Legislatures for Fledgling Arab Democracies

All eyes will be on Egypt in a few months as that nation engages in an historic constitutional convention that will have long-term ramifications for the entire region.  While it clearly is a moment of great promise, the simple, sober truth is that most democracies throughout the world quickly crash within a few years.  Through the centuries, we've witnessed several "still a work in progress" successes scattered among a multitude of tragicomic failures.  The government façade may remain, but its internal mechanisms quickly become a crude caricature of what was once a noble, dynamic vision.  If one looks deeply enough into the few successes, we can see the essential protocols that a sustainable democracy must contain.

Clearly, one needs separate and well-defined executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  But it is the legislature that should always be seen as, if not the core, then certainly first among equals.  The legislature should have the ability (with good reason -- i.e. neither politically nor capriciously) to remove the chief executive at any time.  With so much power vested in it, the legislature also needs to be an accurate reflection of the people.  But we have to look at "the people" as more than merely an aggregate of separate individuals.  Many governments have quickly imploded because they employed a simplistic, atomized (and naively platonic) view of what constitutes the people.  Real life is more molecular, more organic -- and more fluid. The makeup of the legislature should also reflect the various, diverse groups. The surest way to do that is to that is with a bicameral legislature.  The lower house can represent the individuals, with the upper house doing the same but also giving voice to the collective identity latently embedded in the various regions.

The biggest mistake made in creating Iraq's government (and why they may yet fail) is that they neglected to design a system that reflects Iraq's main groups.  The Sunnis have never completely participated in a constitutionally flawed political process because they understandably feel that the Shiites will overwhelm them.  Several times now, the intense sectarian violence in Iraq has nearly reached the point of no return.  But an upper chamber like the U.S. Senate functioning alongside (and in some aspects above) the Iraqi General Assembly may be just what's needed.  With a Senate comprising nine districts -- three in the Shiite South, three in the Sunni triangle, and three in the Kurdish North -- and having two senators representing each district, no religious or ethnic group could dominate.  This would induce the Sunnis to stay politically (as opposed to either militarily or covertly) engaged in a meaningful way.  The Shiites would be assured in knowing that they still control a plurality of the General Assembly.  The Iraqi Senate would work alongside the General Assembly for regular laws.  With at least ten senators needed to pass any law, the various groups would be forced to work together.  Ideally, the nine Senate Districts will straddle the eighteen provinces.  That is, none of the provinces should lie entirely within one Senate district.  Creating an overlapping meshwork will strengthen the federal system.  It will also circumvent the type of provincialism that can also be very obstructionist, if much less deadly than the sectarian paradigm that exists now.

Most importantly, with the Senate districts built into the fabric of land itself rather than directly tied to a particular ethnic group or religious sect, Iraq will have the means to eventually move away from the sectarian paradigm and assume a more cosmopolitan political identity while still retaining its Islamic character.

Iraq, in fact, already has a second legislative body called the Council of Union.  It was created essentially to pay bills.  It could tacitly be elevated to the level of a "Senate" with the appropriate boundaries just ahead of the cumbersome amendment process.

For Egypt to succeed and to avoid as much bloodshed as Iraq tragically went through during the "Zeds" and continues to experience today, Egypt's legislature must also accurately reflect the diverse groups in their country.  The groups in Egypt may be less defined than in Iraq, but they still need to be addressed.  Once the lid of a dictatorship is let loose, tribal, ethnic, sectarian, and religious identities have a way of reasserting themselves.  The Coptic Christian community in and around Alexandria needs to be represented as well as the minority Bedouins, Berbers, and Bejas.  A Senate could be drawn loosely along the lines of the Nile Valley and Delta Regions, the Eastern Desert, the Western Desert, and the Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt's current constitution calls for an upper house, but it in no way functions as a Senate.  It is actually the antithesis of a Senate.  With many of its seats appointed by the president, it was just one more way for the chief executive to control the legislature.

Historians also like to point out the relatively longtime democratic success of Turkey as a role model in the region -- and the major role that the military has held in maintaining that success.  Egypt's military has also played a significant part in taking Egypt this far in their current nascent democratic process.  But it would be a mistake to allow the military to continue to have a supervisory position in political affairs.  That (somewhat necessary) role of stewardship that the military has traditionally held in Turkey can more appropriately be handled by a senate.  Even Turkey has started to move away from a reliance of its military to shepherd its democracy.

