Consociationalism in Middle East: Lebanon and Yemen | Yameena Haroon Rationale-47

Yameena Haroon

Middle East is a soup of issues because of the hodgepodge of conflicting material realities such as different sub-cultures, competing political structures, sectarian violence, radical identities’ manifestation, territorial irredentism, and extremist non-state actors to name a few that give a bitter taste where no reality is brewed fully (institutionalized as the only reality) because of ensuring zero sum competitiveness between the stake holders. Considering these characteristics of Middle East; the point of inquiry is that: are there any chances of realization of an ingredient that has the qualities of magic potion that brings to life the prospects of relative gains in the form of peaceful  power sharing among the stake holders? If there is such ingredient; where can it be traced and when traced is there a need of refining it to add to the soup?

To clarify the analogical description of the topic; the debate is divided into three major portions:

  1. Analysing consociationalism and its employment in the Middle East.
  2. Tracing consociationalism in Lebanon and its effectiveness.
  3. Re-evaluating Lebanese model of power sharing to propose democratic consociational power sharing structure for Yemen.

The analysis has its departure point from a generalized debate to a more specific one at the end.

Magic Potion: Revival of the Relative Gains

If Francis Fukuyama’s fancy of liberal democracy as the epitome of form of governments is taken into account, Middle East appears to be a pre-historic case with the authoritarian governments in abundance. However, according to the author of this analysis, this notion is an over-generalization. Democracy has taken different forms and no material manifestation of the theoretical conception of liberal democracy is evident anywhere. What is evident is different forms of democracy in different parts of the world. Varying in consolidation the democratic norms appear differently in different governments; as liberal or illiberal. There norms vary because of several factors. Homogeneity and Heterogeneity of societies make two of these factors that are differently conducive to democracy.

For the Middle East the societies are miscellaneous. This assortment exists because of different identities: for instance, people ascribing to different sects and sub-sects. These identities then shape the material realities and for Middle East the realities are usually in the forms of conflict. These conflicts are then for grasping of power which is not very easy because of competing players such as Saudi Arabia and Iran and the continuous struggle for balancing between them. Amid these conflicts; the heterogeneity in the societies is exacerbated because the divisions in the societies are used as political tools in conflicts. The consociationalism then provides an alternate where; the heterogeneity is utilized positively for the burgeoning of democracy. The rationale being that with increasingly different identities in a society, there are high chances that certain identities between the differently oriented groups are common and overlapping despite other identities that are not common.

To put to simpler terms a society can be divided into Shi’ites and Sunnis but have common understandings of nationalism. These “Cross-Cutting identities” according to “Arend Lijphart” then help in minimizing the conflicts and leading to the formation of a distinct type of democracy called “consociational democracy”. Theoretically in a consociational democracy the government is formed by the coalition of representative elites of different ideologies but having some cross-cutting ideology and it is used for common agenda promotion, each of the group has autonomy in decision making for those agendas that are not mutually shared, this autonomy is furthered according to proportionality of the attributors of a particular identity and lastly a right of veto is given to all the stake holders in government. So, the consociational democracy is stark when the elites are on board to lodge in divergent interests of sub-cultures, there is an effort made to surpass the cleavages in the society and there is an understanding that fragmentation of societies is harmful.

Tracing the Magic Potion and its Effectiveness

Having established this, the question arises that is the political culture and structuration of society in Middle East such that consociational democracy is expected in the region? The answer varies with countries. For instance, in case of Saudi Arabia there are no hopes that cross-cutting identities be entertained; as evident from the case of Nimr Al-Nimr. The Shi’ite identity of the author was used as an excuse (for political manoeuvring by KSA) as he was blamed of allegiance with Iran contributing to terrorism in KSA and as a result executed. The identity of cleric being a Saudi national and his ascription to be a Saudi National was not paid heed. Here, to maintain the image of regional hegemon fragmentation in society was used as a political tool. However, this does not mean that all Middle Eastern countries are such. Smaller states of the region such as Cyprus, Lebanon and Iraq have varying levels of consociationalism in their government structures. More so, inclusive governments are endorsed by Arab League and European Union (which called for resilience building) in Middle East. For precision of argument the case for consociationalism in Lebanon is analysed only.

The consociational power sharing in Lebanon can be traced back to 1943 between the Muslim and Christian communities. An arrangement was made with Christian President, a Sunni Muslim Prime Minister and a Shia Muslim as the Speaker. The cross-cutting identity is this case was that all of these were Lebanese. Thus, a perfect case where heterogeneity lead to democracy. However, this form of government was susceptible to the shocks from changing regional balances and foreign involvements in the country (of Syria, Palestine, and Israel). There were series of civil wars in the country with large numbers of inter-group conflicts however, powers sharing formula was still the escape from these conflicts. After the end of 1975-1990 war Lebanon has been relatively peaceful. To add to the argument post Arab Spring (turned winter because democracy never burgeoned in Middle East) Lebanon has used the same consociational power sharing for the agenda of stability with the stakes divided proportionally between the Lebanese government (having Muslims and Christians), army, security agencies and Hezbollah.

Now even though the Lebanese consociational democracy is celebrated, the analysis here also incorporates the evils of this power sharing structure. The power sharing structure has strengthened elites in Lebanon for instance, at several occasions where the interests were divergent: veto was misused resulting in deadlock where there was need for serious and urgent decision making, not only this there are cases for visible dichotomy between intra-group (such as between elites and masses of same ideology) rendering the decision making non-democratic with the scholars calling it political feudalism.

