The question about how to foster peace and reconciliation in the MENA region is definitely a very complex one, and with my answer I will try to offer some “food for thought”, first addressing a number of regional cross-cutting issues and then the cases of four countries: Libya, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Iraq. This will by no means be a comprehensive analysis, but it will shed light on the dynamics that have led over time to the current widespread predicament in the area, highlighting the role played by the “religious factor” and identity-based politics, as well as some possible solution to improve good governance and open a new era for MENA people and communities.
Among the sources of warfare and instability in the MENA region, there is a misconception of the notion of “inclusivity” concerning the sub-national identities, religious as well as ethnic ones. The roots of this misconception predate the Ottomans’ era, but it is during the six hundred years of their empire that the divisions we still see today started to take concrete shape, as a consequence of their “divide and rule” strategy. To ensure their control over a large territory with a very diverse demographics, Ottomans tampered with the sub-national identities, similarly to other empires throughout history. These sub-national identities were mostly religious and sectarian, but in some parts of North Africa also ethnic and linguistic in nature.
Immediately after the end of the First World War, the control of the MENA region was taken by France and Britain, which rushed to build nation states inspired from their domestic model of governance. Regardless of whether their intentions were good or bad, history proved their actions were a mistake. The two mandatory powers adopted a top-down approach, dealing only with the elites of the newly born states, empowering religious leaders and the most educated sectors of the society within an institutional framework that envisaged a parliament, a prime minister, a president of the Republic, and arrangements typical of the Western democratic models. In doing so, however, they disregarded the complexity of the local context and did not succeed in involving the bulk of the population in the building process of viable nation states. As a result, peaceful coexistence and stability were not destined to be long-lasting achievements.
Subsequently, two major ideologies spread across the region: Pan-Arab Nationalism and Political Islam (or the Muslim Brotherhood movement). Both emerged as a reaction to the presence of France and Britain, although they were also used by the latter in some instances to assert their influence and in the power competition between them. In 1948, the creation of the state of Israel was followed by intense conflicts that involved not only the Palestinians, but most of the neighboring countries, causing an unprecedented polarization that was also emotional and not only political.
These conflicts catalyzed political changes that led, in the 50s and the 60s, to the fall of the monarchies and the rise of republics in Egypt and Iraq. These new republics, however, devolved soon into dictatorships, which sided with the Soviet Union in the Cold War similarly to the regime in Syria. On the other hand, the West used to back the monarchies of the Gulf, mostly autocratic as well, in return for their policy of non-engagement with Moscow.
In the 70s and 80s, unfortunately the West saw Jihadism as a useful tool to counter the Soviet expansion, as was the case in Iran with Khomeini and with Afghanistan’s jihadists after Moscow’s invasion. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Afghanistan was the first country to be targeted and then a regime change took place in Iraq, with consequences that continue to affect the country today.
The so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011 brought along the failure of the new parliamentary democracies, along with deeper social inequalities and ever more violence, which are the hallmark of the MENA region nowadays. In many cases, violence is justified as a legitimate means to achieve political goals also at the grassroots level by ordinary citizens. The political arena is characterized by unlimited competition and zero-sum games. Compromise and negotiation are almost absent from the local political culture, and the widening of the “vertical” divisions within each country is increasing the risk of the outbreak of new violent internal conflicts. Endemic corruption, ineffective governance, and outdated or absent social contracts are common characteristics of most countries of the region.
In 2013, Tunisia witnessed a major national dialogue which proved to be a successful endeavor to bridge the gap between the Islamist and the secular constituents of Tunisia. Indeed, this process helped mitigate the domestic disputes and prevent the country from sliding into political violence and civil war. However, the temporary power-sharing system which resulted from the national dialogue lasted too long, leading to dysfunctional institutions and a failed system. The Parliament was stuck in a permanent stalemate, and could not exercise the legislative power effectively. As a consequence, no measure was approved to address the needs of the citizens, seriously affected by the economic crisis and deteriorating social conditions.
All this engendered the rejection of the political establishment by the population – a common outcome of the “Arab Spring “wave of protests across the MENA region −, and was the main factor triggering the popular support that allowed the current President Kais Saied to come to power through democratic elections and not by force. Obviously, there were unrealistic expectations from the revolution and the ensuing political changes. This applies to Tunisia, but also to Libya, Syria, and other countries in the region, where it was widely believed that the shift from dictatorship to democracy would have carried with it a substantial improvement of the socio-economic conditions.
Tunisia’s economic predicament is becoming worse and worse day by day, with an increasing divide between the coastal and the interior areas, which has been inherited from the past − dating back to the times of Habib Bourguiba, the first President after Tunisia’s independence − and was not addressed by the post-2011 governments.
One of the misconceptions about Iraq is that radicalism started after 2003, although it was ignited before since the early ‘90s by Saddam Hussein’s “Faith Campaign”, which was the root of what happened after the military intervention of the United States. To be sure, the US mismanagement of the post-Saddam Iraq enabled radicalism to flourish. In particular, the chaotic and arbitrary de-Baathification process excluded a lot of Sunnis not only from the bureaucracy, but also from the political process and practice, and this was exploited by some of the extremist groups. As they say in Iraq, the “marriage” between Al-Douri and Al-Dhari took place: Izzat Al-Douri was one of Saddam’s vice presidents, who managed not to be captured by the US forces and led the insurgency, while Harith Al-Dhari used to be the Chairman of the Association of Muslim Scholars and a religious extremist leader.
