Za`imism in Lebanon
I recently recieved two comments on my za`ama article about Bashar and Lahoud. One suggesting that I "really understand the area," and the other that I "have an outsider's view" and get it wrong. I will comment after copying them below.
Fares Bagh writes:
Your article provides deep analysis that only a person that really understands the area can provide. Hafez had a big stick but also a lot of carrots for the people in terms of taking pride in Syria, opening the economy, allowing non political Islam to flourish, at least in comparison to Salah Jedid days. Our good ol boys forget these facts and focus only on Hama.
Salutation from Austin.
Thanks , Fares Bagh
Rami does not agree. He writes:
With respect I take issue with several aspects of your message. It is clear to me that you have an outsider’s view and subsequent description of Middle Eastern habits and traditions. Moreover you tend to paint the whole region with one brush and one color. As the Lebanese proverb says “la’ita min danaba”, or “holding it by its tail”.
In particular is your use and conceptualization of the term “za’im”. Although your definitions might apply in authoritarian settings such as Saddam’s Iraq or Assad’s Syria it definitely does not in Lebanon. As I understand it your concept of “za’aama” is a form of leadership that is widespread in the “Levant” and quite acceptable in such settings because of its apparent balance between ruthlessness and subsequent mercy.
In Lebanon governmental office was only reached constitutionally (even during some periods of the war). Before the war leaders did not resort to “force” or “intimidation” to quell the opposition, which rendered that opposition the most effective method of policy change in Lebanon bringing presidencies to crashing halts most memorable of which are Khouri’s in 1952 and Chamoun’s in 1958. So the people of the Levant are not generally predisposed to only respond and be governed by the laws of “za’aama”. Secondly your examples of Assad’s “mercy”, “justice”, “generosity” and “wisdom” are laughable. (See the rest of Rami's comment in the comment section of the last post.)
First, Fares, Thank you for your kind words. Second, Rami, thank you for your disagreement. I agree with the notion that there are important differences in the level of constitutionality and democratic political process observed in Lebanon and Syria. I don't agree that "za`ama" is not a useful concept for understanding Lebanese politics. To the contrary, it is central.
Lebanon is the Noah's arch of za`ims (zu`ama pl. Arabic). The concept of "za`imism" in modern political science and anthropology has been hammered out using the Lebanese example. Arnold Hottinger, in his seminal article, "'Zu'ama' in Historical Perspective," (in Leonard Binder, ed. Politics in Lebanon, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1966.) defines a za`im like this:
A za`im in the specifically Lebanese and contemporary sense is a political leader who possesses the support of a locally circumscribed community and who retains the support by fostering and appearing to foster the interests of as many as possible from amongst his clientele. The za`im usually belongs to a family outstanding though its fortune. His position of leadership is frequently passed on to some of his descendents. Finally, the za`im is not purely a political leader -- for he does not promise his followers betterment only by the use of political means -- nor is he simply a successful business operator, fostering the economic well being of his associates and clients by gaining employment for them. Instead he combines the two functions in one person and tends to mix them intimately. He exchanges the betterment of his client group in all ways, economic, social, and political, for their political support."Za'ims are many in Lebanon. The most famous families are known to all: Salam, Solh, As`ad, Gemayel, Frangieh, Chamoun, Arslan, Junblat, etc. These families have been operating in Lebanon for 100 years, some many more. They pass communal and local authority down from son to grandson. The Lebanese confessional system is their support and anchor, reinforcing their za`ama, clientele groups, business dealings, and power. The political parties they support often do not have programs. Followers support and vote for them in order to get jobs, economic advantage, and because of communal and sectarian loyalty. Their political attitudes and ideology has to conform to the general communal outlook of the group they represent.
