By Ralph Schoellhammer
When I arrived in Lebanon on the 3rd of July I was convinced that the 30 days I was going to spend in this Arab country would mainly influence my views on the Middle East. Shortly after my return, however, I figured that my experiences in the Levant were formative for my views on foreign as well as on domestic politics. The way we perceive a new environment tells us as much about the object of our observation as it does about the observer himself. All the impressions that came to me in the last four weeks were filtered by my personal array of prejudice, ignorance and simple lack of information. Some of my prejudices were weakened, others reinforced: I hasten to add that I do not think that prejudices are generally negative. They help us to arrange how we see the world around us, indeed, sometimes they are a frame that is necessary to make at least a minimal comprehension of the complexities of the world possible.
Before I came to Lebanon I thought that I have a rudimentary understanding of terms like democracy, governance and secularism. As it turned out, I only had a blurry, shadowy grasp of what those words actually mean. Lebanon, with its inefficient system of sectarianism, its lack of governance and its struggle for secularism forced me to spar with these terms and come to a better understanding. The first “epiphany” that made this clear was the revealing meeting with Monsieur Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Lebanese Druze. In a very polite conversation this influential man in Lebanese politics made two stunning comments: He first remarked that he does not see any chance for democracy in the Middle East and, on a more personal note, that he despises the West.
So why should democracy in the Middle East not be possible? Or even more important, why would someone like Mr. Jumblatt hold such a view? Despite its relative youth, the soil on which modern Lebanon exists is as much a part of modern history as Athens, Alexandria or Rome. Not without reason did the Romans build one of their largest temples in Baalbek. Europe itself, in fact, owns its very name to the daughter of a Phoenician King who was abducted by Zeus to the very continent that we call by her name to this very day. Contemplating this story, I was thinking that Greek mythology might also give us a hint why democracy has failed in the East and succeeded in the West. In Aeschylus’s tragic play, the Oresteia, he describes the dilemma faced by its protagonist Orestes: After his mother kills his father Agamemnon, he avenges his death by killing his mother, Clytemnestra, in return. Following this murder a debate takes place between the gods to decide whether and how to punish Orestes. In Aeschylus play, two sides battle for the outcome of the trial. On one side are the “old” gods, who see the murder of the mother as worse a crime than the previous murder of the husband. In the old view, mother and son are blood related, whereas Agamemnon’s murder is of less magnitude as he is not kin, but “only” the husband. The new side lead by the god Apollo, however, argues quite differently. He asserts that law is higher than blood revenge, and that the marital contract is more sacred than the status of kinship. Not the old bonds of blood decide what is just and unjust, but the letter of the law.
What Aeschylus describes in his play is nothing less than the shift from an anarchic into a civil society: Justice is no longer an interpretation of families, clans or tribes but a matter of the state. Although written in the language of mythology, this play includes the main seed for a working democracy: The idea of a social contract in which the people remove the right to speak justice from the family and the clan and grant it to the state. This was the essence of Greek civilization, the construction of a government that ruled with the consent of its subjects and not against their will. In modern times we have an inclination to interpret democracy as defined solely by holding elections. But that is only a small part of the story: the main act for a working democracy is the transfer of trust from the family to the state. Only if the people trust their state elections as such make sense, as it guarantees that even the loser of the election will accept its outcome. It was, in fact, not only Athens that realized the importance of breaking the bonds of kinship. In Sparta the children were deliberately estranged from their parents to guarantee that the loyalty of the next generation will lie with the state of Sparta and not one of its tribes.
These stories of old tell us a lot about the contemporary problems in the Middle East. In Lebanon, as well as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and several other states this process of breaking the chains of kinship has never taken place. And there are many who do not want to see it take place. If the state in Lebanon would be strong enough, if it could gather the necessary trust of the Lebanese people that they would be willing to join a real social contract the power shift within society would be tremendous. A contract in which the government and the governed accept the rule of one law for all, of one army for one nation and to conceal religion to the private sphere. In such a scenario, what would happen to the Jumblatts, the leaders of the Phalange, or the Nasrallahs? In a non-sectarian Lebanon, these sectarian leaders would become irrelevant. So I guess that Mr. Jumblatt’s remark about the impossibility of democracy in the Middle East was not necessarily one he regrets. If the Druze replace their religious identity with a Lebanese identity, who knows if they would still need Mr. Walid Jumblatt as their main representative.