If Egypt does succeed, it can be the democratic role model for the region.  Most crucial will be Libya, where recent successes by the rebels make it imperative that Libya's tribes and clans, particularly those from the eastern and western regions, are able to quickly work out a reasonable power-sharing arrangement.  In Syria, it is the sectarian differences among the Alawites, the Sunnis, and their own Kurdish population that will have to be addressed.  The sometimes competing groups in those countries need to see that it won't be a winner-take-all game.  It's not too early to start the process now.  If the various groups understand that they will be acknowledged, respected, and accommodated, that will go a long way in hastening the end of hostilities in a peaceful manner, which in turn will go a long way in insuring the success of the ensuing democratic government.

Ironically, one of the biggest obstacles to the Arab world creating working and sustainable democracies may be Western advisers on the democratic process.  Western advisors have traditionally favored for the developing world a framework that guarantees security and stability.  They tend to push the type of political systems that virtually guarantee that a strongman will emerge and endure.  This was especially true during the cold war.

Today, the pendulum has swung completely in the other direction.  Advisers err in favor of an "everyman" approach.  Insuring the validity of the vote is often sacrificed at the expense of a staged universality.  Western media-induced photo-ops flaunting the iconic purple finger became more important than following simple, commonsense protocols to conducting a free and fair election.

This was the major flaw in Afghanistan's democracy.  A myopic obsession with "making every vote count" resulted in a predictable ballot-stuffing sham of an election in which almost no one believes that his or her vote really mattered.  Most importantly, any suggestions of vesting the necessary, prudent additional power in an upper house (such as the traditional Loya Jirga, which, although it has a nominal role, has nevertheless been recklessly marginalized in Afghanistan's current constitution) are condescendingly dismissed by democratic advisors in the West as "elitist."

The irony here is that Great Britain still has a House of Lords, while the United States has the Senate.  It's true that the House of Lords has less power than it did centuries or even a few decades ago, but it has always acted as a necessary counterweight as Great Britain's democracy evolved in that it gave the appropriate recognition to Great Britain's many diverse tribes, clans, and nationalities.  Although it largely has a symbolic presence today, it still serves a useful purpose.

As for the U.S Senate, its hundred members are often dismissively described as belonging to the most exclusive, powerful club on the planet.  Many political observers on both the far left and the far right frequently rail at how undemocratic and unresponsive an institution the U.S. Senate is in terms of its skewed representation.  It doesn't take a statistician to see that, at least on the surface, they are correct.  Each state, no matter how populous, has two senators.  But if the U.S. Senate did not exist, and America had to rely solely on its House of Representatives for political expression and action, then the fractured political dialogue today would seem genteel.  There would soon be tanks in the streets.

This may be the ultimate Western hypocrisy.  We ask and, in some cases, demand that developing nations embrace an unworkable, unsustainable, and naively idealistic model of democracy that we ourselves dare not employ.

The stakes are high.  Western advisers should step away and allow the Arab world to develop a democratic model that works best for them.  It may surprise everyone to see just how similar that model will be to what works best in the West right now, rather than a politically correct version of what the West thinks should work.  Egypt has a chance to take a leadership role by letting its revolution forge a new national identity.  That, in turn, can yield a greater sense of pride in a new pan-Arabic identity throughout the region.  But in order for that metamorphosis to take place, the older collective sense of self needs to be celebrated and embraced rather than ignored or -- even worse -- suppressed in favor of a forced and ultimately false concept of Western individualism.

Of course, whenever people in the international community talks about the prospect of a democracy in Egypt, they always speak warily of the twin fears of creating either a fundamentalist Islamic state or simply reverting to another secular strongman like Hosni Mubarak.  A bicameral legislature with an upper chamber reflecting the diverse religious and ethnic groups makes it less likely that any hard-line group could dominate.  If that Senate also has certain executive functions, such as approval of cabinet positions and the ability to remove the president, that will go a long way in keeping the expansive tendencies of the chief executive in check.

