At a dinner party in Damascus, our Lebanese host referred enthusiastically to Soviet perestroika, saying: “We Arabs could reap many benefits from it.” A case at hand was his new restaurant in Moscow. Thanks to the good old days when the Communist Party of the USSR used to ladle out scholarships to members of “fraternal parties” around the world, this would-be businessman had earned a university degree there. He speaks Russian and has learned to maneuver through Russian society.

No doubt the Lebanese entrepreneurial spirit motivated this enthusiasm for the “Soviet earthquake.” There are other Arabs with feelings of disappointment, no longer able to enjoy certain privileges — like the Arab communist who arrived in Sofia airport to learn that the special hotel for central committee members no longer existed and he now had to pay for his stay in hard currency.

While perestroika is good news for the small Arab businessman and some intellectuals, it is bad for others who have been brought up with habits, interests and ideas imbibed from the “socialist camp.” Last March in Aden, participants at a seminar on “Democracy in the Arab World” heatedly debated the despotic nature of Soviet-style regimes. In the discussion that followed, a young woman journalist in the audience hesitantly addressed the panelists: “Two years ago, a seminar was held in this same hall. Most of you, gentlemen, were there. At that time we were lectured on the advantages of democratic centralism, the difference between the corrupt bourgeois democracy and socialist democracy. You invoked the work of Comrades Zhivkov, Honecker and perhaps even Ceaucescu. I really don’t mean to embarrass anyone here. I just want to know where the truth lies.” Everybody had to applaud the courageous woman; she expressed the genuine feeling of bewilderment among the majority — a silent majority — of Arab leftists.

This bewilderment is not confined to leftists. A mood of despondency is sweeping through the entire Arab world — a paradoxical phenomenon considering that most Arab regimes have little affection for the Marxist left or the Soviet Union. The Islamist movements are avowedly anti-communist, and the pan-Arabists have for long considered the marginalization, if not the eradication, of Marxist influence the sine qua non for their growth as political movements.

Controlled Discomfort

How can we assess this? The Arab press and mass media convey only a one-sided, if not distorted, account. Each party is trying to convince its audience that the recent changes have raised its credentials or, at the very least, left it unaffected. Papers of communist and Marxist organizations are full of communiques and declarations that draw heavily on the new Soviet jargon, emphasizing the revolutionary essence of perestroika and denouncing past deviations from Marxist-Leninist teachings.

Naturally, the tightly controlled mass media in the Arab world have said nothing about the democratic drive in East Europe and the Soviet Union. For them, too, perestroika affirms the superiority of their ideologies. Last December, Baghdad TV hosted several Iraqi ambassadors to the Eastern Bloc countries to discuss the changes taking place there. According to the jubilant ambassadors, perestroika was no surprise to anyone thoroughly imbued with Baathist ideology, which has always affirmed the priority of national over class struggle. Besides, unlike Marxism, Arab socialism is against atheism, and the private sector has the upper hand in the economic strategy of the Baath.

That is not all. In February, a front-page article in al-Thawra, the official Iraqi daily, shows how Gorbachev’s advisers must have presented him with the innovative ideas of talented leaders all over the world. And as it is the Iraqi leader who has undertaken an “economic-administrative revolution” against bureaucracy and state control of the economy since 1987, then…you guessed it: Gorbachev is learning from Saddam. Whether in pro-Saudi or pro-Iraqi media, you will never find a word about dynastic or one-party rule, or the ultra-nationalist and chauvinist zeal of Bulgaria’s Zhivkov or Rumania’s Ceaucescu. As for the torture techniques and instruments that Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq and many others have imported from East Germany, there is not a word there, either.

Underneath this foolery, though, the sudden retreat of the “socialist camp” from the world scene is casting a tragic shadow on Arab politics. This far outweighs any comfort offered by the breakdown of an ideological system which until recently has been viewed by many as a threat (or credible alternative) to the existing regimes. This mixed sense of vulnerability and comfort is nowhere more evident than in Libya and Iraq. Last January, for the first time since coming to power in 1969, Col. Qaddafi held an exclusive meeting with delegations from communist parties all over the Arab world. (Three such meetings have been held since then.) Their aim, according to the colonel, was to search for “a new formula to conduct revolutionary struggles after the collapse of communism.” The Libyan leader reiterated his views that communism is nothing but a splendid utopia, that political parties are by definition anti-democratic because they express the will of their members, not of the jamahir (masses). With that logic, the only true democratic theory is his own — but, alas, it cannot be applied in conditions of underdevelopment: The most fertile soil for its application is, in Qaddafi’s view, a developed country like Sweden. But this invitation to communists was clearly a message that the Libyan leader feels isolated and betrayed by the Soviet Union and the ex-socialist countries; he needs a counterweight, even if it has to be the powerless communist parties.

