Peter Hill: Notes on the Arab Left

The current situation in the Arab countries and the prospects for the left there are often debated in the anglophone world, particularly since the Arab risings of 2011. But the discussion often seems to suffer from a lack of historical grounding or a grasp of the common (and divergent) features of politics in different Arab states.This overview is a small effort to remedy this state of affairs, by giving some historical background to the left in the Arab world and a broad outline of the current situation. It concentrates on general trends rather than detailing the exact circumstances of each Arab country. It does not attempt to cover the whole Arab world, but is limited to the major Arab republics: Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. It does not deal with the monarchies (the states of the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, plus Jordan and Morocco) or with Yemen and Libya. Nor does it include countries on the edges of the Arab world, but which are partly Arabic-speaking or members of the Arab League, such as Sudan and Mauritania. It neglects Lebanon, which is politically peculiar, but does touch on Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora, which of course have their own particular history, but belong to the republics in many of their dynamics. It also refers to Turkey, which while not an Arab country has many features in common with the Arab republics. I have attempted throughout to draw analogies with the left in other parts of the world, particularly Britain, in an effort to dispel the all-too-common impression that Arab politics are wholly exotic and sui generis – this should of course not be taken as an argument that the Arab left has no distinctive features.

The Left in the Arab Republics Since the 1950s

The Arab republics have a shared history in many respects. Most of them underwent revolutions in the 1950s or 60s, bringing to power statist single-party regimes which persisted into the twenty-first century. These regimes often came out of anti-imperial movements – like the Front de Libération National in Algeria, which fought the French colonial forces, or the Free Officers in Egypt, who opposed British domination of the Middle East – and initially had considerable populist and progressive appeal. They were committed, in varying degrees, to Third-Worldism, to non-alignment in the Cold War, and to Arab unity. Like all Arab states at that time, they were opposed to Zionism. They often professed local forms of ‘socialism’, drawing on the Soviet example, and instituted radical and often impressive programmes of development, including the nationalisation of education, land reform and social benefits. At the same time, they were single-party and often military regimes that did not tolerate political pluralism, and developed extensive networks of repressive secret police and security forces.

Left-wing groups and labour organisations underwent one of two fates: they were either absorbed into the state apparatus, or (for the more radical groups) outlawed and repressed. In many cases, the labour movement hardly needed to be absorbed, as it had always been a part, and generally a subordinate part, of the nationalist movement. In Algeria, for instance, the principal trade union, the UGTA (Union Générale de Travailleurs Algériens), had been formed as part of the struggle against French rule and, after independence in 1962, remained effectively subordinate to the ruling party, the FLN, which had led the independence struggle. The line between collaboration and repression was not always clear: some effectively suffered both fates, like the Algerian Communists who expressed support for Boumédiène even from his regime’s prisons. In Egypt, Nasser suppressed the Communists in the 1950s but won their support by the mid-60s: the Egyptian Communist Party voluntarily dissolved and many of its members entered the state-sponsored Arab Socialist Union. In Iraq, there was a similarly mixed record, the Communists helping bring to power the military regime of Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1958 and supporting it despite its crackdowns on the Party until 1963, when Qasim was deposed of by the Ba’athists. The latter then alternated between repression and compromise with the Communist Party.

The dilemma of the left when faced with these regimes was a real one: in many ways progressive and enjoying real popular support, they remained intolerant of any independent political organisations, including any independent assertion of working-class demands. The left’s indecision between accommodation and opposition is understandable. Accommodation was not necessarily either unprincipled or complete: a policy of working for change from within established organisations, where they looked progressive enough, could seem superior to isolation on the fringe of politics. In this respect, their choice was similar to the one made by labour movements and Communist Parties in Western Europe after the Second World War, who worked with and participated in social-democratic governments. It must also be said that the problems of the lack of formal democracy, civil rights, and other liberal virtues under the Arab regimes may have looked less important than the real progress being made in terms of economic development and equality. This was partly due to the nature of the examples of socialism available (neither the USSR, China, nor the socialist regimes of the Third World can really be said to have prioritised democracy or civil rights), but it can aso been seen as a reasonable compromise in countries with such high levels of poverty and inequality. In many cases, leftists probably strengthened the socialistic aspects of the regimes through their participation, rather than simply being duped. Thus in Algeria, through the 1960s and 70s, under the state-socialist regime of Boumédiène, the PAGS (Socialist Vanguard Party) had been able to exert a wide influence within the unions and even in the state and ruling party, operating in a kind of informal coalition with the government.

