Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

On the federal state

Federalism is viewed with suspicion in the Arab world as a waypoint towards fragmentation. But perhaps it could resolve multiple tensions while protecting the unity of Arab states, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Whether negotiations take place in Astana, Geneva, Kuwait or Vienna, or in the UN or the corridors of the Arab League, and regardless of whether they are primary or secondary track negotiations and whether they are ongoing or intermittent due to diplomatic and military circumstances, the question of national, ethnic, religious and confessional affiliations is unavoidable. It is impossible to deny that the Arab world is gripped by a crisis in how to handle minorities and manage diversity in Arab states and societies, especially now that violence and arms are having the loudest say. Moreover, it no longer suffices to simply chalk the problem up to foreign interventions, as much truth in this as there may be. The interventions could not happen in the first place without a fertile soil and conducive conditions.

James Rosenau, an eminent political scientist, established a paradigm for the turbulent dynamics in states and societies after the end of the Cold War, dynamics that he said would foster simultaneous integrative and disintegrative tendencies. The European model stood as testimony to the ability of peoples, tribes or nations with long histories of warfare to integrate and merge together under the liberal capitalist system. The disintegration of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and other such entities testified to the inability to manage diversity and plurality in society and the state. Today, about a quarter of a century after that approach was formulated, the matter seems more complicated than ever. The British decision to withdraw from the EU initiated a disintegrative phase that had not been expected and the Crimean people’s vote to join Russia revived forms of unification that no one imagined still existed.

The pull between “disintegration” and “unification” will remain with us for some time and there are no panaceas. Finding appropriate remedies for the various illnesses requires considerable political and diplomatic ingenuity. Such ingenuity was present in the Lebanese experience during at least three important junctures: Upon the establishment of the Lebanese state, at the end of the first civil war in the 1950s and in the Taif agreement that put an end to the second, 16-year-long civil war. However, that innovative element was not on hand in the Iraqi case after the US invasion in 2003, perhaps due to the heavy American hand. Nor did it exist when Sudan established a federal system that would eventually culminate in partition and the emergence of two Sudans. In all events, there are world experiences that merit closer attention.

The federal concept has frequently been proposed as a possible solution for many of the dilemmas facing many Arab countries. It was proposed, for example, by the General National Congress in Yemen and it has been aired on a number of occasions during attempts to solve the Syrian and Libyan crises. On the whole, however, the federal concept is not regarded fondly in the Arab world where it is generally seen as the prelude to secession and to the fragmentation of the Arab state. Indeed, the Sudanese experience with the federal solution was very sad. Not only did it end with the secession of the south, immediately afterwards Darfur rose up against the central government while South Sudan was plunged into civil war on the basis of tribal and regional divisions. The result of this solution when applied in Iraq was also sad and now the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions there also seem like preludes to separate states.

“Federalism” is a composite system of government that provides for two types of authority. One embodies the collective will of all stakeholders in the state, the other expresses the will of the components whether they are called regions or even “states” in the metaphorical sense. While powers and jurisdictions are divided between the higher federal authority and the regional or local authorities, sovereignty cannot be divided, for to do so would mean actual secession. US president Abraham Lincoln underscored the principle of the indivisibility of sovereignty when the southern states attempted to secede in 1860.

In fact, this type of multi-tiered system is very common in the world. It is most prevalent among the larger countries in today’s world, such as the US, India, Russia, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, Brazil, Nigeria, Australia and Canada.

But it is equally true that federalism as a system of government cannot succeed unless certain conditions are met. It can succeed if the reasons for creating it are not limited to an attempt to solve civil strife and warfare between communities belonging to adjacent geographical regions. There also have to exist some common interests, foremost among which are the need for protection and a collective defence capacity against potential or existing threats from larger countries with a history of expansionism. But if shared security needs always head the list of conditions, a common economic market for goods, products and human resources, as well as a common currency, are also unifying instruments and are capable of promoting growth and expansion of the realm of common interests among different components in the same state. Alexander Hamilton earned his place in US history not just because he was one of the US’s main founding fathers but also because of his “Federalist Papers” in which he advocated the need to establish a national bank that would have the sole power to mint currency and regulate certain fiscal transactions. Ultimately, a federal system is only as good or bad as the conditions and components on which it is founded. Therefore, just as a federal system might act as a prelude to the disintegration of a state, so too can it serve as a means to increase the unity of a state and, indeed, to safeguard the unity and integrity of a state from the designs of more single-minded and belligerent outside powers.

India offers, perhaps, the most complex form of federalist experiments. Although it failed to absorb some Muslims in the federal state upon independence, leading to the establishment of Pakistan which, in turn, split into Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Indian state did absorb the majority of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. In fact, India, today, has the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia.

The Indian federal system consists of 29 states and seven union territories to which certain different circumstances apply. In addition, the Indian constitution grants the various ethnic and religious groups in each state a number of rights related to education, marriage and culture. In the Arab region, the UAE offers an example that appears to be considerably successful. This is not just because it has survived in spite of the fact that it is made up of seven emirates, but also because there is considerable evidence that the state, today, is more unified than ever.

In sum, the concept of federalism is not necessarily “evil”. With the application of some imagination it could become one of the solutions to many of our intractable problems, the most important of which is the difficulty in 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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