Just like Qaddafi’s many plans for mergers with other states and his innumerable revolutionary and popular congresses, these recent meetings have achieved nothing. The colonel went to the Arab summit in Baghdad last May to applaud Saddam Hussein’s anti-American rhetoric, swallowing all his democratic pretensions. Not surprisingly, when Qaddafi convened a fourth meeting of “revolutionary” movements, neither Iraqi nor Sudanese opposition groups were invited. The ruling Iraqi Baath went to Tripoli to tell the participants that the search for a new formula was meaningless, for it already existed: rallying behind Saddam Hussein.

Adjusting to a Unipolar World

Behind the triumphant hyperbole of the Arab rulers lies a deep feeling of isolation. They express fears that the Soviet Union has not only proved to be much weaker than they had previously thought, but it is shifting its attention more and more to the advanced capitalist world. In order to keep the Soviets interested in the Arab world, Saddam Hussein argued before his invasion of Kuwait, Arabs should transfer petrodollars to its institutions. Indeed, the Kuwaitis deposited billions of dollars in Soviet banks and had been exploring investment opportunities. Qaddafi, who admitted that he had granted $600 million to Ceaucescu to keep him on track, has not made up his mind yet whether to help the renegade Soviets or not. Egypt’s Husni Mubarak recently paid a state visit to Moscow, the first by an Egyptian leader in 17 years. Senior Soviet officials and specialists on the Middle East, such as Karen Brutents, have been frequent visitors to conservative states like Kuwait and Jordan. There, rather than being met with anti-communist harassment or discussions about the irrelevance of Marxism to Islamic societies, they are invited to diwaniyyas (men’s guest salons) or to public forums to lecture on the prospects of Soviet support to the Arab countries.

So what is it that makes the Soviet Union, once a bete noire in the eyes of Arab rulers, such a precious friend now? The Arab Mashriq, located in a strategic area, has always been caught in the dilemma of superpower rivalries. Early in this century its fate was decided by the rivalry between the Ottomans and the Anglo-French alliance. During World War II, Nazi Germany tried, with modest success, to win some Arab nationalists to its side by arousing their aspirations to gain independence from the Anglo-French colonial powers.

This has shaped Arab politics to the extent that a bipolar (ideally a multipolar) world was seen as the sine qua non for their survival. Western stereotypes like “pro-Soviet” or “Soviet orbit” have hampered a thorough understanding of this phenomenon. Arabs had to adjust almost every decade to the shifting balance of power between the Soviets and the Americans. In the 1950s, the breakthrough of Nasserism lay in perceiving the shift and in tilting the balance from the West toward the Soviet Union. The concepts of “positive neutralism” and “non-alignment” reflected the policy of reaping the best of both worlds by playing each against the other. In the face of defeat or collapse, the Arab regimes could claim that the two superpowers had made a deal behind their backs.

Naturally such an attitude turned Arab rulers into passive objects on the international stage. When the USSR appeared ascendant, they became alarmed and turned somewhat anti-Soviet. In Afghanistan, it was not Islam that the Arabs were trying to preserve. Soviet influence was too close for comfort and it alarmed them. In 1980, Saudi Arabia convened an Islamic conference, giving full support to the mujahideen. A year earlier, Saddam Hussain had launched a bloody campaign against the left. The pretext was articulated in a series of editorials in al-Thawra, organ of the ruling Baath Party, widely thought to be written by Saddam himself:


If a handful of Afghan communists could establish a Marxist regime with the aid of the KGB, what might happen in countries where communism is much more popular? And how can we trust the USSR if it believes that all its allies should turn communist? No single religion, no single philosophy can dominate the whole world. The Soviets must know this and adapt their policies accordingly.

Mounting tensions in the USSR and, above all, the overthrow of the East European regimes last year have convinced most Arabs that these dramatic changes are not a mere replica of the outcome of the twentieth congress of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in 1956, when the Soviets moderated their policy to modernize their economy and society and to strengthen their position in international affairs. A hegemonic US and the West in general can now withhold their support from any regime, even help in toppling it, without fear of retaliation from another superpower or of inciting that regime to change its alliances.