The “marriage” consisted in the manipulation of religion by a number of former cadres of the Baath party, both military and civilians, to fuel terrorism in the country, first Al Qaida and then ISIS. Many of those who were leading the operations of the two terrorist organizations were the same figures hailing from the Baath party.
After the liberation of the territories held by ISIS, radicalism has continued to be a predominant factor in the country in a different form, with the pro-Iranian Shiite militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces. Owing to Iran’s support, these armed groups are in control of all the political, economic, cultural, and social processes in Iraq, both directly or indirectly.
In this context, the most vulnerable communities are the minority groups, whether religious or ethnic, such as Christians and Yazidis, which are still suffering from discrimination. In the past, during the time of dictatorship and of the Baathist leftist ideology, they had to choose, for instance, between being a good Christian or a good Iraqi, as it was not possible to be both. Today, they are not granted equal citizenship as Iraqis because they are not Muslims. This shows the lack of inclusion of sub-national identities, which are considered not compatible with the national one, although there should be no competition between them. This is one of the major issues to be addressed nowadays in Iraq and in other countries of the MENA region.
Theoretically, in pre-2011 Libya, the awkward inverted pyramid model fashioned by Muammar Gaddafi was supposed to give more power to the people, but in reality that was never the case. The actual system had one person on the top of the pyramid, and then fragmented and dispersed state-run entities focused on community services. In so doing, Gaddafi created a vacuum between the administrative level and the top political decision-making one, perhaps intentionally to make sure that there would have been no competition between the two. In addition, Gaddafi used to buy the loyalty of ethnic and linguistic groups, in order to coopt them. As a result, Libya was ruled by an authoritarian regime, which increased the level of regionalism and social inequalities, instead of at least reducing them as promised.
In post-2011 Libya, the international community made the usual mistake to rush the elections and the introduction of a constitution, without thinking about the social contract to define the basis of the living together. Do they want to partition the country? Do they want a federal or a centralized system? None of these defining questions was answered. But elections were organized both in 2012 and 2014, which paved the way for the division of the country and the civil war.
Since then, Libya has two governments that compete with each other for the energy resources, which are the main driver of the domestic conflicts. In this context, the intra-EU rivalries and the regional interferences only exacerbated the situation.
As a state, Lebanon is built on a power sharing system that reflects the variety of its strong sub-national identities of religious nature. For many, this is the source of all the problems of the country (jokingly, even including traffic jams). However, I believe that this is an issue that can be addressed, and it can be done by affirming the complementarity, on the one hand, between the sub-national identities, discarding once and for all the idea that they can only compete with each other; on the other hand, between the sub-national identities and the Lebanese national identity. This complementarity would ensure that the power sharing system does not devolve into sectarianism.
Similarly, it is a misconception to believe that the checks and balances between confessions in the Constitution are alone hindering the democratic governance. The issue is not about the constitutional guarantees themselves, but about the use you make of them.
Needless to say, the power sharing system and the constitutional guarantees have been misused and manipulated by most of the Lebanese political leaders, who have been thriving on the promotion of the sectarian competition for a long time. That is why the system proved to be dysfunctional and inefficient, fueling corruption across both the public and private sector to an extent that it has become a social norm.
As a way forward to reach stability, reconciliation, and peace in the MENA region, the following areas of engagement are suggested:
– Establish the idea of complementarity between national and sub-national identities, and promote inclusive citizenship and governance, leading to sustainable social contracts.
– Restore trust in the political system. People in MENA countries have lost faith in political leaders and entities, developing a closer affinity with individual leaders coming outside the party system. This is a dangerous development, which could open the way to authoritarianism. Priority must be given to structural economic and social reforms. If people continue to live with social and economic inequalities, it is hard to convince them that they need to think about the social contract, governance, and political issues. The trust issue also involves the religious leaders and institutions, which are a significant component of the fabric of MENA countries and have also been a source of dissatisfaction.
– Acknowledge the relevance of the public service on a local level, distinguish it from the public service on a national level. This would help prevent the creation of political vacuums, which the authoritarian regimes usually try to create by blurring the line between what is local and what is national, in order for them to put the former under their control.
– Promote a long-term endeavor to mainstream the concept and the values of accountability, which are absent from the basic culture in MENA countries. This involves not only the institutions and politics, but also the civilian organizations and single individuals.
– Empower the intellectual resources of the region, using local expertise to start generating the solutions to the problems that keep affecting the MENA countries, including the achievement of a new peace and security architecture.
– Enhance the partnership with the Western countries, Europe and the United States in particular, based less on financial interests and more on the promotion of human rights and democratic values.
Proceedings of the Study Seminar
A Strategic Perspective on “Religion, Peace, and Security”
Dr. Elie Al Hindy: “Interreligious Dialogue: Three Levels of Engagement for Peace and Security”
Dr. Majeda Omar: “The Amman Message and Other Insights from Jordan”
Prof. Aicha Haddou: Preventing Extremism: The Moroccan “Experience”
Imam Yahya Pallavicini: Policies and Initiatives Against the Radical Discourse in the MENA Region
Dr. Elie Abouaoun: “Food for Thought” On How to Foster Peace and Reconciliation in the MENA Region
Hon. Pascale Warda: Sectarianism and the Predicament of Religious Minorities in Iraq