The idea that democracy will arrive sooner or later as the result of societal evolution might not be more than wishful thinking. While autocracies and dictatorships base their power on small and powerful circles like the military or the clergy, a functioning democracy has the much harder task to ensure that its subjects keep a certain degree of voluntary loyalty to it. The creation of this trust was a hard and painful historical process that culminated in the West in the creation of an entirely new social class: the “Civil Servant.” To a certain degree, the civil servant embodies the conditio sine qua non of a functioning state. Not without reason the Prussian chancellor Bismarck once said: “Without good civil servants the best laws will not be able to govern a country, with good civil servants, however, even a country with bad laws can be efficiently governed.” A good part of Germany’s raise in the 19th and early 20th century was due to the establishment of a professional class of civil servants. The same holds true for France which created a strict system of governance in the aftermath of the revolution and during the reign of Napoleon. But what was the precondition for this new way of efficient governing? Once again, it was the breaking of certain old bonds: Great Britain was the first European nation to create a legal system that guaranteed equality before the law, and this development fostered the creation of the British Empire. One of the first steps of the French revolutionaries after 1789 was to abolish legal inequalities and create a unified legal codex. After being severely defeated by the French armies in 1806 the Prussian King Frederick William III triggered a series of reforms that were considered to “strengthen the bond between the King and his people” via the transformation from “a mere subject to a citizen.” The core of these reforms? A reliable civil service and equality before the law. The ties between the land owner and the peasant were dissolved and both had to answer to the same authority under the same law. Slowly but surely the membership to a certain class or family became less and less important in legal and political matters – a development that was fundamental for the ascend of European power.
Although I think it is impossible to copy the historical experiences of one nation to another, I do think that it is possible to learn from the fate of others. Nobody expects the Arab nations to turn into Switzerland or Massachusetts within the next decades, but to assume that there is something inherent to the people of this region that they shall never be able to live in democratic states seems to be a preposterous thought. The main pity, though, is that most Arab leaders do not really want such changes. Lebanon is a good example: A weak state, torn apart by the interests of the different sects that constitute it. I do believe, however, that there would be room for change, if the right series of steps would be accomplished. It is by no means impossible to build a functioning class of civil servants to create an efficient bureaucracy and judicial system. With a growing efficiency of the state the trust of the Lebanese people in its government what also increase, possible triggering a slow process to wear out the sectarian system. It would be a mistake to think that there are easy fixes in nation building, but one has to start somewhere. The current course of donor nations to prop up the Lebanese army is, in my opinion, the wrong way. It is a dangerous misconception that the stability of a state rests on the guns of its army. The main precondition for stability is trust, and trust is mainly created by the legal system and efficient governance. This does not mean that the army could not play a substantial role in a future Lebanon. Quite the opposite: A conscript army that forces Shiites, Sunnis and Christians to spend a certain amount of time together could help to reduce animosities between the groups. The same would hold true for the creation of laws that would ease inter-confessional marriages. Those points, however, all need the one precondition I have mentioned earlier in this post: the transfer of trust from the family, clan or religious group to the state.
Whether or not this transformation is going to happen remains questionable, as right now we can observe a reverse trend in many parts of the world. In many Western jurisdictions the very idea of equality before the law is under attack, and the idea that people with different cultural backgrounds should be treated under different laws is gaining more and more attraction. In Great Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury is openly argued that the state should create Sharia courts for the country’s Muslim population. A two-tier legal system, however, does not seem to be a good recipe for social stability, and the idea itself shows how much we have lost a clear understanding of what democracy actually means. The value of a working legal system, due process and equality before the laws have become such an everyday convenience for us, that we sometimes forget the long struggle it took to get there.
Parliamentary democracy was in the end a result of a legal evolution that started with the signing of the Magna Charta in 1215 over the Bill of Rights in 1689 until it reached the form of modern democracy as it is enjoyed today by still a far too small percentage of the global population.
One of the reasons why the democratization in Iraq and Afghanistan is failing is because we have lost grip of what democracy actually means. And I am not talking about the finer nuances like whether the Belgian constitution is more democratic than the US constitution. It is the nuts and bolts of democracy that start to become more and more elusive. It is impossible to create democracy out of thin air, but the West can assist in creating the preconditions: The training of civil servants, the establishment of a working bureaucracy and an advisory role in a truly accountable judicial system. To reach a functioning democracy is dirty business, but no matter how far the Middle East is from reaching it, not to assist them in their journey would be worse choice for us all.