The Arab Political Left and the Islamist Drive for Power
By Barry Rubin
In the “good old days” of Stalinist Communism, the Left would have called the Islamists, “clerical fascists.” These forces, the party line would have surely explained, were attempts by the bourgeoisie to fool the masses, using religion to distract them from their “true interests” of having socialism.
Thus, there would have been no doubt that the Left would have opposed the Islamists, indeed might have been the most ferocious of their enemies. After all they have totally different views on social issues and they are also competing for state power.
True, there would have been some temptation to “use’ these forces. As a German Communist slogan once put it, “After Hitler, Us.” I was going to say that this idea didn’t work out so well for them, though Nazi rule in Germany was half-followed by the German Democratic Republic.
In today’s world, however, the Left has no such clear stance as it would have had in the days when Marxism-Leninism was the hegemonic doctrine and the USSR or China the idols they worshipped. This phenomenon of Western leftist enabling for Islamism has often been noticed in the West but has not been examined so much in the Middle East. One reason, of course, is that the Left is a far less significant force there.
Just as the “Arab Spring” has brought out Islamist and liberal forces, however, it has also revived the Arab Left. A number of former Leftists have as individuals defected to the moderate forces. Precisely because they were relatively Westernized and had distanced themselves from tradition, they more easily passed over to democratic ideas. Several, few in number but often loud in voice, have become Islamists themselves.
As institutions, however, the Left has retained its identity as a distinct force, with two leftist parties doing well in Tunisian elections, ready to form a coalition as junior partners of the Islamist party, and saying nice things about the Islamists (they aren't scary, they're pro-democracy!) to the Western media.
So the Arab Left is not the polar opposite of the Islamists for several reasons:
--Like the Islamists, the Left hates the old regime.
--The Left agrees a lot with the Islamists on international issues. It wants to wipe out Israel, expel Western influence, and views external imperialism (rather than a failure of internal reform and progress) as the cause of their country’s stagnation. It may not use violence itself but is bloodthirsty in rhetoric on international issues.
--Generally, the Left does not feel comfortable with the liberal moderates. There is no sign of a united front against Islamism, paralleling the Stalinists’ United Front Against Fascism between 1933 and 1939, and then again between 1941 and 1945.
--Indeed, there is far more willingness to work with the Islamists than one finds among liberal groups (though there is more even in that camp than a Western observer might expect). Here I refer mainly to Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. In the Syrian opposition, for example, leftists are far more likely to be satellites of the Islamists than are liberal moderates.
--There is an exaggerated confidence that the Left can manipulate the Islamists, though to an external observer this seems suicidal. In part the Left’s misconception is due to ideological and socially snobbish arrogance—Islamism is reactionary, outdated and thus sure to fail, the ideology of fools and peasants, the doctrine of those who foolishly cling to their guns and religion. But those guns can kill and that religion is a powerful motivator of the masses.
In Tunisia, there are two significant Leftist parties: Congress for the Republic (CPR) won 30 seats and the Ettakatol won 21 seats in the 217-member parliament. That total of 51 constitutes almost 25 percent, far more than the 36 gained by the two main liberal parties.
Why did Tunisians vote for the Left? I would guess—though I don’t know—that they did so more out of hope that these parties would stand up for the country’s relatively liberal and secular society than because of agreement with their ideologies or because they wanted socialism.
If that’s true, however, those voters miscalculated. The two Leftist parties are ready to enter into an Islamist-led coalition. Of course, they could argue they must constrain the Islamists. What’s clear, however, is that their leaders are also willing to be apologists, assuring everyone that the Islamists are really moderate. It is left to the liberals to ring the warning bells.
So will the Left get eaten up by the Islamists or play a role of junior partner, get some of the things they want, and slow down the Islamization of society? Only time will tell.
Turning to Egypt, political forces are better defined. The Left is more extreme than in Tunisia and it is tremendously divided by factionalism. There are four main Leftist parties, not even mentioning the myriad Communist parties of various sorts.
The Labor, al-Ghad, Tagammu, and al-Karama parties are hard to distinguish by any clear difference in worldview or stances. Public opinion polls put them collectively at around 10 to 15 percent of the vote. But given their lack of cooperation, the number of seats they get in parliament will be far less. The al-Ghad party is a close ally of the Brotherhood.
None of these groups are classically Marxist, nor are they counterparts to a contemporary Western Left full of New Age, environmentalist, “outsider” community, multicultural-minded, and anarchist tendencies. These are hardline Marxist combined with radical nationalist groups.
The Egyptian Left has no chance at power or even large influence. In contrast to the Tunisian counterparts, the Egyptian groups are far less organized or capable of serving in a government.
The Egyptian Left also produces three negative results:
--By taking votes and activists away from the moderate forces it further weakens them.
--Its passionate rhetoric of hate and extremism adds to the authoritarian and aggressive tone of Egyptian politics, enhancing the frenzy against Israel and anti-Americanism; undercutting the voices of pragmatism.
--As potential allies of the Islamists, they could (as in Tunisia) provide what might be thought of as their foes with the majorities needed to rule the country.
True, some of these parties have entered broad coalitions with liberal party members but they have tended to leave them rather quickly, too.
What’s especially important is that the Left is part of the opposition to the status quo but not part of the solution, whether that means defeating the Islamists, being reliable partners for the liberal moderates, or moving their countries toward a more pragmatic, stable system.
The situation in Syria is more fluid still and it is harder to define Leftist groups and positions. It can be said, however, that the Left cooperates with other opposition groups but seems to have a stronger tendency than liberal moderates to become satellites of the Islamists.
In short, the Left is not likely to play a leading or productive role in the region but that doesn’t mean it plays no role at all. Unfortunately, while it adds to the forces favoring revolution it doesn’t reinforce those seeking moderation, stability, and pragmatic policies able to enhance regional stability and push forward the progress of their countries.