|Nasser Addressing the Crowd|
By Kamran Nayeri, March 10, 2011
The Middle East and North Africa has never been like this before; waves of mass protest against autocracies and monarchies have been shaking the region.
Street mobilizations, spearheaded by the youth, has brought down president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia in January and then, more importantly, president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt on February 11. Libya is in state of civil where the 41 year rule of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi is threatened. The revolt has now spread to most Arab countries.
This essay will review the post World War II Arab history to draw attention to the class forces at work and to shed some light on how the new generation of Arab revolutionaries may find a way forward and in the process advance not only their own future but also those of humanity.
It is a great lesson in history that yesterday’s nationalist leaders have become today's tyrants. That the autocratic regimes that arose after the defeat of the bourgeois Pan Arabism of the post World War II period are collapsing in the face of a new generation that reaches out to the world at large while re-imagining its own role in history.
The Pan Arabism of the Post World War II
It can be argued that the weave of bourgeois Pan Arabism began with the Free Officers Movement coup in Egypt that brought down King Farouk in 1952 and ended in the overthrow of King Idris in Libya on September 1, 1969. The leadership came from the ranks of the Arab middle classes, especially junior military officers, who became its leaders: from Jamal Abdel Nasser, who came to dominate the Free Officers Movement by 1956, to Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya in 1969. A major exception was the Algerian revolutionary war of independence led by the National Liberation Front against the French imperialism and the Palestinian resistance to Zionism that continues to this day.
The Arabs were subjugated by the Ottoman Empire, and after its disintegration, by the European imperialism; hence the rise of bourgeois Pan Arabism. Two factors help explain the leadership role of junior officers and middle class intellectuals in the Arab upsurge of that period. The Arab bourgeoisie developed too little too late in the process of formation of the capitalist world market. Hence it has been dependent on the international capital and intertwined with landed property. It has been too afraid of the emerging working class to mobilize the Arab masses for a national democratic revolution to establish a bourgeois republic.
At the same time, the Arab working class and socialist movements proved too young, inexperienced, and dominated from the outset by the reformist Communist parties subservient to Moscow, to provide a revolutionary socialist alternative. The Arab Communist parties either dissolve themselves inside the bourgeois Arab nationalist movement or took a sectarian attitude towards it.
While each country’s experience is special, there is an overall pattern. The rise of the movement with a nationalist leadership often personified by a charismatic leader; identification of the movement with its leadership, therefore justifying repression of all potential rivals, in particular the labor and socialist movements; decline of the mass movement and consolidation of the nationalist regime and finally degeneration of the regime into an autocratic oligarchy.
A brief review of Nasserism (perhaps the most often cited example of Pan Arabism) illustrates this process.
Nasser, who succeeded Muhammad Naguib as the second President of Egypt in 1956, moved to nationalize the Suez Canal and fought a war fought a war with Israel which was supported by the British and French warplanes. While in military terms the imperialists had the upper hand, Nasser came through as a central figure in the anti-imperialist Arab and African struggles. He was instrumental in founding the Non-Aligned Movement. He encouraged Pan Arabism and won mass following in the Arab world. However, on practical matters he fell short of the ideology he preached. For example, the formation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) with the junior officers in power in Syria on February 1, 1958 was motivated by his desire to offset the influence of Saudi Arabia. In Syria, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party was founded in Damascus, in 1947 by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Bitar, both intellectuals. It mixed Arab nationalism with Stalinism. The Baathist movement was able to attain state power in Syria (where it still holds power) and Iraq (where the U.S. invasion overthrow the baathist party headed by Saddam Hussein). Nasser pushed for a purge of socialist sympathizers in the Syrian army. Syrian officers who resented taking orders from their Egyptian counterparts took power and the UAR collapsed in September 1961.
Domestically, in January 1953, the Free Officers Movement had banned all political parties, creating a one-party system, the Liberation Rally party. The Communist Party and Muslim Brotherhood were banned and their members persecuted.