Another challenge was the changing demography in Lebanon (with influx of Sunni Syrian refugees) that disturbed the proportional distribution of representatives (less Sunni Muslim representation even though more Sunnis in Lebanon after refugee influx and more Christian representatives even though Christian population became less compared to Muslim) in government. To add to these internal challenges to consociational democracy are external challenges such as different elites played by different regional players (as Hezbollah elite being pro-Assad and involving in Syrian crisis) again making sectarianism a political tool for others instead of using it in cross cutting the conflicts.

Distilling the Magic Potion:

Having analysed the working of the Consociational Democracy (through case study of Lebanon) we come to the last point of our inquisition. The Middle East soup is most sour in case of Yemen as we see in the Post Arab spring scenario the primary players of region questing for power there resulting in total shattering of the political culture and hence political stability. So, is the formula of consociational democracy suitable for Yemen? For the sake of impartiality, the analyser at this point will refrain from inclining to simple yes or no answer and shall evaluate all the pros and cons.

If analysed theoretically, Arend Lijphart considers political aggregation more likely when there are more than two parties; in case of Yemen the situation is complicated. On the surface level the tug of war is between the Mansour Hadi (Sunni) faction and Houthis (Shi’ite) faction. However, Yemen case is one of proxies where Mansour Hadi is backed by Saudi led coalition having support of US, Houthis have Iranian support and support from Hezbollah and other pro-Shi’ite factions, also previously supported by Ali Abdullah Saleh. Not only these there are other players too such as AQAP and ISIS. With such diverse players we see that the prospects of cross cutting cleavages do exist. The examples of these cross-cutting cleavages being Saleh (Zaydi Shia) in office and supported by many Sunni leaders for regime consolidation. More so, cooperation between US and Houthis for eliminating Al-Qaeda in Yemen. So, we deduce here that in case of external threat cooperation is more likely and, in such scenarios, heterogeneity provides room for cross-cutting identities.

If the Lebanese case and Yemeni case are reconsidered, the prospects for consociational democracy in Yemen seem ambiguous practically. Having stated this, we now analyse from another perspective.

For the Lebanese case the shortcomings in consociational structure are innate and the reasons are indigenous. The challenges to Lebanese consociationalism such as changing demographics have no relation with the Yemen case because populations of each faction are at an equal loss. So, the challenges common to the prospects of consociational democracy in Yemen and the already existing power sharing structure of Lebanon are the external manipulation of Sectarianism and emergence of corporate elite.

At this point of the argument the author will like to take a unique position establishing that despite of the inefficiencies of the consociational democracy in Lebanon, this concept of power sharing should be considered as a thinkable option for ending the civil war and creation of post-war government in Yemen.

Contrary to Lebanon, Yemen has no political structure. This means that Yemen will have to work out a political structure. This political structure can be based on consociational democracy. The radical players of proxies in Yemen being outsiders have little to do with the damage caused to the political system, but if through the consociational democracy the stake holders are given due proportionality in government and decision making, the once radical factions violent to system will now become the system and preserve it. It might at the surface seem easy said than done. But we have practical manifestation too for the case of Yemen. For instance, the Yemen draft constitution proposed six regions formula with Presidential form of government (in 2014) was rejected by Houthis then; because they wanted to secure the territories they had already occupied. The failure of that draft constitution was the resuming of the civil war and this time with more severe consequences.

The war has proved to be good for absolutely nothing, there is now even more need for making the different fighting factions the part of Yemeni political structure so that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is mitigated. This can be made easy if Hadi faction realises that those who support them (Saudi coalition), some of them (the Qatar Government) have issues with Hadi’s positioning as the President and that the coalition since 2014 has not been able to oust Houthis. Similarly, Houthis need to realise that they can not oust Hadi totally as he has coalition support and hence can not change the status quo entirely in their favour and should also learn political manoeuvring from their strategic allies (the Hezbollah) in Lebanon to save the massive causalities they are subjected to because of Saudi Arial bombing.

To add further to the argument for the Yemeni population bearing with massive casualties, facing the humanitarian crises of famine, outburst of diseases (cholera, now corona also), highest infant mortality rate and recent floods; it is the high time to realize the identity of them being Yemenis (self-determination).  For the external powers if the internal players try to chart out some mutual power sharing structure, they ought to accept it. Considering the backlash US is facing for populism (if it encumbers consociational prospects in Middle East for its arms sale) there is then need for a strong civil society to condemn it (viewing Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio Cortez) even though this is highly doubted considering lobbying politics. For Iran and Saudi Arabia there too should exist a realisation considering the increased nuclear prospects of both countries (Saudis increased processing of yellowcake uranium) that military conflict can reach a deadlock so political field is the new arena and initiation can be in Yemen. More so, several studies propose that Saudi Arabia wants to reduce the level of engagement in the Yemen war owing to the economic repercussions caused by COVID-19 and the internal political instability because of the increasing divide in the house of Saud for the quest for throne; consociational power sharing in Yemen can ease the toll for Saudi Arabia which can then pay more heed to the domestic issues.

In a Nutshell

Even though an effort has been made to chalk out a prospect of consociational democracy for Yemen, the argument remains a piece of opinion with various assumptions towards the end. The magic potion can be distilled but cannot be guaranteed into congealing. The tint of unsocial sociability towards the end still remains as ideal as it always was.

About The Author
Yameena Haroon is a student at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. Her areas of interest include International Political Economy, Governance Structures, Democracy and Democratisation.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of Rationale-47.

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