From the Roman legions to federal Lebanon, an essay into the roots of devolution

To understand federalism, one needs to comprehend the underlying concepts, and even more so, the extent to which these concepts espouse the social reality of Lebanon. Subsidiarity, self-rule, Secularim, localism are the foundational pillars of that governance model.

By Iad Boustany @Iyadboustany


An obscure concept developed by and for the roman legions transformed the world and might, eventually, save Lebanon. At a time Cato the Elder was relentlessly repeating “Delenda Cartago Est” and Quinctius Flamininus was directing his armies at the Battle of Cynoscephalae, Rome was fighting on two fronts facing two mighty Mediterranean powers: the Macedonians and the Phoenicians. Flexibility, thought the Roman commanders, would be instrumental in defeating highly centralized commanded and controlled armies. Subsidium, they thought, the concept whereby any centurion was empowered to take all reasonable decisions including the calling upon the support units, could turn defeat into victory. And indeed it did. The Centurion was empowered to scale his forces. Scale-up would say Nassim Taleb in a modern governance lingo. In the later Romanized Cartago, St Augustine carried such concept, onto St Thomas Aquino and subsidiarity reached the reformation and was forcefully advocated for by Johannes Althusius around his 1614 Politica defending federalism. Subsidiarity had become the principle that decisions should always be taken at the lowest possible level or closest to the impacted parties. But its time had not come yet. Subsidiary needed a companion concept – Res Publica, Republic – before it could fulfill its potential as a governance system.

Cuius Regio Eius Religio (self-rule)

With Calvin’s reformation clashing with Catholicism, Res Publica Christiana was ravaged in the ugliest form of civil war, the solution to which required questioning the very foundations of social organization. The political philosophy in Christendom needed to be reinvented. A reflection into the ethology of peace and foundations of governance. In the midst of the “German civil war”, with divisions running too deep and conflicts stretching too wide, shallow fixes were no longer an option. Diversity in religious dogma was the new reality drawing a new scattered map of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire and beyond. Only a forceful concept that applied evenly and fairly to all dominions would restore some resemblance of peace. That attempt to find a global peace based on sound philosophical grounds was attempted at Augsburg in 1555. A novel concept of political philosophy was introduced: Cuius Regio Eius Religio; whose realm, their religion. For peace to take hold, governed and governors have to be of the same faith.


Secularism was best theorized by St Augustine in the City of God (426 AD) in which he summons the emperor with all matters that “changed with time” secularum, secular matters. Church and all spiritual matters, “all matters that do not alter with the passage of time” would remain entrusted to clerics to manage. St Thomas and the neo-thomists political philosophers upheld such a distinction between the realm of the church and that of the emperor. They further developed the concept into a political concept for the Res Publica Christiana. As the clerics were mandated to manage church and souls, the laics (non-cleric Christians) were to govern the secular matters. Secularity and laicity, Christian concepts as they are, had emerged from Christian dogma itself and not against it.


Rerun Novarum, Pope Leo XIII Encyclical of 1891, defined the Catholic Church views in the face of the “new matters”: progress, development, capitalism, communism, poverty and wealth, nations and social constructs. Indeed these were new matters. And yet the Pope used old tools to address them. The organic nation, a geography constructed bottom up and scaled to optimality had proved itself to be an adequate framework for humans to best fulfill their potential in an environment of shared values. Subsidiarity, as Leon XIII prophesized was the key concept on which to build the social development in a political environment delineated by the 1555 Augsburg peace principle. From these two concepts emerged the peace and stability framework that was foundational for ending the European civil wars and the European social wars, and paved the way for development, expansion of religious freedom, social stability, tolerance and secularism.

Resonating Concepts in Mount Lebanon

Christianity carried all these concepts to the Levantine shores…and mountains. Cuius regio Eius religio was indeed a well-recognized political concept as the Chehab emirs felt the urge to convert to Maronitism to govern the Christian populated areas of Mount Lebanon. Subsidiarity, localism and self-rule, were also well-entrenched realities since the Phoenicians, a common trait further reinforced by mountainous insularity. These concepts were best expressed in the city-state model, later further encapsulated in the casa mindset since the crusades, easily accommodating with the loosely centralized Maan governing rules. At the peak of the centralized feudal system, with the exacerbation of the Chehab Emirs grip over power and its centralizing tendencies, that same localist and insular mindset found itself on a collision course with – and in the fierce rejection of – the pitiless grip of Prince Bachir Chehab II the Great. Revolt unused ending in the toppling of the monarchy and the entire feudal system. Localism, self-rule culture and subsidiarity was best exemplified in the republic of Zahle (1843) and Kesrowan (1859) emerging a few months only after the feudal system was brought to an end. With Bachir III converting to Islam, the Cuius Regio Eius Religio bond was broken and the overwhelmingly Christian kingdom felt no longer obligated towards an authority whose vanished legitimacy ceased to commanded obedience.

