Underlying the political map of the Middle East —those weird straight lines of Sykes-Picot vintage running through the desert— is the real configuration of this enigmatic region: the ethno-religious layout. Kurds, Berbers, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Turks, Armenians, Copts, and more, depending on where one decides the Middle East ends. It is a kaleidoscope in a Muslim-majority context with the Muslim population further divided into multiple sub-groups. And yet the lingering impression is one of greater homogeneity than actually exists: the Middle East is principally Arab and Muslim, period. Some countries in the region more than others convey this impression of uniformity. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is Sunni (Wahhabi); Egypt, despite its Coptic population over whose exact size there is a lingering dispute, is largely Sunni and thoroughly Arab; Jordan may have a majority Palestinian population, but it is Sunni and Arab through and through.

Two countries stand out as departing markedly from this assumed norm: Iraq and Lebanon. The internal makeup of these two countries betrays more accurately the mosaic nature of the region as a whole. Both Iraq and Lebanon belong to the category of mixed or composite societies and, in times of turmoil, both run the risk of becoming internally divided, or worse, unraveling into fragmented micro-communities. Lebanon's violent disintegration during the 1970s and 1980s spawned the dreaded term "Lebanonization," an earlier variant of Balkanization. But Lebanonization, which today means suffering a fate similar to that of the collapsed state that lent its name to the term, had the exact opposite connotation prior to 1975, the year when war broke out in Lebanon. To be like Lebanon meant then, especially for other Arabs, to be free, open, pluralist, prosperous and stable —qualities rarely seen together in any of the surrounding Arab states. Above all on the political level, emulating Lebanon meant perfecting the art of political compromise, becoming masters at the craft of intricate consensus politics, nurturing an irreverent media, and accepting the all-important principle of proportional representation. Lebanonization, therefore, has a Jekyll-Hyde character to it. During the good times Lebanon works, and works well, since the external attention directed at it is mainly benevolent instead of being predatory.

Today, the external attention being directed at Iraq by the United States and the other Coalition members is fundamentally benevolent. This fortuitous fact presents Iraqis of all stripes with a unique and enviable opportunity to refashion their ravaged country in a way that over time will vastly improve the quality of their lives by allowing each of their communities to live in peace and dignity alongside the others. Unlike Lebanon, Iraq is rich in oil and can confidently look forward to a prosperous future, provided a power-sharing arrangement suitable for a heterogeneous society is devised and implemented. Here the Lebanese model might offer some guidance.

Despite the Syrian-inspired tampering in 1989 that marred somewhat its original character, Lebanon's constitution remains quite a remarkable document for a Middle Eastern country. It acknowledges religious confession as the irreducible socio-political unit in the land and officially recognizes eighteen such communities, including a Jewish one and, since 1995, a Coptic one. It enshrines the principle of proportionality in parliamentary configuration and apportions top government posts to respective sects based on prominence and on a traditional agreement: a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni prime minister, and a Shiite speaker of parliament. It retains all matters related to personal status —marriage, divorce, inheritance— within the strict jurisdiction of each denomination. And, uniquely in the region, it does not declare Islam as the official religion of the state.

Iraq, with its Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, and Christians, presents a version of the Lebanese tapestry. From 1943 when Lebanon became an independent republic to 1975 when it descended into mayhem and became dysfunctional, the country operated on an unwritten power-sharing formula known as the National Pact. This was an arrangement forged between the two leading communities at the time: the Maronites and the Sunnis. Something similar could be aimed for in Iraq involving a key role for the Shiites, represented by moderate elements, and lesser proportional roles for the other communities. Naming Islam as the state religion in the new constitution might seem unavoidable in Iraq, but for this very reason balancing language that stresses respect for all sects and for the principle of religious liberty and personal freedom will be vital. As with Lebanon, a constitution centered on the religious denominations will serve as a guarantor of, not a hindrance to, any emerging homespun Iraqi democracy. In the end, both Lebanon and Iraq lend themselves to creative experimentation with some form of communally-grounded federalism?in Iraq?s case, neither leading to the breakaway autonomy sought by the Kurds, nor resulting in the tyranny of a Shiite majority.

Habib C. Malik is professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University in Byblos, Lebanon and the author of Between Damascus and Jerusalem: Lebanon and Middle East Peace (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000).