The Riddle of Identity-Based Politics in the MENA region

“Sectarianism” (or “Confessionalism”) in countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, is often blamed for being the main driver of  violence. In other places such as Libya, “regionalism” and “tribalism” get a similar bad rap. In the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, power sharing (aka al-mouhassassa) is usually incriminated as the root of all evil. The concepts of “civil state“ and “secularism” are also used interchangeably in political discussions and analysis. More recently, terminology like “subsidiary identities” (in reference to sub-national identities), as opposed to “national identity”, emerged in the same discussions. What is the region’s predicament exactly?

The first aspect of the problem is that a combination of political illiteracy and the manipulation of the political discourse by the elite has created misleading narratives, using ill-defined terms such as “sectarianism”, “secularism”, “civil state”, “quota system”, and others.

For the last few centuries, political constituencies in the region formed primarily around religious, ethnic, tribal, regional, or other sub-national identities, rather than around political ideologies or projects. There is a host of reasons leading to this situation; reasons that are misunderstood – or worse, ignored – by local, national, and international decision makers.

While not exclusive to the MENA region, this reality is deeply rooted in a long social and political history dating back to the occupation of the region by the Ottomans. For more than five centuries – until the end of WW1 –, the region was ruled by the “Sultan” who happened to be at the same time the “Caliph”. Beyond this amalgamation at the top of the hierarchy between state and religious affairs, the Ottomans found fertile territory to exercise the infamous “divide et impera” in the region’s diverse religious, ethnic, and tribal populations, like any other occupier would have undoubtedly done.

As the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, the region found itself under the control of two colonial powers – Britain and France – who had to delineate their respective zones of influence in territories populated by communities with little or no national identity. In some cases, like that of the Maronites and Druzes in Mount Lebanon, communities organized themselves around their shared identities to attain a degree of autonomy from the empire. This granted them a special status which is still seen as a win in these communities. In their case, the sub-national identity was the why and wherefore of walking off with an autonomy of sorts from the Sublime Ottoman State.

Moreover, France and Britain attempted the impossible mission of setting up governance models where the requirements of a Western style “nation state” would be in harmony with the reality of an all-time low national identity. The region ended up with a short period of relative but artificial stability (mostly the 1930s and 1940s) under the colonial powers, leading to a troubled post-independence era (late 1950’s onwards) characterized by successive coups d’état, authoritarian and corrupt monarchies, dictatorships and police states or chaos in the form of civil wars. During this same period, two main ideologies emerged in the region to fill in the legacy vacuum of the Ottomans: The Pan-Arab Nationalism and the Political Islam project owned by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Although some political groups mimicked other ideologies (communism, liberalism, socialism, etc.), the political space remained dominated by the clash between a romantic, staunchly secular but authoritarian Pan-Arabism, and a faith-based often violent project of Political Islam. The proponents of both models embraced  exclusionary approaches in the sense that the first camp attempted to annihilate any reference to religion (often even in the private personal space), while the second esteemed the religious identity as the end-all be-all. Several communities who still identified by their religious, ethnic, tribal, or other affiliation found themselves under attack, and resorted in a reflex of self-defense to further entrenchment.

The second half of the 20th century reveals some important elements about the viability of a secular political project – i.e. the Lockesian model of separation between religion and state – in  a region mired in an identity crisis. Two main examples are quite conspicuous in this context: Turkey and Tunisia, on one hand, Syria and Iraq, on the other hand.

In the first case, both countries went through a transformation towards a secular political system under the leadership of a charismatic political figure (Ataturk and Bourguiba respectively). Despite their authoritarian style, both leaders ended up building European-like state institutions and imposed secular political practices and a  modernistic lifestyle that lasted for decades. But what’s bred in the bone came out in the flesh and, in the last decade or so, both countries reversed their progress towards secularism. In Turkey, the process was challenged first by the transition to a multiparty system in the 1950’s, then the economic liberalization in the 1980’s. It was challenged further by the rise to power of the “Islamic Justice and Development” Party, which has won all elections since 2002, promoted a heavy Islamic political agenda in the region and relentlessly pursued its strategic depth doctrine that includes weakening the nationalist pan-Arab identity, while strengthening the Islamic identity.

