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Iraq could use the open culture and enterprise spirit of Lebanon

by Ian Bremmer

NEW YORK — After watching the collapse of Lebanon’s government, it is hard not to think about efforts to build a stable Iraq. The two countries have so much in common.

Both are volatile democracies where any political question can provoke not just intense debate, but also the threat of violence.

Both countries have relative freedom of speech, at least relative to their Arab neighbors, and a multitude of political parties that are always ready to use it. Each faces a greater risk of manipulation by outsiders than other countries in the region.

Iraq and Lebanon are also the Arab world’s most ethnically and religiously diverse countries. Though Lebanon has not conducted a reliable census in decades, its population is thought to be about 30 percent Sunni Muslim, 30 percent Shiite Muslim and 30 percent Christian, with Druse and others accounting for the rest.

In Iraq, about 60 percent are Shiite, 20 percent are Sunni Arabs and 20 percent are Kurds, who are mostly Sunni.

In both countries, representatives of each of these groups demand substantial political influence. As Lebanon turns to Saudi and Syrian mediators to help rebuild a governing coalition, Iraq moves forward with a tenuous unity government of its own.

At times like these, the two countries’ similarities and differences can point Iraq’s leaders toward a stable democratic future.

Despite the recent turmoil in Beirut, Lebanon has an advantage that Iraqis should emulate. The personal freedoms that Lebanese citizens enjoy give their country a special resilience, and its cultural dynamism is the envy of young people throughout the Middle East.

Though some of Iraq’s conservative local clerics wield considerable influence, its current leaders will resist any drive to transform the country into a socially repressive and isolated state. If Iraq is to keep the best of its next generation at home, cultural openness will be critically important.

Second, Lebanon’s leaders were reminded again that their country can be governed only with some degree of consensus among the major factions. This principle is even more important in Iraq, where the Shiite majority faces the constant temptation to punish Sunnis for years of repression under Saddam Hussein.

In Lebanon, sectarian power-sharing is enshrined in the constitution. The president must always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament a Shiite. This system, which codifies Lebanon’s factionalism, remains a subject of much controversy, but, by ensuring that no group can govern at the expense of others, it also reinforces baseline stability in a country built atop powerful religious and ethnic fault lines.

Without opposition support, Lebanon’s government can do little more than manage the most basic day-to-day state functions, but the country is unlikely to relapse into civil war.

In Iraq, sectarian power-sharing will remain less formal, and compromise won’t come easily to many of the country’s elected leaders. Each major faction is represented in government. Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, retains control of Iraq’s largely ceremonial presidency.

Osama Nujaifi, a Sunni, has been elected speaker of Iraq’s parliament. But Shiite leaders will lose their constituents’ support if they formally surrender any of the powers denied them for decades under Saddam. Government stability will remain a delicate balancing act.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will have to manage relations with firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers, who can provoke unrest in southern Iraq if they feel under-served. In addition, the Kurds will expect to retain a veto over any proposal that might compromise Kurdish autonomy in the northern provinces.

Then there are the Sunni Arabs. Support for al-Maliki’s government from Iraqiya, the multi-sectarian political coalition supported by most Sunnis, will remain in question. Iraqiya won the largest share of seats in the March 2010 parliamentary elections, yet its leader, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, will not return to his old job. Instead, he will lead the National Council for Strategic Policy, an institution charged with overseeing domestic security, but whose authority remains unclear.

Nor is it clear whether al-Maliki will finally end the de-Ba’athification process — another major source of tension. Many Shiites insist that the last vestiges of Saddam’s elite must be purged, but many Sunnis argue that the process is intended to bar them from good jobs and political influence.

If Sunnis come to believe that Shiite and Kurds intend to treat them as second-class citizens, they will have no stake in the success of al-Maliki’s government and could again begin to pursue their political interests by other means, provoking another surge of sectarian violence.

Worse still, factional conflict would undermine further development of a post-Saddam Iraqi identity. Otherwise, the country’s various interest groups could, like Lebanon’s feuding factions, turn to outsiders to negotiate solutions to their problems.

There are good reasons for Iraq to avoid Lebanon’s example in this respect. Even in the best of times, Lebanon muddles through with a politically dysfunctional government and an army that operates in the shadow of a large Shiite-dominated militant organization.

With the exception of Iran, none of Iraq’s neighbors wants to see that model in Iraq. Lebanon’s democracy often looks a lot like a train wreck, and the country has stumbled into armed conflict many times in recent years.

But if Iraq’s leaders can create enough near-term stability to combine Lebanon’s openness and entrepreneurial energy with the revenue that comes from development of the country’s vast oil reserves — an advantage that Lebanon’s leaders can only envy — Iraq might one day offer citizens of neighboring states something they don’t have: a hopeful model for the future.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of “The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?” © 2011 Project Syndicate