Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
No Arab Bolivars:
As Region Implodes,
Arab Socialism Fizzles Out
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, May 5, 2015
A student group had asked me to address socialism in the Arab world,
with the assumption that there is indeed such a movement that is capable
of overhauling inherently incompetent and utterly corrupt regimes,
across the region. But of course, no such group, or configuration of
socialist groups exist today, but in name.
I recall a talk I
delivered in London soon after Hamas was placed under siege in Gaza in
2007. ‘Hamas is the largest and most effective socialist movement in
Palestine,” I said to the surprise of some and the agreeing nods of
others. Of course, I was not referring to Hamas’ adherence to Marxist
theory but to the fact that it was the only operating grassroots
political movement that had, in some ways succeeded in lessening the gap
between various social and economic classes, all united by a radical
Moreover, it was a movement largely made of
Palestine’s fellahin (peasants) and workers who were mostly centered in
refugee camps. Compare to the detached, elitist, largely urban-based
‘socialist’ movements in Palestine, the mass of Islamists in the
occupied territories is as socialist as a movement can be under the
But what do I tell the student group, made of
young, enthusiastic socialists who are eager to see the rise of the
A starting point would be that there is a
difference between western socialism, and ‘Arab socialism’, a reference
coined by Arab nationalists in the early 1950s, as a merger between
nationalist and socialist movement began to take hold, ultimately
leading to the formation of the Ba’ath parties of Syria and Iraq. The
idea was originally framed by Salah al-Din al-Bitar and Michel Aflaq,
founders of the Ba'ath Party.
Socialism in its western forms
seemed unappealing to many Arab nationalists. Not only was it
intellectually removed from the cultural and socioeconomic contexts of
the Arab peoples, but also politically unpromising if not altogether
chauvinistic. Many western socialists romanticized the creation and
meaning of Israel, a colonial implant that has united colonial and
neocolonial forces against Arab aspirations for many decades.
But Arab nationalism also failed for it neither offered a compelling
alternative, nor had practically championed a serious paradigm shift.
Aside from some land reforms in Egypt after the 1952 anti-King revolt,
among other gestures, Arab socialism could neither break free from the
confines of good-sounding ideals nor from outside influences that vied
to control, influence or crush these movements.
failure became even more pronounced as the Soviet Union’s influence
began to wane in the late 1980’s, till its complete collapse in the
early 90s. Arab socialists, whether governments who adopted that slogan,
or organizations that revolved around Soviet agendas, were too dependent
on that relationship. With the absence of the Soviets from the scene,
they had little chance of surviving the rising dominance of the United
However, that failure was not just the outcome of
socialist bloc’s crumpling geopolitical regional models, but also
because Middle Eastern countries (also under the influence or due to
pressure from western hegemons) were experiencing a rethink. That was
the time of the rise of the Islamic alternative, which was partly a
genuine attempt at galvanizing the region’s own intellectual resources,
and partly steered by funds coming from rich Arab Gulf countries to
regulate the rise of the Islamic tide.
That was the time when
the slogan: ‘Islam is the Solution’ became quite dominant. That new
slogan pierced through the collective psyche of various Arab Muslim
intellectual groups throughout the Middle East and beyond, specifically
because it seemed to be an attempt at tapping into the region’s own
historical and cultural references.
The general argument was:
both US-western and Soviet models have failed or are failing along with
their client regimes, and there is an urgent need for alternative.
Still, Arab socialism would have survived if it was indeed predicated on
strong social platforms, propelled by wide-popular support and
grassroots movement. That however, was not the case.
If I must
generalize, in the Arab world, there was a relatively a strong
intellectual component of the left. But the intellectual left hardly
ever managed to cross the divide between the world of theories and ideas
- which was available to the educated classes - into the work place, the
peasants and the average man and woman on the street. Without mobilizing
the workers, peasants, and oppressed masses, the Arab left had little to
offer but rhetoric that was largely devoid of practical experience.
Of course, there were exceptions in every Arab country. Palestine’s
early socialist movements had strong presence in the refugee camps. They
were pioneers in all forms of popular resistance, but that can be
explained around the uniqueness of the Palestinian situation, as opposed
to reflecting a large trend throughout the entire region.
Another important note is that oppression tend to unite oppressed
groups, no matter how seemingly insurmountable their ideological
differences maybe. In fact, because of that shared oppression between
political Islam and radical left, there was a degree of affinity between
activists from both of groups, as they shared prison cells, were
tortured and humiliated together.
The turning point, however
could arguably be the early 1990’s when the Soviet Union collapsed. That
freed much political space while oil money continued to pour in. Many
Islamic universities opened up all over the world, and thousands of
students from the Gulf and the rest of the Middle East received high
degrees in various fields, from Islamic sharia to engineering.
The exclusive access to education was largely broken. Look at Hamas in
Gaza. Many of their leaders and members have high degrees, in
engineering and medicine. And that has become very common among all
Islamic groups supporters in Palestine, in Egypt, in Morocco and so
forth. So the hegemony over education and over the articulation of
political discourses was no longer in the hands of the political or
intellectual elites. On the other hand, a political agenda that was
predicated on Islamic ideals was born.
With time, socialists
were faced with stark choices: either live on the margin of society –
imagine the stereotypical maverick communist intellectual sitting in a
coffee shop in Cairo theorizing about everything – or join NGOs,
official or semi-official institutions to remain financially afloat or
at all relevant. Those who opted for the latter, needed to compromise to
the extent that some of them are now mouthpieces for the very regimes
they once fought.
As a result, the thrust of the socialists’
political power as a group has diminished so greatly throughout the
years. Being more institutionalized, they became more inclusive, further
removed from the masses, in whose name they continued to speak. In
Egypt, once can hardly think of one powerful leftist organization that
operates there. There are ‘leftists’ but they hardly register as movers
and shakers of the current political landscape.
alone will hardly revive the socialist tide in the Arab world. There are
little signs that the decline will be soon reversed, or that a homegrown
interpretation of socialism – think the relatively successful Bolivarian
movement of Latin America – will mold together nationalistic priorities
and socialist ideals into a workable mix.
But of course, the
Middle East is experiencing its greatest political upheaval and
socialist influx in a hundred years. New variables are added to the
multifarious equation on a regular basis. While the present remains
grim, the future seems pregnant with possibilities.
Ramzy Baroud –
www.ramzybaroud.net - is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a
media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of
PalestineChronicle.com. He is currently completing his PhD studies at
the University of Exeter. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom
Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).
Share this article with your facebook friends