To talk of the secular democratic leftist project in the Arab world is to talk of crisis – a crisis that is manifest in two ways. First, there is the fundamental question of whether such a project even exists in a coherent and comprehensive form, rather than as a mere collection of statements and propositions that contradict one another, and the foundations they allegedly rest upon. The evidence for such incoherence is clear in the way that political parties and the individuals who claim to adhere to the project present it with expediency, selectivity and demagoguery. In contradiction with the values they claim to embrace, these ‘leftists’ often refrain from engaging in the major struggles that produce and form their alleged project
Second, there is a lack of penetration of the project’s propositions into the depths of the social formations and classes that have the most to gain from achieving its goals. There is no social subject that adopts the values of the project. Most who claim adherence to it are from the middle classes and are attracted to its partial ‘openness’ and social liberty, which do not, for them, result from an existential and epistemological crisis (class alienation), or from a consciousness of real economic and social marginalization and repression (class consciousness). For this reason, leftist discourse takes on no more than a social-liberal form, whilst the oppressed classes become attracted to social and religious conservatism, and become its main audience.
“The secular, democratic and leftist project encompasses a wide range of political currents and proposals. This article will restrict itself to discussing the ‘leftist’ current, which includes a diverse spectrum of communists, nationalists and progressives. The Arab uprisings have unveiled the grand structural crises that plague the Arab Left and revealed its inconsistencies, ruptures and fear of the movement of history; along with its dependency on Arab regimes and the military interventions of the very international powers it claims to oppose.”
The secular, democratic and leftist project encompasses a wide range of political currents and proposals. This article will restrict itself to discussing the ‘leftist’ current, which includes a diverse spectrum of communists, nationalists and progressives. The Arab uprisings have unveiled the grand structural crises that plague the Arab Left and revealed its inconsistencies, ruptures and fear of the movement of history; along with its dependency on Arab regimes and the military interventions of the very international powers it claims to oppose. The reality of these popular uprisings and the fact that no political parties, leftist or otherwise, have played any significant role in instigating them, or shaping their later paths, provide us with a way to understand these crises.
Scarcity of theory
The Arab Left emerged in the context of anti-colonial struggles. Its discourse was formed in the era of Third World national liberation movements in the wake of World War II and the ascendance of the Soviet Union as a second world power on a par with the United States. Its discourse has hardly evolved since that era, for many reasons. First, there is the incompletion to this day of national liberation projects, arising from the objective impossibility of achieving their goals within the borders set up by colonialists for the purpose of holding the territories they mark at bay: dependent, socially distorted and devoid of emancipatory potential. Second, there is the lack of significant intellectuals – with the exception of Mahdi Amel, Samir Amin and a few others – who are capable of delving into the social and economic structures and formations in order to demarcate those segments of society that have the most interest in progressive change. Third, there is the authoritarian and Stalinist structures of most Arab leftist parties, which disable critical thinking and theoretical argumentation. Party education, at best, has been limited to echoing the opinions of the political bureau and chairman of the party, while indoctrinating party members to view their decisions in the same way that the adherents of religious currents view the scriptural interpretations of their leaders.
Political discourse needs an intellectual ground; otherwise, in the long run, political practice becomes chaotic and unproductive. We can see this clearly in the course of the Arab uprisings. In the absence of intellectual grounds upon which peoples’ movements can unfold, and in the absence of organizations capable of actualizing such grounds, popular uprisings soon reach a crisis. They become unable to ‘bring down the system’ because no new or alternative system exists. A certain disdain for ‘theorization’ has seeped into the minds of the new generation of activists, in the wake of an era in which political organizations were machines producing political theories designed to justify their incompetence in changing reality. Many of the young activists are thus solely focused on ‘working on the ground’, without ‘wasting time on theorizing’, forgetting that theory provides any political movement with its rationale and prevents its subversion by opponents.
Division and fragmentation
Arab left organizations have probably suffered the most divisions and ruptures of any political organizations in recent times. In 1964, the Syrian Communist party became two parties, one in Lebanon and the other in Syria. The Jordanian Communist Party also divided along similarly national lines: one Jordanian, the other Palestinian. The Arab Nationalist Movement (Harakat al-Qaomiyyeen al-Arab) split into at least three Palestinian fronts. The Ba’ath nationalist party split into two conflicting parties in Syria and Iraq. And as if that is not enough, the Syrian Ba’ath became aligned with Iran, the Arabs’ ‘national enemy’ against Iraq, the Arab ‘national brother’ during the first Gulf War. Then it fought militarily against Iraq, again under the command of the ‘American imperialist enemy’ in the second Gulf War.