The XIXth century, saw the overthrowing of the feudal system (as elsewhere in Europe) and the first experiments into democratic republican models. Levant’s social fabric was unanimously viewed as multi-national. The Levantines viewed themselves as distinct nations. The Ottomans, the empire which dominated the Levant, had legally classified its subject per “Millet” a Turkish word which meant “nations”. Finally the European kingdoms objectively perceived the various Levantine populations as nations. From King Louis IX to Louis XIV to the Napoleons all addressed the various nations as such: be it Shiaa, Druze or Maronites. Metternich himself ultimately titled the constitution he himself drafted between 1861 and 1864 “Reglement Organic” i.e. the settlement by organic nationalities. Mount Lebanon was recognized as a country to various nations. The model based on subsidiarity and self-rule was so successful that modern Turkish historian Engin Akarli remained puzzled by its success. So much so as to label that era (and his book covering it) “the long peace”. Akarli went as far to argue that, had the Sublime Porte extended the application of these governance principles to the other dominions of the empire, it would not have collapsed.

1926 The year the patriots became sectarians

This social reality was denied recognizance in 1926. Indeed the new Constitution of “Greater Lebanon” departed from that of 1864. The latter was “federal” decentralized bottom up, cognizant of multi-nationalities. The former Unitarian, administrative, centralized and inspired from the French Jacobin model. “Millet” no longer meant “nation”, it was translated into “sect” and confined into the religious space. It was no longer “identity”, it had become “faith”. The labels might have changed but the reality did not. Populations were then as they are today: different nations in one country.

The 1864 constitution had allowed each identity to freely express itself, to trace its roots back into the depth of history and to design the way to project itself into the future. The national narrative (roman national) being the way people view their own past, construct their present and dream their future, was as it should be, a coherent world- view cementing people around shared values. Simple examples go a long way in explaining the difference between historical narrative and national narrative. Take waterloo, as a historical fact, for instance. Historical facts are indeed know to all and challenged by none. But is it a victory or a defeat? The answer is dependent on the view point, the national narrative. In the UK and in Germany, Waterloo is a victory, but in France, it is a defeat. Apply the same to Yarmouk, the Crusades, Fakhereddine,…. Historical facts are the same but their reading differs. Saints and demons, friends and foes, allies and traitors, are defined depending on the national narrative. The national narrative is the way historical facts are sown together to give sense to history and meaning to life. “On Identity and meaning” wrote the anthropologist Selim Abou. In Lebanon, sect is identity not (only) faith. Our histories (that of all Lebanese) espouses that of our religious communities. Those agnostic or atheists, would remain agnostic or atheist Christians, Druze, Sunni or Shiaa. Furthermore, our diverse national narratives frame the minds in a way to shape our diverging views of the worlds. Who’s a friend? Who’s a foe? Who’s the martyr and who’s the traitor? Where are we coming from and where are we heading? Which is vice and which is virtue? Which is licit and which is illicit? All such matters are dealt with differently depending on the national narrative one belongs to. Depending If you are Christian, Sunni, Shiaa or Druze and irrespective whether you are a believer or not. Those claims to remove “sectarianism” are in reality, concealed or candid, attempts to remove identity. This ineluctably results in the destruction of the community and its disappearance.

By turning “Millet” (nation) into “sect” the 1926 constitution attempted to erase the organic nations and their related identities in favor of a new national idea called Lebanon. The intellectual elite of the time was tasked to come up with a new unifying narrative. Asad Rustom, Jawad Boulos and Fouad E Boustany took on the challenge. Schools kids learned about the Phoenicians, as well as the Emirs unifying the Levant under the Ottoman rule. But little, if anything, was taught about those 15 centuries that stretched between this and that. Between the coming of Christ and that of Qurqumaz. The identities and the organic nations had to be suppressed.

Social realities

100 years later, It is no secret to claim that Lebanon is a failed state and that all its people have equally suffered therefrom. A new model is about to emerge and this is the last chance to build it on solid principles. This new model is required to reduce tensions not increase it, heighten collaboration not hinder it, to foster peace and favor prosperity to all. This model has to be based on the two cornerstone principles explained above: subsidiarity and cuius regio eius religio. We don’t have to look afar for such a model, it was well established here in Mount Lebanon between 1864 and 1915 and departing therefrom in 1926 triggered our woes and slow decay. It is our last chance for a viable social contract which fosters freedom, coexistence, development, solidarity, peace and prosperity. Such construct has a name: Federalism.

It is time for a bottom up construction. It is time to ask the people (the various nations/communities) each what they want. It is time to revert to the smallest entity (the municipality) and empower them to speak as to what they want. They have been laboring the same fields for over 6,000 years. Don’t we owe them the right to decide on their own future, on their own fate. Vox populi vox Dei it is said. So be it.

I had tweeted this on June 22, 2021: “Lebanon Christians will soon be no more. Their civilization will slowly end. Not in a highly publicized massacre, not in a heroic last stand. History will not remember a fatal date nor glorious name: no May 29 1453, no Constantin Palaeologus…. and yet the lights of Hagia Sophia will go out. Slowly drained exhausted by time and demography and wrapped in the shame of a corrupt system, like watching a train wreck on slow motion, our civilization will soon exit history.”

Without federalism, this tweet will soon become prophecy.

You can follow Iad Boustany on his blog and on twitter @Iyadboustany This article was originally published on July 2, 2021 on medium. For the article in Arabic and French.
The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.