This kind of collaboration between the left and military or statist regimes could persist as long as the latter actually continued to be ‘progressive’. But the failure of these regimes became more evident from the late 1970s onwards, as they were forced to abandon their earlier state-socialist models and open their economies to free market pressures. This was accompanied by a tightening of bureaucratic controls and increased repression. This process occurred at different times across the Arab world: in Egypt, the economic ‘Open Door’ policy began in the 1970s under Anwar Sadat, while in Syria, economic liberalisation only began with Bashar al-Asad’s succession to his father Hafiz in 2000. These policies made it impossible to maintain the level of public ownership and subsidies on basic necessities that had previously provided a safety-net for the poor. Again, we could see a parallel movement towards neoliberalism in the Western world under Reagan and Thatcher and a rolling back of the gains that were made in social justice and economic equality since the Second World War. At the same time, the commitment of the Arab states to anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism waned (Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1977 under Sadat was a landmark in this respect), and the decline and fall of the Soviet bloc removed an alternative economic model and pole of international politics.

In the process of opening their countries’ economies to international capitalism and moving away from earlier, state-socialist policies, they had to confront leftist forces, including some of those which had previously accommodated to the state. In Algeria, for instance, President Bendjedid came to power in 1979, introducing economic liberalisation and austerity and led a purge of leftist ‘Pagsistes’ from positions of power. In Turkey too, a military coup in 1980 resulted in a crackdown on the left. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat dissolved the Arab Socialist Union, the state-sponsored left organisation, in the 1970s and supported the Muslim Brothers as a bulwark against the left. As these progressive forces increasingly split from the regimes, even government-sponsored organisations could become centres of resistance – like the Tagammu’ Party created with Sadat’s blessing in the 1976 as a loyal opposition, which by the end of the decade had become a haven of the Marxists and Nasserists, and strongly critical of Sadat. (Old-style Nasserists, loyal to the vision of the more socialistic and anti-imperialist regime of the 1950s and 60s, were now joining the opposition as Sadat moved to the right.)

This was also the era of the rise of political Islam, with the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 as a historical landmark. The earlier nationalist regimes had often appealed to Islam as well as Arab nationalism and socialism, but Islamists became increasingly divided from them while growing in strength. They came to be the major opposition to many of the single-party states: the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and (though thoroughly repressed in the 1980s) in Syria; the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut) in Algeria, which fought the military in a bloody civil war from 1991 to 2004. Again, the growth of Islamism is not wholly without parallels in other parts of the world: it can be seen as part of a general rise of identitarian politics of various types, including the religious right in the USA, small-nation nationalisms in Europe, and the far right and quasi-fascist groups. Islamists have been able to generate considerable populist appeal, against what are perceived as the Westernized elites who run the secular state systems. Arguments for Islamic religious or cultural authenticity can ring true in an environment where wealth and privilege are often possessed by those with Western contacts and Western cultural leanings. They have also been able to draw on anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism – especially the Lebanese Hezbollah or the Palestinian Hamas, directly engaged in confrontation with Israel. At the same time, they are often reliant on donations from wealthy businessmen, and those Islamist parties that have actually been in government, such as the Freedom and Justice Party in Turkey and the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, have proved to be pro-capitalist and even less resistant to the pressures of neoliberalism than the military regimes.