Left political practice has often been plagued with qutri (an Arabic political term meaning ‘territorial’ or based on the boundaries of the post-colonial states) ‘specificities’ that have contributed to legitimizing colonial divisions as ‘natural’ divisions. Left political parties that were founded on the idea of the struggle against colonialism came to recognize colonialism’s most direct outcome, namely the qutri (territorial) state. Moreover, they came to accept positions contrary to their fundamental principles under the guise of ‘political specificity’. For example, most Arab communist parties did not object to the Iraqi Communist Party’s participation in the governing council set up by the US occupation in Iraq in 2003. The party remains a partner in the ‘political process’ that was set up with the sponsorship of the occupation, and continues to take a sectarian shape. 1 Such brazen complicity with the occupation was considered by other communists as a necessary response imposed by the ‘specific circumstances’ of the Iraqi political scene.
Another blatant example of such hypocrisy is the Left’s position on Syria. Many leftists and nationalists have not hesitated, in the name of Momana’ah (an Arabic political term that designates certain regimes and organizations blacklisted by the US government as rejecting US hegemony in the region), from supporting the Assad regime, a regime whose vices of corruption, political repression, economic liberalization and recognition of Israel’s legitimacy are all too similar to those of the other (subservient) Arab regimes.
The claim to qutri specificity thus opens the door to disavowing unified action and turns every local reaction into a locally specific strategy. It thus hinders the construction of collective action that transcends subjective interest. Unified action becomes merely an act of solidarity. There is a huge difference between considering oneself, whether as an individual or as an organization, to be part of an action, on the one hand, and considering oneself to be merely in solidarity with an action, on the other; between being a participant in an action and being supportive of it.
Mistaken alignment with Arab nationalism
Numerous studies have investigated the impact of the European model of the nation-state, as an embodiment of capitalist interests within a designated geographical space, on the emergence of the Arab nationalist movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Arab nationalism did not arise in response to a national bourgeois class trying to solidify its control over a certain geographical area which constituted its national market. Notwithstanding Arab discontent with the Ottoman Empire and the desire for independence from it, and notwithstanding determinants of Arab common language and history, and ‘national sentiment’, Arab nationalism did not emerge out of any historical and material necessity. Further, it has never produced a discourse that was uncontaminated by romanticism, egotism and future ambitions about establishing ‘a unified and powerful Arab super-state’ that would put the Arabs back in their deserved place on the political-economic map of the world – presumably, as the Arab Umayyad empire once did.
It is dreams of power and empire, then, not of justice and equality among human beings, and not of removing coercion and persecution from the world, that have animated and motivated these nationalists. To this day, Arab nationalists cannot answer the basic questions of who is an Arab, and how he or she is to be distinguished from other human beings; or what the position should be regarding non-Arab populations that inhabit the region and form an equally authentic part of it. Any consistent answers to these questions would transport us to the human sphere, which would invalidate Arab nationalism, while any answers that adopt racialist or culturalist conceptions of Arab nationalism – both of which are exclusivist and lead to domination and sometimes even fascism – would morally discredit it.
The truth is that nationalist discourse is often underlain by racist disdain for non-Arabs. Nationalism is an appeal to asserting the nation’s specific identity and character, which makes it distinct from others. It is an idea and a movement of struggle towards establishing a state for Arabs. 2 It is easy to detect racist contempt whenever non-Arabs are the object of nationalist discourse. Iranians are demonized as Persians or Safavids, while Turks are Turanians or Seljuks. Kurds are portrayed as being entirely agents of Israel. Many studies have been dedicated to proving the Arab origins of the Amazigh or Berber people, as if that were a prerequisite for them to qualify as a respectable and honourable people, in attempts to convince them to give up their culture in favour of Arab nationalist ideals. Nationalist discourse antagonizes Jews and Judaism, rather than Zionism and Zionists. It perceives the struggle in Palestine as being against Judaism as a religion, rather than against Zionism as a settler-colonial movement. 3
While leftists around the world stage protests and activities in support of Arab causes (in Iraq, Palestine and the Arab Spring uprisings), it is rare to see Arab demonstrations in solidarity with non-Arab causes in other parts of the world. It is also rare for the Arab Left to adopt and defend the issues of migrant labour. Indeed, it often regards non-Arab migrant labour as a demographic, cultural and security threat to the region. In that, the Arab Left seems to resemble the European Far Right in its attitude towards immigrants. Nationalist discourse is isolationist in its essence. Although Esmat Saif-el-Dawlah starts his definition of Arab nationalism by denying that it means ‘isolation from the causes that touch the whole of humanity, or any group within it’, he reasserts this isolationism later on by limiting partnership in other causes to ‘the extent they affect national existence and its movement’. Human considerations are always circumscribed by the measure of national interest, and not vice versa. Saif-el-Dawlah also asserts:
national existence is just a specific existence.Therefore it is an addition to, and not a subtraction from, the existence of other human groups. Thus, nationalism becomes a relationship of acceptance and respect for the specific existence of each human society.
