbage, a basic public service.
While not claiming Lebanon as an exemplar of good government, he sees a living political process at work. “Yes, there is endless deliberation over everything,” he says of Lebanese politics. “People are continuously debating. Outside of Lebanon, people are not used to such lengthy deliberation in normal politics. But the main thing is that they keep talking.”
Indeed, the “endless deliberation” over the country’s garbage problem included vocal public demonstrations, and the formation of new political movement (Beirut Madinati), which won 40 percent of the vote in Beirut municipal elections in 2016.
Communitocracy depends on the parties involved persisting in talking to each other: this is how conflicts are solved. The Lebanese American University’s Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution, of which Salamey is director, applies this principle to conflict resolution among Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The aim of conflict resolution is social justice, Salamey says. Similarly, in a country-wide setting—as we may yet see in Syria or Iraq—“the goal of multi-community discourse is power-sharing.”
The book does not try to be a manifesto or seek to offer a solution but to describe a political trend. In a discussion at Lebanese American University in March, Dr. Marwa Shalaby of the Baker Center at Rice University in the United States noted that Salamey’s account does not cover every problem Arab countries face. “If you have this kind of communitocratic state,” she said, “who’s responsible for what? How do you implement rule of law and accountability?” Nor does it cover other social relationships preventing good government in Arab countries, she said, namely corruption and the divide between ordinary citizens and elites.
Salamey attributes the origin of his line of thinking to his time spent in the United States as a student in a Ph.D. program. He attended two universities in the city of Detroit: Wayne State and the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He became active in local politics—in labor union causes and with the ADC, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The obvious result, especially for a political scientist, would be to be inspired by American democracy, and an idea of citizenship that transcends loyalty to religious or ethnic identity.
Instead, he says, “I saw people from different communities working together—Jews, Protestants, Native Americans, Sikhs. They were acting in a communitarian way to resolve problems. I saw only positive things in these identities. I saw competition between them, but also cooperation.”