Tunisia, post-2011, has seen the revival of a suppressed religious identity and a resilient political constituency for Islamist parties, ranging from 25% to 35% of voters, as visible in the successive elections since the fall of the Ben Ali regime. The outcome of the forced secularization in Syria and Iraq is completely different as it led to the creation of one-party dictatorships, followed by civil wars centered around religious and sectarian identities. In a nutshell, none of the secularization models tested in the region worked well.

This historical overview clearly indicates that collective identities in the region are more of political constructs than being faith related. As a matter of fact, the various violent conflicts in the region involved people vehemently fighting for a religion, while ignoring its most important precepts. These political constructs flourished in the wake of under-performing state institutions leaving the space for non-state actors (religious, ethnic, or otherwise) to fill in the vacuum.

Unlike the transition to secularism in many parts of Europe, the concept in the MENA region was never an organic process caused by socio-economic developments and supported by intellectuals, but rather an imported model imposed by force. It was essentially modelled around the French anticlerical system, and became a symbol of colonialism and equivalent to “fighting” religion. This fake and ill-adapted secularism is not viable in the MENA. Therefore, the region is in dire need of an innovative governance model and a change in how identity is defined, and whether it is used to undermine or strengthen state-building processes.

The Constitutions of both Lebanon and Iraq are built around sectarian-based power sharing and quota systems, and given that both are closer to failed states than anything else, analysts and think-tanks are quick to diagnose this power-sharing model as the reason for their falls. However, this conclusion ignores the myriad of other, underlying, and systemic issues plaguing the region’s failed states, i.e. corruption, exclusion, and harmful social practices. It is distressing to see many thought leaders underestimating or even dismissing power-sharing arrangements as valuable, and advocating for traditional nation-state models in countries like Syria, Yemen, and Libya, that totally disregard the fears and interests of local populations.-

It is true that in both Lebanon and Iraq, the concept of “power-sharing” has been manipulated to serve the interests of a politico-business oligarchy, and that this same system distorted the practice of democracy, impeded the accountability of public and corporate entities and figures, and contributed significantly to the endemic corruption and perfuse violence that subvert the societies in both countries. What is not clear though is whether any other political system would have yielded a different result. The answer to this question comes from other countries in the MENA (Egypt, Algeria, Syria) that never embraced power-sharing but continue to struggle nevertheless with political exclusion, violence, corruption, lack of accountability, inefficiencies, social disparities, etc. This article’s vocation is not to explore the root causes of the common trends of fragility in the region. However, the problem clearly does not lie in the nature of the regime itself. Many other countries in the world have used similar models and did not end up becoming failed states. So far, beyond the anecdotal realm, there is no solid evidence about the causality between this type of systems and the region’s disasters.

Concretely, many cite the electoral laws and government formation process in either Lebanon or Iraq as an incarnation of how the quota system undermines democratic practices. But in any other country, including the most advanced democracies, the ruling parties legislate for the elections and the winning political parties negotiate respective shares in the to-be government. The problem in this case is not the quota system (also dubbed as “al-mouhassassa”) as much as the fact that political constituencies in the MENA are mostly shaped by religious, ethnic, or other subsidiary identities. Furthermore, the electoral behavior of most voters is anchored in their anxiety to protect their identity and access material services. Until these fears are addressed and people have an easy and equal access to services, any political system, whether power-sharing or not, will be manipulated to serve the pernicious goals of a pervert political establishment.

In 2014, F. Gregory Gause rightly made the case that the main drivers of the MENA conflicts are not sectarian. However, most of the actors mentioned in the report are identity based. Furthermore, a study (2018) about the barriers to return for ethno-religious minorities in Iraq states that, in the case of the Ezidis, identity based politics is “at the core of intra-communal divisions”, and that the main split among Christians in Iraq is “between political and religious stakeholders”. Furthermore, the author proves through multiple data points and examples that the “obstacles preventing the return of ethno-religious groups to their areas of origins in the liberated areas of Northern Iraq is not lack of infrastructure or jobs”, as it is often insinuated, but rather “protection concerns and general sense of instability”. This same study goes further to suggest that even the administrative units boundaries in Nineveh Plain (Northern Iraq) should be modeled to address the issue of identities and assuage concerns about representation of ethno-religious groups in local councils, local police, and other elements of the local government.