As well as the secular-statist regimes, Islamists have often targeted the left: Algerian Communists were assassinated by the FIS, for instance. As the Islamist movements grew in importance from the 1970s, many of the Arab states, despite their supposedly secular character, tried to reach out to them, partly as a bulwark against the left – as with Sadat’s support of Islamist organisations in Egypt (which did not, however, prevent one such group from assassinating him in 1981). The political situation in many of the Arab republics became polarised between secular statists and Islamists, while the left was marginalised, or reduced to a radical wing of the statist forces, incapable of asserting itself independently. Even within the Palestinian movement, where the left (e.g. George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) had been a significant and independent force, it was marginalised after the Oslo accords in the 1990s and the emergence of the Fatah-Hamas conflict from the mid-2000s.

The Situation Since 2011

If the labour movements of Western Europe emerged into the neoliberal era with a record of compromise and complacency under the ‘social-democratic’ Keynesian governments of the 1950s and 60s, those of the Arab world were often still more compromised by their association with repressive statist regimes. The left in Western Europe could become assertive at times, but at elections and other moments of decision it tended to follow its old pattern of supporting the social-democratic parties, even where (as with Blair’s New Labour) these had moved so far from genuine social democracy as to be almost unrecognisable. Similarly, when push came to shove, the Arab left tended to support the secular statists, despite their shift away from their earlier socialistic policies. In Algeria, for example, during the civil war between the Islamist FIS and the military, much of the left and the principal trade union (UGTA) took the military’s side.

This was the situation on the eve of the uprisings which spread through the Arab world in 2011, taking most established political forces by surprise. For a short time, the revolts looked like they would change the state of the Arab left considerably. In the euphoria of street demonstrations, the established leftist organisations – along with most established political groups – tended to be seen as deeply discredited by their relationship with the regime. One obvious new feature of the risings was the emergence of a new generation of activists who had little sympathy with the delicate balance between compromise and opposition in which most heterodox political forces had previously engaged. But the weakness of these younger ‘street’ radicals has been their lack of – indeed, aversion to – sustained forms of organisation. The transition from street protests, occupations and confrontations with the police to other forms of political organisation has proven difficult, with the result that the older-established political forces have tended to reassert themselves as the ‘revolutionary’ situations receded.

One factor contributing to this has certainly been the perceived divide between ‘revolutionary’ activity (heroic, unifying, young) and ‘politics’ (sordid, factional, old). But there was also a crucial confusion over the purpose and meaning of the risings – beyond removing the old dictators, what was their political direction? Some of the most important factors which led so many people into rebellion were those arising from the opening of the economies to capitalism; others were associated with state repression, which it might plausibly be argued came as a corollary of these neoliberal policies.

But this animus against repressive states was also open to a different interpretation. There has been a tendency to see the Arab risings as part of the same process as the post-1989 changes in the old Eastern Bloc: a triumph of democracy and the free market over old-fashioned ‘socialist’ states. Similarly, the ‘revolutions’ have often been perceived as being against the military, bureaucratic, statist regimes per se, including their socialistic elements; accordingly, it has been a tendency to see their desired future as a free-market bourgeois democracy. It seems likely that ambivalence towards capitalism among the new generation of activists has contributed to their comparative marginalisation since 2011. This uncertainty about capitalism is not, of course, limited to the Arab world, but it is a problem of young activist generations elsewhere (as I argued in OLR 10). There are some examples, nonetheless, which show that some of the most positive aspects of the new political mood have been carried over into everyday politics: as with the proposed formation of a new political party in Turkey by activists from the Gezi Park demonstrations, led by members of the left-inclined Kurdish movement. In general, the most lasting legacies of the ‘Arab Spring’ and Gezi are likely going to emphasise political democracy, too often neglected by the old left, and a widespread attitudinal change: a new willingness to stand up to those in power and intervene in politics.

