Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Federalism revisited

Often seen as the death knell of the unitary Arab state, federalism is what its adopters make of it, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

As I have said on a number of occasions in this column, any resolution to the unfortunate conditions in the Arab region must begin with a kind of charter that establishes a set of essential principles in order to enable the transition from a state of civil strife to a state of communal peace.

Among these principles there are three that I believe should take priority: preservation of the existing nation state and its regional integrity, full protection for the rights of minorities, and the decentralisation of government. The third principle grants territorial, administrative or even ethnic regions various degrees of power so as to permit for broader participation in the mobilisation, development and distribution of national resources. Perhaps the most important forms of decentralisation are confederation, federation, autonomous rule, local government and local administration. These vary according to the degrees in which power is distributed between the regions and the supreme governing authority in which, alone, are vested the sovereign rights of the state.

Of the abovementioned forms, federalism is the one most frequently mentioned as a possible solution to many of the problems plaguing Arab countries. For example, it was proposed by the General People’s Congress in Yemen as a solution to the problems of the south, the Houthis and other questions, and it has been often mentioned in the framework of attempts to resolve the Libyan and Syrian crises. Nevertheless, the idea of federalism has never had much appeal in Arab countries. In fact, it is most often denounced and rejected as the prelude to secession and the disintegration of the Arab state that we seek to preserve. Moreover, there is the constant reminder of the regretful Sudanese experience, in which federalism ended in the secession of the south, followed by a rebellion in Darfur against the central government on the part of groups that sought to emulate the south leading to the eruption of civil warfare in Darfur along tribal and geographic divides. In Iraq, too, the results of the federalist experiment have been dismal, what with the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions on the verge separation and divisions of power seemingly formulated to foster incessant strife and warfare.

On the other hand, we have the example of the UAE, a federal experiment that seems highly successful, not only because it has managed to last in spite of the fact that the federation consists of seven emirates, but also because all evidence suggests that the UAE is even more united than ever. Now in its fifth decade, the Emirati “identity” has come to prevail over all subsidiary identities, whether we speak of the local identity of each emirate or the more general Arab regional or Islamic regional identities.

Federalism is a multi-tiered form of government that consists of two scopes of authority, one comprehensive, embracing the will of all citizens in the state, the other defined by subsidiary entities such as the region, province or even the “state”, using the term metaphorically. While powers can be divided between the central federal authority and regional authorities in various ways, sovereignty remains indivisible. Any division of national sovereignty inherently means partition. US President Abraham Lincoln stressed this point when the southern states attempted to secede from the union in 1860.

In fact, this type of compound system is very common in the world today. We see it most frequently in larger countries such as the US, India, Russia, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, Brazil, Nigeria, Australia and Canada. But it should be borne in mind that federalism, as a system of government, can only succeed when certain conditions are met. It will not succeed, for example, when it is introduced merely as an attempt to resolve conflicts between different groups based in neighbouring geographical areas. There has to exist a certain sphere of common interests prime among which is the need for mutual defence against a common enemy in the form, for example, of a state with a history of expansionism. But even if “mutual security” is always a major condition, the advantages of a common market for goods and resources and a common currency are also unifying factors that have a potential for growth and for broadening the sphere of common interests between different components of the state. Alexander Hamilton acquired a special place in US history not just because he was one of the founding fathers but also because of his input into the famous collection of essays known as The Federalist Papers, in one of which he calls for the creation of a national bank for the whole of the US that would be solely authorised to mint and regulate currency

A federation is only as good or bad as the conditions and components on which it is built. While a federal system may sometimes be a prelude to disintegration it can also sometimes be an instrument to enhance unity and even safeguard it against disintegration or encroachment by more aggressive and belligerent foreign powers. The US is the most famous federalist experiment not just for its scope (with 50 states under its umbrella) but also for how power is distributed between the federal government and state government. Even the states, themselves, are sort of federations of groups of counties and townships. In fact, in some cases, the term “commonwealth” is used instead of the term “state” (Massachusetts is an example). The US federal system is also noted for its bicameral legislature in which the House of Representatives represents the states on the basis of the size of their respective populations whereas the Senate represents the states as fully equal entities, regardless of population or territorial size (each state is entitled to two senators regardless of whether it is as small as Vermont or as large as Alaska, or as both populous and large as California or New York). This mechanism for democratic representation offers a permanent guarantee for the protection of the rights of the small, the more limited in influence and minorities in general, whether political, ethnic or regional, while simultaneously ensuring that the majority retains the right to prevail in the decision-making process.

India, on the other hand, is the most complicated federal experiment. Although it initially failed to absorb some Muslims into the federal state when it was first established, leading them to secede and create Pakistan, which subsequently split into Pakistan and Bangladesh, it ultimately succeeded in assimilating a huge number of Muslims. In fact, India is second only to Indonesia in the size of its Muslim population.

The Indian federation consists of 29 states and seven “union territories” that have a certain status of their own. In addition, the Indian constitution guarantees particular ethnic groups or sects within the various states certain rights with regard to culture, education and marriage.

In spite of the complex and multifaceted nature of the Indian federal system, it is internationally reputed as a very successful experiment, whether in terms of the existence of an overarching Indian national affiliation in spite of the extreme diversity in subsidiary affiliations or in terms of the economic progress that has given the system additional advantages that help promote stability.

In short, federalism is not necessarily an evil. With some imagination, it could offer a solution to many of our most intractable problems, the most crucial being the challenge of reconciling political and ethnic plurality with the urgent need for a unified state.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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