Edward Shils of Chicago University explained how the system of za`ims and communalism in Lebanon precluded “The Prospect for Lebanese Civility,” in an article of that name. Shils came to the conclusion that the first and most general factor behind the breakdown of Lebanese polity is “the deficient civility of Lebanese society”. “Lebanon”, he argued, “is not a civil society”. He added:
No parliament has ever brought down a Prime Minister through a vote of no confidence. The same is true of Syria during its democratic experiment from 1943 to 1958. The absence of political parties (It is important to distinguish between a real party and a coalition of za`ims) and political discipline among the deputies, most of whom were independents without party affiliation, made it easy for the President to "buy" off his opposition through favors. Shil continues:
Lebanese society revolves around an empty center. It has representative institutions, and these representative institutions are able to conduct debates but they are precluded from making decisions. The Chamber of Deputies cannot institute changes. It can only serve to prevent changes which would alter the present balance of interests among the communities of belief and primordial attachment.”
As a result of this situation, the Lebanese polity suffers from various shortcomings and handicaps. Shils described some of them. First, he contended that: "the National Pact limits efficiency in the civil service by making communal membership [i.e., confessionalism] a major criterion for recruitment”.
Because of the deeply rooted communalism of Lebanese society, it is not an integrated civil society in the modern sense of the term. It lacks that attachment to the national society as a whole, that sense of identity, the consensus that should embrace much of the population on issues that touch seriously upon the interests of the communities which make it up.
According to Ralph E. Crow, confessionalism affects not only the recruitment process, but the operation of the Public Service in general. As he puts it: “Confessionalism manifests itself at several points in the administrative process, three of which are: recruitment and promotion, performance and control, and effect on the stability of the political regime.”
Albert Hourani described how za`imism was rooted in the "Politics of the Notables," in his now famous 1968 article entitled, “Ottoman Reform and the Politics of the Notables.” Politics of the Notables is a nicer, less offensive term, to explain the politics of za`ama in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire, in which za`ims mediated between the Sultan and local constituencies, which were based on traditional loyalties of confession, neighborhood, and family. In the cities, neighborhood constituencies were policed by "qabadayat" or neighborhood enforcers or strongmen. In the countryside, tribal or confessional za`ims could use village headmen and tight clan culture to achieve the same result.
For Lebanon Hourani explains how a "new system" of government based on za`ims and the "communal principle" emerged after the collapse of the Shihabi Imarah in 1842. This new communal system, he writes, "has since been the basis of the legislature." "The underlying assumption of the new system was that the different communities could live together but the Maronites were dominant. Although it was "ostensibly based on religious equality," there "was no institution to express or police this equality." (See Hourani's article, "Lebanon, the Development of a Political Society," in Binder, Politics in Lebanon.)
Who was left to police the new confessional system which had no center? "Foreign consuls," Hourani writes. "The new system of government could only be assured by a foreign presence." The Mutassarrif of Lebanon during the later Ottoman period was to be a Christian chosen from outside Lebanon by the Ottoman government. Both foreign consuls and to a lesser extent Istanbul had to police the shaky system. To minimize confessional tensions, the frontiers of the Mutasarrifiyya excluded Sunni cities such as Beirut and Tripoli, which rejected both the idea of local autonomy under the control of the European powers and the principle of communal equality, especially because it was only ostensible, but actually promoted Maronite dominance.
In many respects the persistence of communalism and za`imism in post 1943 National Pact Lebanon has meant that Lebanon cannot rule itself constitutionally. It needs a foreign power to arbitrate between the communities. Yes the two concepts of "Lebanon" and the "Maronite Nation" seemed to coalesce in the National Pact, but they were always in conflict and lived side by side uncomfortably. Communalism always seemed to trump "Lebanon" when push came to shove.
Edward Shils, in arguing that Lebanon had no center, points to the fragility of the Lebanese system despite the vaunted success of the National Pact. First, there was the violent 1949 coup attempt by the SSNP. In 1952, the constitutional process of succession broke down when President Bishara al-Khuri tried to extend his term in office. Again in 1958, there was a similar breakdown in the constitutional process when Chamoun tried to do the same which led, with other factors, to a civil war. Anyone who has read Wilbur Eveland's tell-all CIA book, the "Ropes of Sand," knows how the US was crucial as a police man of Lebanon's Maronite supremacy during this "Golden Age" period of Lebanese politics. By spending millions of dollars buying votes and za`ims and by landing troops in Beirut, it was able to push back the Nasserist and Syrian-assisted challenge to Maronite supremacy in Lebanon. Indeed the US tried to do for Chamoun what Syria just did for Lahoud.
