April 26, 2007 | Middle East Quarterly
Middle East Strongmen, Ancient and Modern
The war in Iraq has exposed fissures in the structure of that modern Middle Eastern state earlier camouflaged by Arab nationalism and Saddam's brutal rule. While Arab leaders speak of unity, the war has uncovered the clout of other power centers—ethnic, sectarian, regional, and tribal—that parallel the state and limit the power of central governments. At play are ancient traditions. And while it would be facile to suggest a direct continuity, precedents can matter. Recent scholarship about ancient Middle Eastern governance not only sheds light on the origin of traditions and structures but also enables comparative analysis for contemporary problems.
While many scholars divide the Middle East into pre-Islamic and post-Islamic periods, this division is in many ways artificial. The rise of Islam did change many aspects of society but not all. The practice of Islam grew and adjusted based on political and cultural precedents across the region. Even if Islamists may relegate all that came before Muhammad to the jahiliya, the age of ignorance, scholarship about the pre-Islamic period can provide both comparative and cultural insights into the present day.
Notions of Control in Ancient Mesopotamia
Democracy's Ancient Ancestors: Mari and Early Collective Governance. By Daniel E. Fleming. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 359 pp. $75.
In Democracy's Ancient Ancestors, Daniel Fleming, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University where he teaches Assyriology and biblical studies, uses an archive of letters from the ancient kingdom of Mari, modern Tell Hariri in Syria near the Iraqi frontier, to describe the political traditions of Syria and Mesopotamia in the early second millennium B.C.E. Until Hammurabi of Babylon destroyed Mari in 1761 B.C.E., it was a dominant political power in the middle Euphrates region.
Fleming challenges scholars' conventional wisdom that authoritarian monarchs dominated the Semitic-speaking world of northern and western Mesopotamia and, instead, highlights traditions of collective or “corporate” governance in order to understand “how political power could be expressed collectively in the ancient world before [Athenian] democracy.” He argues that individual and collective powers were part of an integrated political system balanced with dynamic tension.
As the democracy project falters in Iraq, analysts say that the only way to establish central authority in societies like Iraq's is through autocratic or “strongman” rule. Fleming's work suggests that the region also has a precedent of “collective, cooperative, consensus-building” rule.
After surveying Mari history, Fleming examines the Sim'alite and Yaminite tribal confederacies and their subdivisions. Contemporary parallels add relevance. Just south of Tell Hariri today is the village of Al Bu Kamal, a major transit point for jihadists infiltrating into Iraq. National boundaries mean little in a region where tribal affiliation trumps national identity.
Given the centrality of tribal structures in the world of the Mari texts, Fleming reviews literature on tribalism, kinship ideology, pastoralism, nomadism, urbanism, state formation, and archaic states. He critiques evolutionary approaches to state formation and uses Mari evidence to show that tribalism could also be integral to a complex state apparatus.
Mari kings were tribal, the ancient equivalent of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein defining himself as Tikriti, the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad relying on members of his ‘Alawite al-Kalbiyya tribe, or the Saudi king naming his kingdom after the ruling Al-Saud family. So, just as U.S. forces in Iraq now cultivate tribal relations and, in Afghanistan, legitimized military might through a loya jirga tribal council, Fleming shows a precedent in which neither tribes nor their pastoralist component could be relegated to the periphery of ancient Mesopotamian politics or society.
The primary Mari political categories were the “land” (Akkadian, mātum “ultimately defined by its people and not its territory”) and the “town” (Akkadian, ālum). The king could not take for granted the subservience of the mātum and, instead, relied on the mediation of officials representing subsets of the population.
While it only acted as part of or subordinate to a land, the town was the basic unit of political life. Fleming examines three towns: Imar (Tell Meskene, near Lake Assad), Tuttul (Tell Bi'a, near Raqqa), and Urkesh (Tell Mozan, near Qamishli). Local leadership had power. In one example, Terru, king of Urkesh, wrote Mari king Zimri-Lim to admit helplessness in the face of plural leadership in the town. While traditions of collective governance were varied and strong, Fleming rejects as oversimplified attempts to find a parallel between later and far more institutionalized councils of elders or popular assemblies.
What emerges is a complex dynamic in which kings must negotiate constantly and build consensus even while maintaining an army in order to coerce when necessary. Fleming also highlights the link between viability of rule and control of information.
While Fleming integrates the work of anthropologists Richard Blanton and his colleagues, who wrote about “corporate cognitive code,” and Elizabeth DeMarrais, Luis Jaime Castillo, and Timothy Earle on ideology and power strategies, the author could have elaborated more on the issue of ideology as an alternative to coercion. Whereas in the ancient world, this would be evidenced by festivals and rituals, such discussion would have relevance in the modern Middle East. Lebanese Hezbollah's rallies, for example, are analogous to rituals of ideology.
While thorough, Fleming is mindful of the nonspecialist reader. He provides a glossary of Akkadian terms, proper names, and geographic regions. Still, his efforts to use indigenous rather than modern terms might prove difficult for comparative scholars.
State and Society in old Babylonian Mesopotamia
Local Power in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia. By Andrea Seri. London and Oakville, Conn.: Equinox Publishing, Ltd., 2005. 240 pp. $95.