All eyes will be on Egypt in a few months as that nation engages in an historic constitutional convention that will have long-term ramifications for the entire region.  While it clearly is a moment of great promise, the simple, sober truth is that most democracies throughout the world quickly crash within a few years.  Through the centuries, we've witnessed several "still a work in progress" successes scattered among a multitude of tragicomic failures.  The government façade may remain, but its internal mechanisms quickly become a crude caricature of what was once a noble, dynamic vision.  If one looks deeply enough into the few successes, we can see the essential protocols that a sustainable democracy must contain.

Clearly, one needs separate and well-defined executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  But it is the legislature that should always be seen as, if not the core, then certainly first among equals.  The legislature should have the ability (with good reason -- i.e. neither politically nor capriciously) to remove the chief executive at any time.  With so much power vested in it, the legislature also needs to be an accurate reflection of the people.  But we have to look at "the people" as more than merely an aggregate of separate individuals.  Many governments have quickly imploded because they employed a simplistic, atomized (and naively platonic) view of what constitutes the people.  Real life is more molecular, more organic -- and more fluid. The makeup of the legislature should also reflect the various, diverse groups. The surest way to do that is to that is with a bicameral legislature.  The lower house can represent the individuals, with the upper house doing the same but also giving voice to the collective identity latently embedded in the various regions.

The biggest mistake made in creating Iraq's government (and why they may yet fail) is that they neglected to design a system that reflects Iraq's main groups.  The Sunnis have never completely participated in a constitutionally flawed political process because they understandably feel that the Shiites will overwhelm them.  Several times now, the intense sectarian violence in Iraq has nearly reached the point of no return.  But an upper chamber like the U.S. Senate functioning alongside (and in some aspects above) the Iraqi General Assembly may be just what's needed.  With a Senate comprising nine districts -- three in the Shiite South, three in the Sunni triangle, and three in the Kurdish North -- and having two senators representing each district, no religious or ethnic group could dominate.  This would induce the Sunnis to stay politically (as opposed to either militarily or covertly) engaged in a meaningful way.  The Shiites would be assured in knowing that they still control a plurality of the General Assembly.  The Iraqi Senate would work alongside the General Assembly for regular laws.  With at least ten senators needed to pass any law, the various groups would be forced to work together.  Ideally, the nine Senate Districts will straddle the eighteen provinces.  That is, none of the provinces should lie entirely within one Senate district.  Creating an overlapping meshwork will strengthen the federal system.  It will also circumvent the type of provincialism that can also be very obstructionist, if much less deadly than the sectarian paradigm that exists now.

Most importantly, with the Senate districts built into the fabric of land itself rather than directly tied to a particular ethnic group or religious sect, Iraq will have the means to eventually move away from the sectarian paradigm and assume a more cosmopolitan political identity while still retaining its Islamic character.

Iraq, in fact, already has a second legislative body called the Council of Union.  It was created essentially to pay bills.  It could tacitly be elevated to the level of a "Senate" with the appropriate boundaries just ahead of the cumbersome amendment process.

For Egypt to succeed and to avoid as much bloodshed as Iraq tragically went through during the "Zeds" and continues to experience today, Egypt's legislature must also accurately reflect the diverse groups in their country.  The groups in Egypt may be less defined than in Iraq, but they still need to be addressed.  Once the lid of a dictatorship is let loose, tribal, ethnic, sectarian, and religious identities have a way of reasserting themselves.  The Coptic Christian community in and around Alexandria needs to be represented as well as the minority Bedouins, Berbers, and Bejas.  A Senate could be drawn loosely along the lines of the Nile Valley and Delta Regions, the Eastern Desert, the Western Desert, and the Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt's current constitution calls for an upper house, but it in no way functions as a Senate.  It is actually the antithesis of a Senate.  With many of its seats appointed by the president, it was just one more way for the chief executive to control the legislature.

Historians also like to point out the relatively longtime democratic success of Turkey as a role model in the region -- and the major role that the military has held in maintaining that success.  Egypt's military has also played a significant part in taking Egypt this far in their current nascent democratic process.  But it would be a mistake to allow the military to continue to have a supervisory position in political affairs.  That (somewhat necessary) role of stewardship that the military has traditionally held in Turkey can more appropriately be handled by a senate.  Even Turkey has started to move away from a reliance of its military to shepherd its democracy.