On this definition, ‘humanity’ seems no more than a collection of ‘specific existence’ enclosures. This is an isolationist conception not dissimilar to concepts of sect or tribe. In fact, we could substitute the word ‘nationalism’ in the above quotation with ‘sectarianism’ or ‘tribalism’, without causing the definition to break down. Either can represent a specific mode of human existence formed around religion and close kinship, or, in modern cases, race and ethnic culture, or even some other contingent collectivization.
Furthermore, the nationalist argument for ‘the nation’ – which has not yet been fully formed within the nation-state – does not entail a class dimension, or any distinction between the oppressor and the oppressed. Indeed it covers up such dimensions of internal rupture and disparity. Nationalism also faces several inconsistencies and ideological ruptures, since it first borrowed a socialist economics and secularism, but then, in its more recent versions, turned to liberalism and the free market combined with faith campaigns, or Islamist-nationalist conferences in other versions. For all these reasons, nationalist discourse has generated an ethnic chauvinism against Persians, Kurds, Berbers and Turks, a qutri (territorial) chauvinism against other Arabs, and sectarian and religious chauvinisms, facilitating the employment of these divisions by the local regimes or world powers. In Jordan, for instance, some leftist nationalists have come to the defence of the qutri state by abetting and deepening the fabricated division between East Bank Jordanians and Jordanians of Palestinian descent. 5 On the larger Arab scale, many leftist nationalists support Hizbullah’s sectarian intervention in Syria and go into self-denial when it comes to the Shiite ideology that the party adopts, and its adherence to the wilayat al-faqih (Governance of the Shiite Islamic Jurist) regime in Iran.
Thus, the Left has failed, under the influence of nationalist proposals, to establish a truly emancipatory project that aims at justice for all the region’s peoples, including the so-called ‘ethnic minorities’, like the Kurds and the Berbers. These minorities are an authentic component of the region’s populations and their causes should be a fundamental part of any project for liberation. They should not be treated as foreigners (confined within the concept of their own specific circle of existence), nor have to adopt an Arab identity in order to gain legitimacy (by being assimilated into the Arabs’ specific circle of existence).
Rights to social liberties
The position of the Left should be the fierce defence of social liberties and freedom of belief and expression. However, for many reasons (including the Left’s alliance with Islamists prior to the Syrian uprising), the Arab Left seems to be shy about its social propositions, when or if it actually believes in them.
(Here, I would exempt the Left in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.) It seems shy about defending freedom of expression and belief, particularly when it comes to atheism or criticism of the Abrahamic religions. Freedom seems here to take on only a narrowly political meaning. The mainstream Left avoids talking about the reproduction of power relations within the family, and it offers no explicit and detailed historical critique of religion. There is no left talk of the role of religious belief systems in banishing critical thinking, or maintaining the patriarchal structures of society.
Above all, the Arab Left is plagued with homophobic prejudice. It does not recognize homosexuals’ rights to their sexual preferences. It sometimes even regards homosexuality as the outcome of an imperialist/Jewish conspiracy, 6 despite the support of many queer organizations for Arab causes in Palestine and Iraq (before and after the occupation), as well as their active participation in and advocacy for these causes.
Alignment with the Arab regimes and their qutri states
Realizing the impossibility of any emancipatory project that operates within the boundaries of the qutri territorial state, I have attempted with many Arab comrades to build a new and open form of anti-imperialist coalition, one that, we hoped, would transcend the borders of nation-states. The title we gathered under was ‘Towards an Arab Peoples’ Alliance for Resistance’. 7 We wrote a basic document formulating the political basis for this project, which was signed by dozens of leftist and nationalist individuals and groups, across the Arab world. However, our work on the project lasted only from 2005 to 2008. After four years, all that remained was the electronic mailing list bearing its name.
