Feature Article: Emerging Patterns in the Middle East – The Thirty Year Itch for Lebanon and Iran

Elza S. Maalouf

Elza S. Maalouf

Elza MaaloufMy first year of Law School in Lebanon, was a year to remember. I recall the heated political discussions I had with Shia students and professors alike over many long hours ranging from discussing the merits of Marxism to laws on women’s rights in Lebanon and the role religion plays in law. These same students who I played tennis with would return the following year with the trademark Islamist beard and buttoned-up white shirt and refused to shake my hand or establish any eye contact. It was in that academic setting that I witnessed the birth of the Hezbollah movement created and financed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. This new generation of educated Shia was empowered by Khomieni’s Islamic revolution and the hope of shaping Lebanon’s national identity into a “just” model of an Islamic Emirate. Many years have passed since and the model for both countries is now going through unprecedented challenges.

The Search For National Identity

On March 14th, 2005 one million Lebanese citizens gathered in Beirut’s Martyr Square, the symbol of Lebanon’s 1943 Independence from France. They were protesting against the presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon. The Cedar Revolution, as it was called, ended the 30 year Syrian occupation of Lebanon which started in 1975 when Syrian Forces entered Lebanon as peacekeepers to protect the Christians and crush the Palestinian dominance in Beirut. Two years later, the Syrians managed to reignite the sectarian civil war by siding with the Palestinians when it served their regional interests then turned around and bombed them again when they felt they were out of control. In the absence of strong Lebanese leaders, the Syrians dominated every aspect of Lebanese life for 30 years. The one million Lebanese of the March 14th Cedar Rebellion were not only rejecting the Syrian occupation of their country, but also one of the worst economic conditions in the Middle East, which was brought about by one of the highest levels of corruption in the world. This was orchestrated by Lebanese power lords under the protection of their masters in Damascus.

This past June in Iran, one million Iranians gathered in Tehran’s Freedom Square to protest the ‘sham’ elections and demand their voices be heard. “Tehran Rising” is happening 30 years after Ayatollah Khomeini and a number of visionary young leaders who rejected the Shah’s elitist rule in 1979 and established the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mir Ali Mousavi had a role to play in that revolution, and a bloody one at that. His supporters, more so than Mousavi himself, currently are not fighting the principles of the revolution; they are fighting the collapse of Iran’s economy, corruption, and incompetency in government.

Memetic Side View of Both Cultures

As I looked, through my developmental lenses, at both events and the cultures that produced them, the patterns of emergence that are unique to that part of the world in the 21st century were becoming clear. Beirut, Tehran, Baghdad, Kabul, and Cairo were some of the most progressive capital cities in the region at the dawn of the 20th Century. Those cities were compared to Paris in culture, modernity and uniqueness. However, such notions of freedom and progress were almost exclusive to the capital cities, and rarely spread to the rest of the country. Inhabitants of these capitals had access to Western education and progressive schools of thought while their compatriots lagged behind in the darkness of tribal norms and feudal dominance. A split cultural personality, we may say. That tension between modernity centered in the capitals. The strong hold of tribalism, poverty and illiteracy in the rest of the country created a large gap that eventually ended up being the primary cause of each culture’s downshift.

In Clare W. Graves “Emergent Cyclic Double-Helix Model of Adult Biopsychosocial Systems” theory that forms the basis for Dr. Beck’s Spiral Dynamics, the Double Helix gives us the key to evolution in cultures—as life conditions change, biopsychosocial systems within people and cultures have the potential to change to find solutions to their existential problems. Naturally, when people find solutions to their problems they create new ones, a process Graves elegantly called “the never ending quest.” Let’s explore the particular case study of Lebanon and Iran.