The record since 2011 has therefore been mixed: the loosening of repressive state control has allowed for new departures, but after the initial ‘revolutionary’ moments, older political forces and patterns have reasserted themselves. In Egypt, for instance, on the eve of the 2011 risings, the majority of labour unions were subservient to the state and the official Egyptian Trade Union Federation. This was complemented by the ‘leftist’ Tagammu grouping at the parliamentary level, which by this stage provided a more or less loyal opposition to the Mubarak regime. The Communist Party and other leftist groups operated underground until 2011. An important focus of struggle since the risings has thus been the establishment of labour unions independent of the state, and considerable progress has been made. In electoral politics, attempts were made to establish a left-liberal ‘third force’ alongside the military and the Islamists. But the independent unions, along with many Egyptian liberals and leftists, supported the Tamarod campaign which led to the military takeover by General Sisi. The tendency of the left and the labour movement to side, in a crisis, with the secular statists, and indeed the military, is evident here, as in Algeria in the 1990s. Those parts of the left which attempt to maintain a principled opposition to both the Muslim Brothers and the military administration of Sisi remain isolated and unable to carry these other leftist and working-class forces with them. A comparable situation exists in Turkey, where the recent Gezi Park protest movement has been in danger of being absorbed into the existing secular-statist (Kemalist) opposition to the Islamist government of the Freedom and Justice Party.

That said, the degree of assimilation of leftist and labour movements into the state apparatus prior to 2011 has been of great importance for subsequent events. In Tunisia, the labour movement, united through the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), succeeded in resisting assimilation to a much greater extent, and provided a focus for opposition prior to the 2011 risings. It was instrumental in organising those risings and is still a strong and independent political force, rather than a wing of the secular statists: recently it was able to act as a broker between the Islamist Ennahda government and the secular opposition.

With Tunisia being the exception, the major difficulty for leftists and liberals in the Arab world is the strength of the dichotomy between secular-statist and Islamist forces. In some countries, other dichotomies are of similar importance – sectarian or communitarian ones in Iraq, Lebanon, and increasingly in Syria – but the Islamist/secular-statist divide is the most prevalent. The danger is that any new or independent political initiative will be drawn back into this dichotomy, forced to choose between two very imperfect options. Those leftists who struggle to maintain a third position outside this polarisation tend to be isolated and come under attack for compromising with the Islamists. Despite this, some groups, like the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists, have stressed the importance of working with and propagandizing among Islamists where possible, rather than being forced onto the state-secularist side of the dichotomy. Similar arguments have been made among the Turkish left in relation to a proposed new leftist party.

A further development out of this trend is the search for ways of blending an Islamic appeal and socialism. There are some precedents for this, such as in the works of the Iranian Ali Shariati, a prominent figure early in the Iranian Revolution, who blended Islamism and Marxism. The Egyptian socialist Tamer Wagih has pointed to a ‘left-Islamist party’ as a potential way out of the present deadlock, though it is not clear that he regards it as a very realistic prospect. We can also note the presence of a small group of ‘Muslim anti-capitalists’ at the Gezi protests in Istanbul. Once again, these tendencies can be seen as part of a wider – though still minority – left-wing response to the rise of identity politics. In Britain, for instance, this comprises those leftists – like Maurice Glasman and ‘Blue Labour’– who have turned to communitarian ideas; the left-Islamic alliance of ‘Respect’; and some of the leftists who participate in the Welsh and Scottish nationalist movements. These initiatives may indeed be condemned, as their critics claim, to degenerate into a capitulation to chauvinism. But in my view it is far from certain that this need be the fate of all attempts along these lines: others may be more hopeful (see, for instance, Alex Niven’s Folk Culture). There remains a possibility that a new form of political and cultural discourse can succeed in claiming, or reclaiming, notions like tradition, local cultural authenticity and communal loyalty for the left. If such a movement can come together with the contribution of the younger activist generation and those parts of the older left that can break with bad old patterns, a new departure in Arab politics – and elsewhere – may be possible.

Peter Hill is studying for a D.Phil. in Arabic literature at St John’s College, Oxford, and is a member of the Oxford Left Review’s editorial board.

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