As Syria and Iraq break down, it is evident that the curse of the modern Arab world has been the over-centralised Arab nationalist state that has facilitated despotic rule and suffocated all manifestations of religious or ethnic diversity.
In this context, a political idea has gained in prominence, even though at one time it was considered taboo. That idea is federalism. As multi-sectarian Arab states disintegrate, there is a growing view that the only realistic frameworks to replace them are more decentralised political arrangements that allow different communities to run many of their own affairs.
Yet on its own federalism will not resolve the myriad problems faced by Arab countries once led by Arab nationalist regimes. That’s partly because of the legacy left by these regimes and partly because federalism must be based on certain consensual foundations that are agreed beforehand.
The Baath regimes in Syria and Iraq, like Muammar Qaddafi’s in Libya, were built on a myth of Arab unity. Because Arabs strived for unity, no room was left to recognise, let alone manage, religious, sectarian and ethnic differences. These identities were regarded as divisive and therefore officially ignored.
Ironically, the supposed nationalist unanimity only hid minority rule – in Iraq by the Sunnis, in Syria by the Alawites. In the end this fact, as much as any other, helped discredit the Arab nationalist pretensions of the regimes. What Iraqis and Syrians saw was that Arab nationalism was a screen for minority leaders who maintained themselves in office through repression.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and the uprisings began in Syria and Libya in 2011, the Arab nationalist facades used to govern were swept away. Sectarianism, tribalism and ethnicity came to the fore with a vengeance. This was particularly the case as the regimes had left no institutions in place to allow for political arrangements that could manage differences peacefully.
While a federal system was installed in Iraq, its notable failings only highlighted a second challenge faced by such systems: unless it is based on compromise and consensus, federalism will be impaired and can facilitate fragmentation.
Iraq’s Sunnis, after dominating under Saddam Hussein, have been systematically discriminated against since 2003, after a Shia-dominated government took over. At the same time, the Kurds have also felt increasingly alienated from Baghdad. Many advocate full independence, realising that the federal system was, in part, a way of containing their separatist ambitions. These dynamics have undermined Iraqi federalism, threatening the existence of the state. The problem is that in the absence of a centralised state or some form of federalism, all that’s left are sectarian or ethnic entities vulnerable to non-state interference.
Arab confusion has not been helped by history. After the formation of the Iraqi and Syrian states following the First World War, Britain and France, the Mandatory powers, alternated between different political and administrative arrangements. The French initially favoured minorities in Syria, granting autonomy to the Alawites and Druze, before reversing this and replacing it with a system of administrative decentralisation.
This promotion of minority interests, particularly in the armed forces, had a major impact once minorities saw the military establishment as an instrument of social promotion. By the 1960s, minorities controlled Syria through the military.
In Iraq, the British approach was different. After creating the country by joining three separate Ottoman provinces, Britain decided, in the aftermath of the Iraqi revolt of 1920, to bring in the Hashemite Prince Faysal as king, to calm the situation. This made the Shiites and Kurds uneasy, but it also centralised power, laying the groundwork for a Sunni-dominated elite and subsequently, an expanded role for the military in Iraqi politics.
In both countries, authoritarian regimes were ultimately able to impose control from the centre. That these regimes were minority-led made decentralised systems much more unlikely, as, controlling the state, they had no impetus to devolve political power.
Today federalism, or even confederalism, seems a natural compromise to rebuild atomised Arab states. But in all cases, nothing will come of political systems that discriminate against a significant portion of their people. A social contract, as its name indicates, has to be about mutual agreement. Until this basic concept is understood and implemented in the Arab world, dysfunctional states will remain the norm. Indeed, if anything has been at the heart of the region’s discontents since independence from colonial rule, it’s the fact that states have utterly failed to fulfil their required role.
That’s why a debate over federalism, like that over any new social contract, has become necessary. In complex societies, imagining new ways to manage the complexity is hardly a betrayal of unity. If anything, it may help preserve the states that today seem to exist only in the mind.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star in Beirut
On Twitter @BeirutCalling