1. Asymmetry within the Culture: Tehran and Beirut became beacons of (closed loop) progress that stayed within the confines of the city, and communicated outward with the Western world. This was a complete disconnect from the rest of the country. Anybody who sought a progressive life moved into the respective cities, rather than having a strong central government with long-term development plans that bring progress to rural areas. That caused a gap in values between what was seen as elite, and the rest of the country.
2. Skipping Stages of Development: the principles of cultural development are similar to human development. Cultures cannot skip a stage; there are rites of passage that contribute to building cultural capacities similar to human capacities. In this case, in absence of institutions (public and private) that are in charge of designing and implementing long term developmental strategies for the whole country the rural country side would remain set back in time. This phenomenon left a gaping hole that invited extremist ideological groups to take control of neglected areas. Imagine France moving abruptly from monarchy to a capitalistic society ruled by an economic elite without going through the Revolution of “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality” that established the basis for a representative form of government where citizens are equal under the law. A principle that is still missing in the whole Middle East including Israel.
3. Extremists Brand of Islam became the Answer: Marxist brand of nationalism that was spread by Egypt’s Nasser in the 1950s to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots, was transformed into an Islamist brand of nationalism in both Lebanon and Iran. Khomeini’s Islamic revolution gained ground with the disadvantaged in Iran, especially the ambitious young generation that supported the needed change with vengeance. The same happened in Lebanon. Actually, Hezbollah’s previous name was The Disadvantaged, “Al Mahroumeen.” Young Shia men and women were the disenfranchised majority in Lebanon, neglected by the government and especially by their own Shia oligarchs.
4. Divided Loyalties: In both countries, while one million people asked to break away from extremist ideology, another million took to the streets in support of the extremists. Contrary to what the West thinks, these are not paid demonstrators. They have shared values and shared interests with the leaders of extremist movements. In part, they wish to preserve their jobs in cultures where there are few jobs and in another they do support the continued search for national identity that’s not defined by Western influence.
5. Corruption: In Lebanon’s case, the Syrian regime transformed a state, already ravaged with corruption and Barteel (primitive form of bribery) into a restriction-free zone for its illegal activities from drug trafficking to money laundering and out-right stealing through their Lebanese agents like Hezbollah and its Sunni and Christian cohorts. In Iran, the promise of an egalitarian Islamic Republic (Marxist style) turned into a repressive and incompetent regime where bureaucrats were replaced by the regime’s cronies who lacked the skills needed to perform critical government functions. The regime guaranteed loyal following by supporters by continuing these hiring practices that eventually took hold of most government institutions. As a result, Ahmedinejad was elected by a high percentage of Iranians to counteract the Aytullahs turned oligarchs like Rafsanjani and politicians like Mousavi.
6. Lack of Opportunities: In a 2007 report UNICEF gave this grim account of Lebanon’s dire situation: “Lebanese youth below the age of 25 years, who constitute more than half of the population, suffer from weak integration in the social environment and from the economic crisis. They are faced by unemployment due to lack of jobs, difficulty of getting into the work cycle and difficulty of securing a house or a place to live.” The same goes for Iran where more than half of the population is under 25, suffering the wrath of an incompetent government, high unemployment rates and rampant poverty.
7. The Wisdom of the Crowd Surpassed that of their Leaders: The discontent with the extremists suppression reached critical mass and empowered the reform crowds in both countries to lead their leaders; not the other way around. Mousavi and March 14th leaders became mere symbols of forward progress. They now have to implement the changes dictated by the collective intelligence.
8. Dissonance: Social tension and unrest is the critical wave through which the evolutionary pulse becomes alive. What is happening now in Iran and still going on behind the scenes in Lebanon is the dissonance needed for emergence to happen. Since the start of the unrest in Iran Ayatollah Khamenei blamed it all on Israeli and American spies, and refuses to surrender to the will of the people. These tactics have proven successful in a region ravaged by internal dysfunction and a distrusting image of Western interference as Ahmadinajad gets sworn in for a second term. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah coalition after being defeated politically is now mobilizing its military, PR and Intelligence machine to keep holding Lebanon hostage. Their propagandist argument is that the Lebanese military is not ready to defend the country against the “Zionist Enemy.”

Conditions for Change

These patterns have taken 30 years to unfold in Iran and Lebanon. Do I expect that every country in the Middle East will take 30 years to emerge? Of course not. Do I expect immediate change to take hold just because Bush is gone? Of course not. Are we seeing signs of an evolutionary change? Absolutely. Graves-Beck theory sites the following six conditions for change:

• POTENTIAL in the brain syndicate of the culture
• SOLUTIONS for problems at present level
• DISSONANCE about conditions & future
• BARRIERS to change identified & managed
• INSIGHT into alternative forms & means

Strong aspects of these conditions are present in both cultures. Change will not only affect Lebanon and Iran, but will culminate in a tipping point that will trigger change in the region. Over the decades, many factors influenced the underlying codes that cause change starting in recent history with the Israel/Palestine conflict, dictatorships, Marxism, the Cold War, Western interference, oil and many other factors. To the dismay of many, I have to give George Bush credit for focusing on what he called ‘democracy’ in the Middle East. Bush’s approach did not have a systemic strategy, but aimed at securing (not controlling) the oil reserve in the region. His hawkish Wild West-style philosophy created more dissonance, which is as I mentioned before is a critical condition for change. The pragmatists in the Middle East snatched the opportunity to distance themselves from the “American enemy” and raise their voices either against him or against their country’s oppressive regimes.

How the US can Play a Sustainable Role

As President Obama is now trying to give legitimacy to American interference in the region, he is seen as both, friendly and weak. His speech in Egypt termed historic by Western media, received mixed reviews in the Muslim world. Extremists adopted a wait-and-see attitude while progressives found many good points in his call for mutual respect and promise of no meddling. These same progressive thinking academic and community leaders were also critical of his constant reference to his Muslim background and quoting the Quran when the issues of extremism, poverty and oppression are not only about Islam, but are part and parcel of US support of repressive regimes. The hope speech ran aground in a region facing insurmountable challenges that first world countries can’t even fathom. Millions of Egyptian children on the streets of Cairo go to sleep hungry every night while their leaders continue to squander billions in US aid. The same is repeated throughout the Muslim world with only a few exceptions.

US policy cannot afford to be hawkish like Bush was on one end or idealistic like the Obama Administration is being on the other. It has to strike a balance—in actions on the ground and not in rhetoric—between pressuring the authoritarian regimes to reform and withholding both financial and military aid. A deeper US commitment will require a shift from the current paradigm of what is best for us to what is best for a globally interwoven world that takes into consideration the Memetic contours and patterns of emergence in the region.

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Elza S. Maalouf is an Arab-American futurist and cultural development specialist focusing her work on cultural, business and political reform in the Arab world. As one of the foremost futurists and expert in Memetics of the Middle East, Elza was named one of today’s brightest minds. She is co-founder of the Center for Human Emergence Middle East, a think tank that emphasizes the scientific understanding of cultures through the prism of the “bio-psycho-social systems” framework of Clare W. Graves and his colleague and successor Dr. Don Beck. She has pioneered the Integral movement and the application of Spiral Dynamics integral in the Middle East. In her iPolitics blog, Maalouf examines Memetic patterns of emergence in the region and offers analysis of the anatomy of conflicts in the Muslim World.
Her firm Integral Insights Consulting (IIC) is advising business leaders on uniquely Arab integral design for business in the post-oil era with a focus on their most precious resource, their Gen Y.