The Middle East is experiencing its greatest political upheaval and socialist influx in a hundred years.
A student group recently 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 political agenda.
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 circumstances.
But what do I tell the student group, made of young, enthusiastic socialists who are eager to see the rise of the proletariat?
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 movements 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 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.
Later, that 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 States.
However, that failure was not just the outcome of socialist bloc’s crumbling 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 an alternative.
Still, Arab socialism would have survived if it was indeed predicated on strong social platforms, propelled by wide-popular support and grassroots movements. That however, was not the case.
If I must generalize, in the Arab world, there was a relatively 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 a 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 tends to unite oppressed groups, no matter how seemingly insurmountable their ideological differences may be. In fact, because of that shared oppression between political Islam and the 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 tens of thousands of students from across 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 fields such as 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 margins 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.
Wishful thinking 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 considerably 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.