By Ramzy Baroud
A student group recently asked me to address socialism in the Arab world. This with the assumption that there is indeed such a movement capable of overhauling inherently incompetent and utterly corrupt regimes across the region. But today such a group, or configuration of socialist groups, exists only 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. I was not referring to Hamas’s adherence to Marxist theory but rather 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 that were all united by a radical political agenda.
Moreover, it was a movement largely made of Palestine’s fellahin (peasants) and workers who were mostly centred in refugee camps. If one is to compare them 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,” which is a term coined by Arab nationalists in the early 1950s. A merger between nationalist and socialist movements began to take hold, ultimately leading to the formation of the Baath parties of Syria and Iraq. The idea was originally framed by Salah al-Din al-Bitar and Michel Aflaq, founders of the Baath 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 Arab peoples, but it was also politically unpromising if not altogether chauvinistic. Many western socialists romanticised 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 it 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 1980s, until its complete collapse in the early 90s. Arab socialists, whether they were governments who adopted that slogan, or organisations 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 the socialist bloc’s crumbling geopolitical regional models, but also due to the fact that Middle Eastern countries – under the influence or because of pressure from western hegemons – were experiencing a rethink. That was the time of the rise of the Islamic alternative. It 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 new slogan: “Islam is the Solution” became quite dominant and pierced through the collective psyche of various Arab Muslim intellectual groups throughout the Middle East and beyond, 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.
Arab socialism would have survived, had it indeed been predicated on strong social platforms, propelled by wide-popular support and grassroots movements. That, however, was not the case.
Generally speaking, there was a relatively strong intellectual component of the left in the Arab world. 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 or with the peasants and the average man and woman on the street. Without mobilising the workers, peasants, and oppressed masses, the Arab left had little to offer except for 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, a situation that can be explained around the uniqueness of the Palestinian situation, as opposed to reflecting a larger trend throughout the entire region.
Another important thing to 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 groups as they shared prison cells, were tortured and humiliated together.
The turning point, however, could arguably be the early 1990s 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 higher education degrees in various fields, from Islamic Sharia to engineering.
Look at Hamas in Gaza. Many of their leaders and members are educated in fields such as engineering and medicine. And that has become very common among all Islamic groups’ supporters in Palestine, Egypt, 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 theorising about everything – or join NGOs and official or semi-official institutions in order to remain financially afloat or 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 greatly throughout the years. Being more institutionalised, they became further removed from the masses in whose name they continued to speak. In Egypt, one can hardly think of a single powerful leftist organisation 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 few signs that the decline will be soon reversed, or that a homegrown interpretation of socialism – think of the considerably successful Bolivarian movement of Latin America – will mould 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.