The second paragraph of the founding document stated:
the ruling classes and the prevailing regimes in the Arab states are dependent on imperialism and subservient to its interests. Therefore, they can never be on the side advocating for people’s interests. The ‘reform’ promulgated by these regimes is, in fact, nothing but a lie. Struggle against them is an essential part of struggle against imperialism.
This has been the leftist (and Arab nationalist) ‘strategic understanding’ of the reality of the Arab regimes since the mid-twentieth century. However, one would be astonished at the distortion of this 38 strategic understanding by some of the signatories of the document. For some, the Syrian regime has now become a ‘resistant’ entity and not only a Momana’ah one. And the Arab uprisings (except for the Bahraini uprising, which is associated with the axis of Momana’ah for them) have all become – retrospectively, after the start of the Syrian uprising – an American–Israeli–Saudi–Qatari conspiracy. Whole populations, whose revolts these leftists have been eagerly awaiting, suddenly became agents controlled and manipulated by outsiders!
Thus, many ‘left nationalists’ turned into fierce apologists not only for the Syrian regime, but also for the Arab qutri state itself, the one which they used regularly to denounce as a product of the colonial era. For them, the fall of the Syrian regime and of the qutri state in general has come to mean ‘chaos’. As if the Arab political system is no longer itself a chaos repressed by coercion. And, by the same logic, the Arab regimes acquired ‘states’, although the modern Arab state has little in common with the modern state. 8 These regimes have only the will of the ruler, with no law, no governing institutions and no justice – to the extent that in some of the Arab republics the sons of the president inherit their father’s rule.
In Egypt, one of the most vibrant and powerful of the Arab uprisings, where people have succeeded in decapitating three regimes in a short period of time, by protesting in massive numbers against Mubarak, the Military Council and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) governments, many leftists inside and outside the country have subsequently rushed to support the military coup against the MB regime on 3 July 2013, which represents a direct return of the old regime that reigned before the uprising of 25 January 2011. 9 Instead of working to strengthen the nascent protest movement and contribute to building its organizational frameworks and strategic platforms, the Egyptian Left has turned to the most absurd and propagandistic apologetics to justify the military’s brutal crackdowns. Although there are a few leftist groups, such as the Revolutionary Socialists, who oppose the Muslim Brotherhood and the military alike, their position remains an exceptional one and can be regarded as minoritarian on the spectrum of the Egyptian Left.
It is precisely because the Arab leftist project lacks a clear intellectual foundation that anyone who wishes to call him- or herself a leftist can do so, even as his or her proposals contradict the fundamental principles of the Left. In this context, we can understand why some leftists are demanding the isolation of Syrian refugees in Jordan. Some of them even demanded the banning of refugees from political activity, and called on the Jordanian regime to intervene in implementing this by force. 10 We have also seen some leftists mythologizing (qutri) national identities and national belonging, by effacing the histories of colonization that produced such identities and by regarding any mode of belonging other than to one’s ‘homeland’ as traitorous.
In Egypt, the fervent nationalism accompanying the 3 July military coup has unleashed waves of xenophobic hatred and even fascistic attitudes. Many leftist and nationalist figures have participated in escalating such intolerance by incitements against non-Egyptians in Egypt, particularly Palestinians and Syrians. 11 They have also taken part in producing an isolationist and chauvinistic discourse that denies the right to speak about Egypt to non-Egyptians, and denies the status of being Egyptian to anyone who opposes military rule. Such nationalism is certainly double-edged, as it victimizes the Egyptian and the non-Egyptian alike, by denying the former the right to differ at the same time that it relegates the latter to an inferior order. One amusing example of this was a television host’s demand that a well-known Egyptian football player, Abu-Trikah, be expelled from the national team on the grounds that his position against the military amounted to renouncing his Egyptianness. ‘Let him play for Hamas or Turkey’, the show’s host said, implying: let him play with those inferior, external others who support the Muslim Brotherhood. 12
In Jordan, the situation is not much better, as an isolationist Jordanian nationalism is securing a foothold in opposition circles and becoming increasingly identified with the ‘progressive Left’. Many of these Jordanian nationalist politicians and intellectuals maintain close ties to the government’s intelligence services and have even admitted working with them. 13 One, Mowaffaq Mahadin, has written in the most exalted terms about military elites in the Arab world, representing them as the only ‘civilized’ institution capable of holding together a turbulent and potentially explosive mass of divided and ignorant peoples. 14 In another article, he emphasizes the centrality of state security to order and places it ‘above any other regard’. Such sloganeering has always been part of the propaganda of the Arab regimes justifying the persecution and oppression of dissenters. 15
No significant role
Leftist groups have not played any significant role in the Arab uprisings. Instead, they have participated in ‘legitimate’ political work, supporting the deceptive claim that change is possible ‘from within’. Their complacent participation has contributed to the aura of democratic legitimacy which surrounds and covers up the oppressive and divisive practices of authoritarian regimes.
