In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Civil Society Debate and New Trends on the Arab Left
  • Michaelle L. Browers (bio)

“Another freedom fighter bides the time from his houseboat”

— Ahmad Fu’ad Nijm (Egypt, b. 1929) from a song by Shaykh Imam (Egypt, 1918–1995), entitled “Farewell to Che Guevara”1

Arab Socialism: Crisis and Marginalization

The fall of the Soviet Union was a decisive event for socialist forces throughout the world and certainly Arab socialism is no exception.2 Much of the political discourse of Arab nationalism, socialism, and Marxism, with its focus on social and economic justice, “popular” democracy, the revolutionary party and Frontal politics, has given way to a more “liberal” discourse of pluralism, human rights and civil society. Individuals and movements identified as socialist have been in power and “lost” over the course of the last three decades: the socialists have lost much of whatever claim it might have once had to represent the masses and the people Arab socialists claim to represent have changed as well. As many socialists have come to realize, they cannot reconstruct their identity irrespective of the present reality, in which two factors in particular demand their attention.

The first factor is the strength of the Islamist movement. The Islamists form the main opposition group in most contemporary Arab societies, as well as the largest opposition bloc in most parliaments that allow such representation.3 In attempting to deal with this new political reality, Arab socialism is seeing a growing political and intellectual split among their ranks. On the one hand, many socialists in some countries are opting for the state; while, on the other hand, some socialists, seduced by the popular impact of the Islamists, are trying to woo the Islamists.4

Intellectually, this first trend of Arab socialism (that of opting for the state) continues to look to the nahda (Arab Renaissance) heritage with its concern for modernization and state-building. Politically, although in many countries the state continues to become increasing isolated and authoritarian, these socialists view the state as the last bastion of rationality and, thus, join it in the effort to counter, confront and/or eradicate the Islamist threat. At the same time, Faleh A. Jabar, an Iraqi sociologist who has been in exile since 1978, notes that the nationalist wing of Arab socialism, which has been in power in many countries (e.g., Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia), in particular, has

made a U-turn in terms of socio-economic, regional and even international policies. In countries where there was a strong corporate-state economy, often built in the name of a particular form of Arab socialism, there was a fast, downhill move toward economic liberalization (deregulation) and/or privatization (the sellout of the state sector). The tilt from corporatism to commercialization was coupled with a leaning toward, if not an alliance with, the West.5

Many of the more doctrinaire Marxist parties reflect a similar shift, which has brought this traditional opposition closer to the state. This is seen most clearly among the communist parties in Tunisia and Algeria who not only shifted toward liberalism, but also reflected this shift by eliminating any reference to Marxism or socialism in the names of their parties.6 The communist parties in Algeria and Tunisia reveal the same tensions involved in the shift toward liberal discourse as the nationalist/socialist states, demonstrating a reluctance to adopt a fully liberal stand in light of their concern over the threat, whether potential or real, of an Islamist takeover. Thus, both branches of the left (communist and Arab socialist) in these countries have to some extent proved willing to ally themselves politically as well as ideologically with the state.

On the other hand, as the opening speeches of the three “Nationalist-Islamist” Conferences held by the Center for Arab Unity Studies (CAUS) in Beirut during October 1994, October 1997, January 2000, and January 2002 attest, a new trend in Arab nationalism/socialism is based on the view that the Islamists can be they can nationalized (Arabized) and rationalized.7 There are many trends in Islam and these socialists find that if they are willing to shelve the question of secularism they are able to find plenty...