Aslı Ü. Bâli & Omar M. Dajani

Volume 75, Issue 5, 1165-1244

This Article explores the potential of decentralized governance and territorial arrangements to address the overlapping governance crises and identity conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa (the “MENA”). Despite an extensive literature on decentralization and federalism in comparative law and politics, few studies have considered such initiatives in this region. By undertaking a qualitative comparison of decentralizing initiatives in four MENA countries—Tunisia, Iran, Syria, and Yemen—this Article provides the first sustained examination of these understudied cases and in the process suggests a variety of region-wide implications.

The cases are generative both in addressing ongoing debates about the merits of decentralization and in suggesting new design solutions for grappling with intertwined crises of conflict and governance. In this Article, we surface five important dynamics .First, we highlight the striking breadth of the local political coalitions that have supported decentralizing reforms—a phenomenon evident both before and after the uprisings and protest movements of the last decade. Second, we point to a paradox at the heart of the MENA region’s approach to decentralizing government. Whereas decentralization has been a leading item on governance reform agendas, the idea of deploying it as a strategy for addressing identity groups’ self-determination demands has tended to be too politically incendiary to allow reasoned public discourse about its merits. In this Article, we offer explanations, rooted in the region’s encounter with colonialism, for why this paradox has emerged and argue that decentralization may have greater potential as a framework for accommodating competing claims to self-determination than as a vehicle for democratization. Third, our cases point to the value of pursuing decentralization through incremental and bottom-up processes, rather than attempting to impose it in one fell swoop. Fourth, we reveal that decentralizing reforms by authoritarian regimes in the region not only do little to advance democratization but may to the contrary help entrench authoritarian rule. Finally, we identify new models for plural territorial arrangements that have emerged out of grassroots, innovative experiments with decentralization. These models, which have emerged in some of the least likely places  in the run-up to and even in the midst of brutal conflict , offer a promising path to inclusive governance without revisiting the borders of the states of the region.