The Arab uprisings arose spontaneously and escalated exponentially. They were initiated by a segment of society that had been almost wholly politically neglected: middle-class youth who were often regarded as hopeless. As a result, the Arab ‘Left’ suddenly faced its impotence and realized its intellectual, political and strategic bankruptcy. It crashed violently into the realization of its own organizational incompetence and lack of any popular extension. It found that it was completely unable to participate in the making of the new reality. What to do then? It resorted to accusing the Arab uprisings of ‘subservience’ and made them into an element of a universal conspiracy. It ended up struggling for the preservation of the official Arab system and its qutri state. The Arab armies, which had previously been regarded as protectors of Israel’s borders and maintainers of the Arab regimes, became, with a breathtaking stroke of political transmutation, the single most important guarantor of sovereignty and independence. The Sykes–Picot states and their subservient governments had now to be defended against ‘chaos and disorder’. 16 Denial of history reached a remarkable level, with the portrayal of the Syrian regime in almost utopian terms. All of its massacres and crimes, such as Tal-Za’atar, its military participation with the USA against Iraq in Hafr El Batin, its alignment with Israel’s allies in the Lebanese civil war, its joining in the Madrid conference for ‘peace’ with Israel, were simply forgotten. Instead, the regime is depicted as working day and night to liberate the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Opposed to this strand of the Arab Left is another that has become allied with the United States and the imperialist powers. This started in the context of the US advocacy for ‘democratic transition’ in the Arab world before the uprisings. The Iraqi Communist Party, which participated in the governing council established by the US occupation, set the precedent for this sort of complacent alliance with US imperialism. Many have followed in its footsteps, fully exposing their unprincipled hypocrisy by working with the very Arabian Gulf monarchies that they had always diagnosed as reactionary and subservient, or by working with religious and Salafist groups opposed to the Left, both ideologically and politically. These alliances with religious groups find their roots in previous alliances between some on the Left and more ‘moderate’ religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Is there a Left in the Arab world?
To be on the Left is to focus one’s awareness on class division, and to predicate one’s movement on a diagnostics of the oppressor–oppressed and exploiter–exploited oppositions, siding with the latter against the former. To be a leftist is thus to work diligently, first, on specifying and elaborating the mechanisms of oppression and control, and then on dismantling them to enable the exploited majority to liberate itself from the hegemony of the minority that monopolizes politics and the economy. Being a leftist also involves siding with struggles for sexual and gender liberation, against patriarchal structures. It means supporting and working for the liberation of both women and men from gender stereotyping and the gendered distribution of rights, such that sexual practice becomes a matter of personal choice. The Left understands that those who do not conform to the socially accepted norms of gender and sexuality are often subject to forms of social coercion and oppression, which oblige the Left to come to their defence.
A leftist position means an unwavering opposition to colonialism and settler-colonialism, an opposition that does not recognize the legitimacy of colonizers and their fabricated entities, and that does not compromise with the mechanisms of colonial domination and their consequences.
The Left is internationalist. It recognizes that its struggle is directed against capital as a globalizing force, and requires an alternative that is also global, transcending national and ethnic boundaries. Further, a true Left never belittles the migrants and the jobless, or those who flee the torments of their home countries searching for work and better lives. Instead, it must stand with and embrace them as the material that constitutes its core project.
In conclusion, one can state that, with very few exceptions, the mainstream Arab ‘Left’ is not a Left at all. It is an intellectual void incapable of producing a political discourse consistent with its premisses or with the frame of reference that it claims to belong to. What exists in reality are ‘leftist’ organizations and ‘leftist’ individuals who are similar in their political composition to the Arab regimes. They avoid thinking, philosophy and reading. They distance themselves from the social platforms that constitute their project. They collaborate with those they oppose – the Arab regimes and the qutri/territorial state on one side, and the imperial and reactionary forces on the other – and legitimize them. Failure is the inevitable outcome for a project whose foundations rest on such incoherence. This is no Left. It is rather a compilation of psychological complexes and dissonances. The Left has not yet been born in the Arab world, and therein hope remains.
Translated from Arabic by Samir Taha