In 1957 President Camille Chamoun received CIA money to help support candidates running for the Chamber of Deputies. The CIA also assisted in planning the campaigns of conservative politicians. With conservative members of the chamber backing their president, Chamoun was able to amend the constitution so that in 1958 he could seek another six year term.Unfortunately for Washington, the CIA was not as skilful as Bashar at policing Lebanon, despite Bashar's "bumbling diplomacy." The Chamoun effort failed, and Washington turned to Shihab to clean up the mess.
The Sunni cities which had been swept into Greater Lebanon embraced Arabism and rejected Phoenicianism. They always looked at the notion of Lebanon as "A Refuge of Minorities," a notion first articulated by Michel Chiha, as a sneaky strategy for the Maronites to justify their primacy rather than to share power equitably. (Why else would Maronites insist on a Maronite President with the lion's share of power and a 6-5 distribution of deputies in parliament?) In all fairness, it must be said that the Sunni notables believed they were "the natural leaders" of Lebanon and undoubtedly believed in the superiority of the Sunni world-view as ardently as did the Maronites in their (Mediterranean-Phoenician-Western-modern-etc.) world-view.
The magical age of Lebanese "stability," which lasted a short 16 years between 1958 and 1975, cannot be used as proof that Lebanon's confessional system had an effective political center or that its za`ims did not need to be policed by an outside power. It should be seen as a small breathing space between French and Syrian rule, in which US power and Chihabism were able to carry the day. Chihab maintained this stability by letting the PLO build up its forces in the camps and by depending on the army. These policies, though temporarily sufficient to co-opt za`ims and buy time, could not keep the country from its next crisis. Muslims wanted one man, one vote, because they were the majority and believed that fact should be reflected in the legislature and distribution of offices. They turned to foreign capitals for assitance, just as the Maronites had so effectively done. Arabism (Muslims) faced off against Westernism (Christians) to define the essential character of the nation.
Today Syria polices Lebanon's za`ims and decides on the president and foreign policy. Yes, Many Muslim Lebanese, if not most, resent the roll Syria plays, especially when it is so obvious and humiliating as in the Lahoud extension. All the same, they sided with Arabism against the alternative, which many read as a US-Israeli-Christian nexus out to screw Arabs and Muslims. Christians would protest this is a completely unfair and false reading of the situation. They look at it as liberty (West-Bush) versus tyranny (Arabism-Bashar). But this difference in views and loyalties only serves to underline how fragile or non-existent real "Lebanonism" is.
Is Lebanon a nation today?
Many commentators believe that Lebanon has changed and has acquired a greater sense of national identity. They believe it is a nation today that can rebuild and stand on its two feet if only the US will push out Syria. Michael Young and Tony Badran, two esteemed and valued friends, often express this view on these pages. They point to recent polls which suggested that 70% of Lebanese identify first as Lebanese and secondly as sectarians. It is one thing to say it, it is another to act on it.
The Lahoud affair was depressing from this point of view, though I admit, it is far from over. A number of people have assured me that many Muslim politicians reached out to their Christian counterparts and French and American diplomats to say how horrified they were at Syria's intervention even as they went ahead and gave it their blessings. But this doesn't prove much. It is the normal "triangulating" of za`im politics. Christian politicians did this at the time of Bashir Gemayel's election to the presidency in the early 1980s, which was sponsored by Israel and Washington. They secretly expressed their outrage to the Syrians. Michael Young writes about this in his recent review of the new book by the French reporter, which is the "must" reading in Lebanon today (I forget its name).
I am not as optimistic about Lebanon's conversion to a full-blown national identity as Michael Young and Tony Badran are, just as they believe I am overly optimistic about Syria under Bashar becoming a kinder and more open society.
