Michael Bell is adjunct professor of political science at the University of Windsor, and also teaches at Carleton University. He served as Canada's ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Israel.
What are Iraq and Syria going to look like when and if the power of Islamic State is broken by air and ground offensives? What if the Sunni-extremist army of IS (also known as ISIS and ISIL) manages to carve out its own living space among the ruins its cadres have created? The outcome in either case: most likely ethnically cleansed, blood soaked medieval-like statelets.
When we consider a future Middle East governance system, what emerges in our discussions? Not much beyond the same red herrings. We are not flexible in our concept of democracy, which we largely see in majoritarian terms. Our thinking in this respect has been critically lacking, at least in this country and I suspect, elsewhere. Right now we are consumed by muscle flexing.
In the search for some kind of power balance that satisfies minorities and majorities alike, the Lebanese model of consociational power sharing – despite its flaws – may just offer a realistic way out, ensuring a relatively stable political order in the presently anarchic states of Iraq and Syria. In the Lebanese system, since the 1960s, parliamentary seats and high offices (and thus a share of governing power) have been reserved for members of the country's Maronite Christian, Shia Muslim and Sunni Muslim communities. Under the Lebanese system, the president is a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the Speaker of the House a Shiite; seats in the legislature are also allocated by sect and religion. The degree of influenece of each is negotiated behind the scenes.
The Lebanese model, applied in Syria and Iraq, could just lead to governance legitimacy by assuring relative inter-ethnic stability. It could limit the terrorist threat we all face. It avoids the zero sum game.
Consociationalism guarantees a type of rough equity and communal security but does not in itself require majority rule, a democratic model that is unworkable in the Middle East, where there are no effective legal guarantees for minorities.
The alternatives are stark. In the case of Syria, the allies are caught between radical Islam, a badly splintered moderate opposition and the Assad regime. The latter, however much we might be loath to admit it, did provide security and stability, for most who kept their heads down. The regime was, after all, the protector of minorities: Alawites, Druze, Christians, Ismailis and Palestinians. The Sunni elites were well off, providing they scrapped any idea of democracy and majority rule. Yet in Syria the real task of reconstruction seems too complex to contemplate. Western commentators simply mumble on confusedly when the subject is raised.
Iraq, badly fragmented as it is, has in contrast to Syria the semblance of a working political structure. Rebuilding functional and legitimate governance there stands a greater chance of success than with Damascus. Were the ISIS threat rebuffed in Iraq, consociational arrangements along Lebanese confessional lines, despite its many challenges, might be a best bet, given the paucity of alternatives.
Iraq has an institutional basis, gifted (if that be the word) to its citizens by the Americans. Although corrupt and riven by cultural divides, it is defined by its constitution as a federal state. The three-person Presidency Council must be composed of Shia, Sunni and Kurd. Iraq's political system is not yet frozen: witness the replacement of Nouri al Maliki as Prime Minister by the relatively more progressive Haider al Abadi. The Shiites, represented by the Prime Minister, can and should be be pressed hard by Western countries to share real power with the Sunni minority, whose alienation allowed ISIS to breed.
The Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart, who first defined the concept of consociationalism in the 1960s, specified four prerequisites for success: a) clear boundaries between ethno-national and religious cultures because limited contact between identity groups reduce tension; b) confessional elites working closely together, while maintaining the loyalty of their constituents; c) a balance of power between these elites, resisting majoritarianism; d) decentralization, providing sufficient autonomy to each community to ensure legitimacy. (The general Lijphart thesis was recently given Lebanese specificity by Tom Najem in his book Lebanon: The Politics of a Penetrated Society).
Such realities constitute essential basis for reform. They need regional co-operation, particularly between Iran and Saudi Arabia. We in the West have a critical advocacy role, although Canadian diplomacy is severely limited by our decision to break diplomatic relations with Tehran. We in the West had also better start thinking about consociationalism if we want to circumscribe the terrorist threat at our doorstep. Canadians should be particularly sensitive, even if we have a Prime Minister who never saw a war he didn't like.