Surprisingly enough, a polling of the Lebanese Youth on Politics and Sectarianism (2020) highlights the changes-away from sectarianism that occurred among the Lebanese youth. However, several figures in the polling reflect a lack of understanding – by the respondents – of some essential concepts, vague definitions, and a political dilemma of sorts that is weighing on the political debate in Lebanon. Of the total sample, 58% of the respondents claimed they are “religious”. While 90% said that religion does not affect their “judgement or relation to the other”, 31% did say that religion affects their “daily life and convictions”, and 53% said that religious affiliation somehow affects their political views.

On another set of questions about separation between state and religion, some of the results are also confusing. While 48% said they support such a separation, 83% said they support the establishment of a “civil state” and only 13% support “secularism”. Knowing the overlap between the three concepts, the answers are indicative of ambiguous definitions and lack of political awareness. On another hand, the overwhelming majority (87%) who wants to abolish the sectarian quota is not consistent with those who support a non-sectarian parliament (64%). If the sectarian quota is not abolished in parliament, where else is it relevant to abolish it?

As per the same polling, another overwhelming majority claim that the sectarian system failed to protect Lebanon, is behind the corruption and lack of accountability (90%) and that this same system causes crisis (81%). But 69% nevertheless believe that the sectarian system protects the sects (though it discriminates against minorities), and 25% would still approve of “protecting the sectarian character” of their region.

In a recent report by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, three findings contradict a prevailing assumption that sectarianism is legal and political rather than social. The report analyses the results of independent secular – aka non confessional – candidates in the 2018 elections in Lebanon. The report found that “higher turnouts harmed independent lists’ results”. Given that the traditional political parties in Lebanon stem from a single specific religious – or even sectarian – constituency, the fact that independent secular candidates were not able to successfully compete with the “establishment” candidates in smaller electoral districts is by itself indicative of how pervasive identity based politics is in the society. Despite the growing anger from Lebanon’s mainstream politicians, the waste management crisis, the 2015 massive demonstrations and other disappointments, most voters reverted to their identity-based groups rather than voting for emergent maverick candidates. The report further states that “independent candidates were more popular among their co-sectarian voters”, and that even when voters had the opportunity to vote for someone from a different sect, 65% nevertheless chose a co-sectarian candidate. The report concludes that the independent candidates faced sectarianism at two levels: the state and the voters, and that the latter factor shaped to a large extent the outcome of the 2018 election despite an all-time record of independent secular candidates.

These few examples corroborate the premise that the current plight in the region unfolds a lingering reality about persistent communal fears and collective identities. By just changing electoral laws or political systems, this problem will not be fixed. Worse, by “forcing” people – whether through violence as Saddam, Assad, Qadhafi, and others did, or by “moral pressure”, i.e. making people feel bad about their own identity – these collective identities will be pushed to further entrenchment rather than the much needed hybridization.

Addressing the above-mentioned fears while changing the paradigms of political constructs from being identity-based to cause-based, could be achieved through the fostering of an inclusive national identity and by providing constitutional guarantees.

Kausch rightly points out that in “reducing the potential of political instrumentalization of communal affiliations, the policy challenge is to reinforce the constituent dimension of identity, build inclusive identity narratives, and use identity politics not as a disruptor but as glue between communities”. The process of fostering an inclusive national identity should not lead to asking people to renounce their other identities. One can be a Kurd or Ezidi or Turkmen or Christian, and a loyal Iraqi or a loyal Lebanese citizen at the same time. The two (or more) identities are not – and should not be portrayed as – mutually exclusive, but rather complementary.

Constitutional guarantees are cursed by many “secularophiles” as anti-democratic, encouraging discrimination, etc. As much as this theory looks “convenient” and astounding for some elitist activists and international analysts, there are many examples in the world (Switzerland, Canada, Belgium, Romania) where this kind of guarantees were used to address communal concerns but did not go as far as undermining democratic practices. Therefore, a reasonable compromise between both requirements is possible. Constitutional and legal checks and balances can ensure that a power sharing system does not get in the way of healthy democratic practices and effective functioning of the administration/access to services.

All in all, and despite what some analysts may assert, the region is in dire need of a new governance model that lets go of the romanticization of the “nation state”, and instead leans into accommodating all of the MENA’s vast array of sub-national identities and their coexistence with inclusive national identities. If the current paradigm does not evolve, the region will continue to witness destruction, violence, and despair.

(Co-published by The Arab Weekly)