In Local Power in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, Andrea Seri, lecturer in Assyriology at Harvard University, explores the relationship between local authority and the centralized state in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia (2000-1595 B.C.E.). Her study shows the complex network of traditional, social and political relations that permeated cities. Unlike Fleming, Seri does not focus on a single archive but rather deals with a varied set of economic and legal texts. And while Fleming deals with governance in what is now Syria, Seri focuses more on southern Mesopotamia, today's central and southern Iraq.
Seri dedicates considerable space to historical trends in the scholarship toward Mesopotamia and also examines the impact they had on the modern discipline of Assyriology. Like Fleming, Seri argues traditional scholarship has privileged state over and against local power. Too many historians, she argues, take the propagandistic, royal claims of ancient scribes and surviving texts at face value. Rather, citing the fall of the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100-2002 B.C.E.), she writes, “Approaches centered around famous kings usually omit social and political tensions while the rich complexity of competing interests is overlooked.”
Seri examines four specific institutions of local power, all urban, dedicating a chapter to each: “the chief of the city” (rabiānum), the city elders, the city (ālum), and the assembly. These local powers dealt with matters affecting the daily lives of the people, from family law—inheritance, adoption, marriage—to justice, real estate transactions, and economic activities. She argues that the city chief and elders were intermediaries but were neither grassroots leaders nor royal servants and pursued their tasks through both collaboration and conflict.
Like Fleming, she argues that the city was considered a collective body and adds that in the texts she surveys, the city served as a counterbalance to the elders. At times, the city's interests conflicted with those of the elders and rabiānums. She argues that the Babylonian concept of city should not be confused with the assembly. This, she says, was flexible rather than rigid, a place where negotiations occurred and plaintiffs resolved disputes with state officials. It included both royal and communal representatives. A loose analogy might be the ad hoc meetings held between communal leaders and community members on one side and U.S. military and Iraqi government officials on the other, which convened to resolve local issues and state demands.
Local Power in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia might have engaged in a deeper discussion with Fleming about the nature of ancient cities, but Seri scarcely mentions his book and, then, only superficially. Perhaps this is an instance of academic jealousy, but the lack of engagement undercuts conclusions which comparative analysis might have amplified. Nevertheless, the two agree that local power was part of an integrated system and that the contemporary political science model that views state and society as a bipolar model does not apply. The two also share similar ideas about the limits of royal power and the role of consensus building and negotiation.
How Does the Past Illuminate the Present?
The tension between state and local power remains central to Middle East politics. Arab nationalism and its successor, Islamized nationalism, promote states in which despots seize power and rule through coercion. Small, often tribal, cliques operating under a cover ideology centralize government and suppress rivals. But is strongman rule the only natural and applicable model for the region?
No. Royal authority and local power coexisted in balance throughout much of the Ottoman era. One example is the mutasarrifiya (governorate) system of the late nineteenth century Mount Lebanon in which an Ottoman-appointed governor presided over a council representing various groups with members elected by village notables. Modern Lebanon also provides an example of an alternative system. Its creators designed the Lebanese system to be the antithesis of the authoritarian Arab state. The Lebanese model favored a weak central state with power invested in various constituent communities. The consensual system resisted exclusionary ideologies and hampered the rise of any single tyrant. Only when internal or external players sought to disrupt this delicate balancing act did conflict arise. Even Hezbollah's secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, the latest aspiring tyrant, now realizes the limits of his power, even as an armed party.
There are other similarities between ancient precedents and the Lebanese model. Similar to the urban elites studied by Seri and town leadership explored by Fleming, including, household heads, notables loom large in Lebanese society. Residents often adopt “household” terminology referring, for example, in Lebanon to political families such as the bayt al-Gemayyel (the “house” of the Gemayyels) or bayt Sham'oun. Such “households” dominate the politics of particular towns and spheres of influence, such as Beirut, Sidon, the Shouf Mountains, the Matn, or northern Lebanon. Just as in the past, these notables existed alongside other, overlapping power systems. In Lebanon, for example, the Maronite patriarchate was instrumental in the recent defense of the Lebanese system against Syrian attempts to subvert it.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's mansion at Mukhtara in the Shouf Mountains might also provide interesting data for comparison, especially in how it serves as a place of assembly for communal delegations to discuss their affairs with communal chiefs.
Modern Syrian history, at least before the Assad family consolidated control, also has a precedent of balancing tension between center and periphery. This was evident in the struggle between Syria's first president, Shukri al-Quwatli, and the Druze chieftains over control of the Jabal al-Druze region.
Traditions of governance in the Middle East have been resilient in the region. But not all governance can be boiled down to all-pervasive authoritarian rule. In a similar manner as in the ancient Mari kingdom and its Babylonian successors, there is also a tradition in the Middle East of balancing power and of checks and balances constraining rulers. Today, a battle between governing systems is underway. It remains to be seen which system will prevail: the exclusionary or the consensual.
Tony Badran, a doctoral candidate in ancient Near Eastern studies at New York University, is research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on Lebanon and Syria.
 Fleming, Democracy's Ancient Ancestors, p. 223.
 Ibid., p. 14
 Richard E. Blanton, Gary M. Feinman, Stephen A. Kowalewski, and Peter N. Peregrine, “A Dual-Processual Theory for the Evolution of Mesoamerican Civilization,” Current Anthropology, Feb. 1996, pp. 1-14.
 “Ideology, Materialization, and Power Strategies,” Current Anthropology, Feb. 1996, pp. 15-31.
 For example, see Mario Liverani, Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography, ed. and trans. Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).
 Seri, Local Power in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, p. 32.