Zuama Clientelism

Zuama Clientelism

In pluralistic societies, patronage is often a common feature of the political process; the promotion of the interests of a particular sect is frequently widespread. Although patronage is prevalent in developed and lesser developed countries alike, clientelism may be more entrenched in Lebanon than in most other nations. The pervasiveness of this system in Lebanon is easily traced to feudal times, wherein the overlord allowed peasants and their families the use of land in exchange for unquestioned loyalty. In more recent times, this social system has been translated into a political system; the overlord has become a political leader, or zaim, the peasants have become his constituents, and, instead of land, favors are exchanged for electoral loyalty. And although clientelism has its roots in the rural areas, it now pervades towns and large citites down to the neighborhood level.

A zaim is a political leader, and rather than being exclusively an officeholder, he may be a power broker with the ability to manipulate elections and the officials he helps elect. Accordingly, wastah-- the ability to attain access to a power broker--is widely sought, but only achieved at some price.

There are those who believe that at the local level zuama clientelism may have reduced sectarian strife. Often, political competition was intrasectarian, rather than with members of different groups. And because only some of Lebanon's electoral districts were confessionally homogeneous (although most had a certain sectarian preponderance), a candidate often could not be elected unless he were supported by other confessional groups within his district. Once elected, however, the opportunity to augment his power was great. To ensure that constituents continued their support, zuama have been known to employ qabadayat, or enforcers, whose job it was to see that their chiefs were warmly supported at the polls or to discourage opponents from voting. In fact, in the post-World War II years, many zuama developed their own militias to safeguard their interests, often against rivals within their own sect. The development of these militias led to tragedy during the 1975 Civil War when these private armies were turned loose on members of opposing sects.

Another component of the Lebanese patronage system is the important role of family. The position of zaim is frequently hereditary, and politics is often treated like a family business. For example, almost one-fourth of the members of the 1960 Chamber of Deputies were the descendants of men who had been appointed to the legislative assemblies under the French Mandate. Furthermore, it was not uncommon for more than one member of the same family to hold office in the same government; for example, four different members of the Sulh family have held the position of prime minister. In the 1970s and 1980s, Amin Jumayyil (the Phalange Party), Dani Shamun (the National Liberal Party), and Walid Jumblatt (the Progressive Socialist Party) inherited their fathers' political mantles. Occasionally, the family of a zaim would control an entire sect, as the Asad clan did over the Shias of southern Lebanon in the first half of the twentieth century.

Thus, in 1987 Lebanon's constitutionally based political system had to be viewed through the overlay of clientelism, a system that had persisted in one form or another for over a hundred years. Even so, this system, although unlikely to disappear in the near term, perhaps was being challenged by a post-1975 Civil War development: the rise of the militias. Although some militias were still controlled by descendants of traditional zuama, others, like Amal, Hizballah (Party of God), and the Lebanese Forces, were led by figures who had arrived relatively late on the political scene. These militias were not just military organizations; through military force they often gained control of revenues that formerly went to government coffers. In this way, by controlling armed might and the purse, the militias were appropriating the basic stock-in-trade of the traditional zaim system. The patronclient relationship, therefore, rather than dying out may merely have taken one more turn along an evolutionary track.


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