In the pages of the Daily Star (03/11/04), Doctor Adnan Kaddaha, president of the Lebanese Business Council in Dubai, recently wrote:
"No country in history has grown without the loyalty, the national loyalty, of its people, but in Lebanon loyalty is to a sect,” he said. “The constitutional structure of Lebanon is based on this.” He said that the country was a coalition of these sects. “It has never worked anywhere in the world, so why should it work in Lebanon?” he asked.Talal Selman writing in As-Safir, May 28, 1998 had this to say about the municipal elections of that year.
The results of the municipal and mayoral elections in Mount Lebanon (...) revealed dangerous flaws in our political system (...). In our fragmented country, the electoral process has become a democratic veneer covering the cancer of confessionalism [ta`ifiyya] which has now spread to become a deadly epidemic of sectarianism [mazhabiyya].Like Talal Selman, many Lebanese believe that sectarianism and za`imism are as entrenched as ever today, if not a lot worse than they used to be. Many friends have told me that they were forced to leave Lebanon in order to secure a proper future for themselves because they did not have "wasta" and were not connected to a za`im, who could help them get a job. Christians in the south, where the Shiite lords rule, have given up hope of advancement because of merit or qualifications. The Shiite za`ims, they complain, must reward their Shiite clients first and be SEEN as good sectarians to reassure their followers. Christian southerners only get the crumbs that fall off the table, if that. I imagine the same works in the north in reverse. Most complain that za`imism is worse than ever.
I do not wish to say that the Lebanese do not deserve or should not have the liberty to try to stand on their own two feet and piece together a Nation. They should. But I am not optimistic. There has always been a "Sultan" or policeman to arbitrate between the za`ims and sects. This does not mean it always has to be so, but it does tell us something about the weakness of the present system. It is why I am pessimistic about President Bush's "Forward Strategy of Democracy" thoughout the region.
The Ta`if agreement did not solve Lebanon's problem. The 1989 agreement that was brokered by Washington and Damascus in the Saudi city of Ta`if is deceptive. The Christians feel like they gave up the ramparts of the Lebanese state by allowing the power of the Maronite presidency to be watered down and largely assumed by the Sunni Prime Minister. They also conceded to an even 50-50 split between the deputies in parliament. No longer are there 6 Christians to every 5 Muslims as there were in the good old days. Many Christians say, "Look, we compromised at Ta`if and gave away the store. Are the Muslims happy. No, they go to Syria and want more. We get nothing but insults. Why should we give up more?"
For their part, the Muslims felt like they did not get the representation they deserve. No one knows the sectarian balance in the country today, but let's say it is 70% Muslim and 30% Christian. (The Druze are the wild card, depending whether Junblat feels Christian or Muslim or Druze on any given day. If only the rest of the Lebanese were so flexible and, indeed, Lebanese!)
The only reason the Muslims accept the Christians keeping 50% of the constitutional power in Lebanon is because the constitution does not rule. Syria slips teh Muslims extra bonus power under the table. Hizballah gets to rule the south and have a militia. The Sunnis get to suck down a monster share of the economic goodies through the good offices of the Prime Minister and they all get to wink at the Christian 50% in parliament. And of course, they don't really have a Sectarian minded president either. If the Syrians were to really leave Lebanon, and Hizballah were shut down, the Muslims would demand, and would deserve, a much greater share of legislative power. Are the Christians prepared for one man, one vote? Are they prepared to give up the Presidency and office of Chief of Staff of the army? Who will protect Mediterraneanism from the much-feared scimitar of Arabism? I am not convinced Christians have absorbed the true meaning of democracy in Lebanon or the significance of losing the civil war.
Maybe they have. They certainly deserve to find out. Muslims also deserve their full portion of legislative power. In the meantime, the za`ims will decide, and Damascus will police. Perhaps in time, confessional identities and politics will fade to the extent that the different sects will have nothing to fear from each other's culture and power so that merit can be placed above `asabiyya. The problem is that the confessional system reproduces itself. Confessionalism has not faded away or been erroded into a folkloric museum piece by nationalism. Syria has the same problem. That is why it is rulled by a Sultan, who can act like the Ottoman Emperor, policing Syria's (and Lebanon's) za`ims.