If Egypt does succeed, it can be the democratic role model for the region.  Most crucial will be Libya, where recent successes by the rebels make it imperative that Libya's tribes and clans, particularly those from the eastern and western regions, are able to quickly work out a reasonable power-sharing arrangement.  In Syria, it is the sectarian differences among the Alawites, the Sunnis, and their own Kurdish population that will have to be addressed.  The sometimes competing groups in those countries need to see that it won't be a winner-take-all game.  It's not too early to start the process now.  If the various groups understand that they will be acknowledged, respected, and accommodated, that will go a long way in hastening the end of hostilities in a peaceful manner, which in turn will go a long way in insuring the success of the ensuing democratic government.

Ironically, one of the biggest obstacles to the Arab world creating working and sustainable democracies may be Western advisers on the democratic process.  Western advisors have traditionally favored for the developing world a framework that guarantees security and stability.  They tend to push the type of political systems that virtually guarantee that a strongman will emerge and endure.  This was especially true during the cold war.

Today, the pendulum has swung completely in the other direction.  Advisers err in favor of an "everyman" approach.  Insuring the validity of the vote is often sacrificed at the expense of a staged universality.  Western media-induced photo-ops flaunting the iconic purple finger became more important than following simple, commonsense protocols to conducting a free and fair election.

This was the major flaw in Afghanistan's democracy.  A myopic obsession with "making every vote count" resulted in a predictable ballot-stuffing sham of an election in which almost no one believes that his or her vote really mattered.  Most importantly, any suggestions of vesting the necessary, prudent additional power in an upper house (such as the traditional Loya Jirga, which, although it has a nominal role, has nevertheless been recklessly marginalized in Afghanistan's current constitution) are condescendingly dismissed by democratic advisors in the West as "elitist."

The irony here is that Great Britain still has a House of Lords, while the United States has the Senate.  It's true that the House of Lords has less power than it did centuries or even a few decades ago, but it has always acted as a necessary counterweight as Great Britain's democracy evolved in that it gave the appropriate recognition to Great Britain's many diverse tribes, clans, and nationalities.  Although it largely has a symbolic presence today, it still serves a useful purpose.

As for the U.S Senate, its hundred members are often dismissively described as belonging to the most exclusive, powerful club on the planet.  Many political observers on both the far left and the far right frequently rail at how undemocratic and unresponsive an institution the U.S. Senate is in terms of its skewed representation.  It doesn't take a statistician to see that, at least on the surface, they are correct.  Each state, no matter how populous, has two senators.  But if the U.S. Senate did not exist, and America had to rely solely on its House of Representatives for political expression and action, then the fractured political dialogue today would seem genteel.  There would soon be tanks in the streets.

This may be the ultimate Western hypocrisy.  We ask and, in some cases, demand that developing nations embrace an unworkable, unsustainable, and naively idealistic model of democracy that we ourselves dare not employ.

The stakes are high.  Western advisers should step away and allow the Arab world to develop a democratic model that works best for them.  It may surprise everyone to see just how similar that model will be to what works best in the West right now, rather than a politically correct version of what the West thinks should work.  Egypt has a chance to take a leadership role by letting its revolution forge a new national identity.  That, in turn, can yield a greater sense of pride in a new pan-Arabic identity throughout the region.  But in order for that metamorphosis to take place, the older collective sense of self needs to be celebrated and embraced rather than ignored or -- even worse -- suppressed in favor of a forced and ultimately false concept of Western individualism.

Of course, whenever people in the international community talks about the prospect of a democracy in Egypt, they always speak warily of the twin fears of creating either a fundamentalist Islamic state or simply reverting to another secular strongman like Hosni Mubarak.  A bicameral legislature with an upper chamber reflecting the diverse religious and ethnic groups makes it less likely that any hard-line group could dominate.  If that Senate also has certain executive functions, such as approval of cabinet positions and the ability to remove the president, that will go a long way in keeping the expansive tendencies of the chief executive in check.

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