No Arab Bolivars: As Region Implodes, Arab Socialism Fizzles out
30 April 2015
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
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
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
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
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.
- 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).