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    Lebanon’s Stresses Are Also the Region’s

    It is easy to join the chorus of woe in Lebanon about the fate of this wonderful but disjointed country that once again teeters on the edge of turbulence or active conflict. The reason this time is the tension stemming from the anticipated indictments by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) of some Hizbullah-linked individuals for the killing of the former Premier Rafik Hariri and 22 others in 2005. The level of internal anxiety is matched by intense local and regional diplomacy to try and avert political clashes that could result in bringing the government to a halt, outbursts of localized fighting or killings, civil war-like large-scale fighting, or even combined local and regional warfare that includes Hizbullah, other Lebanese armed groups, Israel, Syria and perhaps Iran.

    These possible outcomes are all also symptoms of deeper Arab problems, weaknesses and distortions that have plagued most of the Arab world since its manufacture by retreating European colonial powers in the early- to mid-20th century. A deeper look beneath the surface of this latest bout of Lebanese tensions reveals chronic problems facing the entire modern Arab world, of which five stand out:

    1. Constitutional power-sharing: No Arab country has devised a credible system that allows all groups and citizens to share power and alternate incumbency according to a peaceful transfer of power that affirms the consent of the governed, the will of the majority and the rights of minorities. Long bouts of calm interspersed by sporadic wars, ethnic clashes, bombings, assassinations and the arrival of foreign armies do not comprise a good example of constitutional power-sharing.

    2. Communal and national identity: The richness of Arab society is very much related to its many component ethnic, religious, national and sectarian groups. Its weakness is that it has never found a credible manner by which individuals, small groups and larger groups of citizens can express their various identities while simultaneously meshing into a national identity that they have helped to define and that adequately represents them all.

    3. Sustained, equitable development: Arab countries on the whole did a good job of state-building in their formative decades, but when economic stress spread throughout the region in the 1980s and population growth outstripped economic growth, severe socio-economic pressures and disparities set in, and persist to this day. World Bank data shows that per capita Gross Domestic Product (at constant 2000 prices) for the entire Arab world actually declined from an average of $2,671 for the decade of the 1980s to $2,556 this decade (going even lower to $2035 for the decade of the 1990s in between). In other words, in the last 30 years, the average income or personal wealth of Arabs on average has been simultaneously low, dropping and erratic. For every BMW and Mercedes car you see in Arab capitals there are 50 families you do not see that cannot provide their children with sufficient nutrition, school supplies or heat in winter.

    4. Citizen-state relations in a context of the rule of law: The stability and development that have taken place in the Arab world have primarily reflected strong, centralized security systems, foreign support for those systems, and the spinoffs from serendipitous oil and gas wealth. The full human and economic potential of today’s 340 million Arabs has never been approached, because rule of law mechanisms that permit citizens to manifest their total capabilities and creativities have never been put in place in any Arab country. Because the rights of citizens and the limits of state power have never been seriously delineated in the modern Arab world, our societies consequently tap only part of their real potential.

    5. Relations with external powers: Iran, the United States, Israel, Great Britain, France, Russia and other major non-Arab countries remain actively involved in internal and regional Arab issues, but it remains unclear if most Arabs view these countries as friends or foes. Incoherence at home has been translated into parallel and continuing incoherence in our relations with foreign powers, which fight their ideological battles in our lands.

    These five issues strike me as capturing the core, underlying weaknesses of most Arab countries, to some degree. They are more evident in Lebanon than in any other Arab country, expect perhaps for lands like Somalia that have shattered and ceased functioning as coherent sovereign states, or places like Sudan, Yemen and Iraq that also reveal severe internal cleavages because they have not reconciled the imperatives of sovereignty, identity, legitimacy, citizenship, statehood and governance. These basic challenges pertain even in rich countries with oil wealth or stable countries with strong central governments. Lebanon’s heightened worries these days due to the STL should remind us that its underlying problems and challenges are Lebanese only in their transitory particularities, while deeper down these problems are typical of most of the Arab world, where they remain stubbornly unaddressed and unacknowledged.

    Rami KHOURI
    The Daily Star
    23.10.2010

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