In October 1961, Nasser began a major nationalization program. It has been argued that Nasser’s motivation was to undermine Baathist influence in Egypt. Nasser initiated The Charter for National Action, creating youth groups, socialist study institutes, laws limiting acquisition of wealth, and a land reform focused in cooperatives. However, these measure were accompanied by more repression; thousands were imprisoned including dozens of military officers. The Communist Party that had been persecuted earlier dissolved itself in the Nasser’s party while some of Nasser’s close aides resigned because of his alleged closeness to the Soviet Union.
In January 1964, Nasser attempted to establish the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as an umbrella organization of various Palestinian factions under his own control. He nominated Ahmad Shukeiri to head the PLO and befriended George Habash's group to isolate the main Fatah faction that was not part of the PLO. Fatah had dedicated itself to the liberation of Palestine by armed struggle carried out by Palestinians themselves. This differed from other Palestinian political and guerrilla organizations that adopted the ideologies of existing Arab nationalist regimes and relying on their unified response to repel Israeli occupation of Palestine. In contrast Arafat's organization did not embrace the ideologies of major Arab national governments of the time. In December 1967, after the Arab defeats in the Six-Day War, Shukeiri resigned as the Chairman of PLO as the Palestinian liberation movement gradually adopted the Fatah’s independent strategy over reliance on Arab regimes.
Nasser died on September 28, 1970 of heart attack, still a popular nationalist Arab leader in Egypt and the Arab world. However, his nationalist and Pan Arabic vision did not and could not succeed. And the repression he leveled against the Egyptian labor and socialist movements did not allow a radical class alternative to take form.
His Vice President, Anwar el-Sadat, was officially elected as President on October 5, 1970. He had been a close confidant of Nasser and a senior member of the Free Officers Movement. Sadat began to shift to a more Egyptian bourgeois nationalist position. After the Egyptian and Syrian military victories against the American-backed in the October 1973, Sadat used his gained prestige to initiate a series of peace agreement with Israel that resulted in the 1978 Camp David Accord with Israel and normalization of the relations with Israel.
On October 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat was assassinated. Hosni Mubarak, a career air force officer who served as its commander in 1972-75, became Egypt's president. Mubarak continued Sadat's initiatives resulting in formation of an oligarchy closely tied to the United States and in working relations with the Israelis. The transformation of the bourgeois nationalist regime to a neocolonial regime was completed.
Other Arab countries that had a nationalist regime experienced a similar trajectory. These include regimes that came to power in coups in July 1958 in Iraq (led by Abdel Salam Aref), in 1963 in north Yemen (led by Abdullah as-Sallel that deposed King Muhammad al-Badr), in 1963 in Syria (led by Luai al-Atassi), and in 1969 in Libya (led by Muammar el-Qaddafi). These were all inspired by the Egyptian Free Officer Movement and Nasser.
Two exceptions where the Fatah leadership led by Arafat and Ahmad Ben Bella’s government in Algeria. The former was a revolutionary nationalist leadership; basing itself on the Palestinian masses, it took control of the PLO in struggle against Nasser and other Arab governments. However, under hostile conditions of exile, pressures from imperialism and Arab regimes, and lack of even a modest rise in a revolutionary workers movement in Israel who would have joined the PLO in its call for a Democratic Secular Palestine,by the 1980s the Arafat leadership also gave up a revolutionary perspective for Palestinian self-determination and hoped for a compromise with the Israeli regime. This gave rise to the sympathizers of Muslim Brotherhood among Palestinians who organized the Hamas.
Ahmeh Ben Bella was a leader of FLN in the revolutionary war of independence from France. He was elected president in 1963. Ben Bella responded positively to the popular demands by Algerian landless peasants for a land reform and initiated a series of popular reforms that benefited the working people of Algeria. However, the rise of the power of working masses frightened sections of FLN, the army and the bureaucracy. In 1965, Ben Bella was deposed by army strongman and close friend Houari Boumédiènne in 1965, and placed under house arrest until 1980, when he was granted exile in Switzerland.
To be continued.