This partly explains the nervousness of most Arab rulers toward the US invasion of Panama last year and the fate of Washington’s ex-protege, Gen. Noriega. The invasion of Panama alarmed the Arab regimes much more than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan because it took place within a context of undisputed US global hegemony. It could not be justified in terms of defending US interests against an external threat. It was simply a message that the US would expect even its allies to subject their domestic policies to its approval.

Arab rulers, feeling more vulnerable than at any time before, have been actively trying to mend relations with each other and with non-Arab neighbors. The most spectacular move came from Saddam Hussein who exploited the Western campaign against his regime to mend fences with Iran, without causing public uproar after eight years of bloody war. He was able to make territorial concessions by presenting them as a patriotic step offsetting imperialist plans to destabilize Iraq.

Glasnost in the Air?

The Arab regimes are in a hurry to reevaluate their alignments and policies, given the sweeping changes that have taken place. The outcome of such a reassessment will ultimately depend upon the interplay of factors beyond their control. The extent to which Arab regimes can influence the inevitable changes in their societies is very limited due to their narrow power base. Hence, while paying lip service to the cause of democracy and pluralism, most Arab regimes are eager to reach a “bureaustroikist” formula, i.e., a gradual relaxation from above of dictatorial rule. But then all democratic revolutions in East Europe were triggered off by such “bureaustroikas,” a fact that Arab regimes and even the Marxist left have considered with alarm. While agreeing reluctantly that reforms were necessary in the socialist countries, they feel that these have gone too far, that “chaos” is not permissible.

To be sure, the popular drive for democracy in the Arab Mashriq is not a product of Soviet perestroika nor of Reaganite rhetoric on human rights. Rather, perestroika has come just in time to question the ideological justification of one-party dictatorships as progressive and anti-imperialist political systems in the face of economic crisis. Paradoxically, the conservative monarchies are taking the initiative in reestablishing parliamentary rule in their countries, while the self-styled popular and revolutionary regimes have such a limited margin of maneuver in this respect that they find this course quite risky, if not impossible.

When King Hussein of Jordan organized general elections in 1990, the first in 24 years, he made no reference to last year’s violent riots nor to the democratic changes sweeping Eastern Europe. The king simply declared that the mounting Israeli threats demanded the unity of all Jordanians. Similarly, the prince of Kuwait pretended that it was not the numerous demonstrations but the end of the Gulf war that was behind his decision to hold elections for a consultative body. No doubt both of them were following the age-old rule that the people must never feel that their actions can force a ruler to obey their will. It is always the latter’s wisdom that leads him to take the major decisions.

One could argue that these fledgling democracies suffer from many limitations. Yet the ease with which they were established must arouse the envy of their neighbors, because the implications of perestroika for the Arab world may be so far-reaching that an entire state might cease to exist as a result, as when the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen merged with its northern neighbor, the Yemen Arab Republic, this year.

The crisis of the Arab left is no less severe than that of the Arab regimes. For decades, opposition movements — leftist, liberal or fundamentalist — have been marginalized not only by ruthless repression but also because the rise of populist movements to power has rendered such opposition ineffective. The national revolutions which swept the Arab Mashriq during the 1950s and 1960s, mostly under pan-Arabist slogans, initiated traditions and practices which all revolved around the leviathan state. The main effect of these changes on the opposition movements was that they, too, were “etatized”. Even the casual and spontaneous outbursts of the poor in “bread riots” against IMF-imposed austerity plans have manifested despair, not organized action.

Political organizations not under the umbrella of the ruling regimes were left with two suicidal alternatives: either to act as lobbies or pressure groups rather than mass parties or to be driven into desperate acts to overthrow the incumbent regimes. The first option, formalized as an “alliance” with the ruling party as in Syria and Iraq in the 1970s, or as recognized opposition parties with limited access to the masses as in contemporary Egypt, led to the virtual isolation of the left from its grassroots. The second option achieved scarcely better results, as evidenced by the guerrilla struggles of fundamentalist and leftist organizations against the ruling dynasties of Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, or the Kurdish and communist resistance in Iraq.

The Arab left (and Arab politics in general) had reached an impasse years before perestroika; the latter simply highlighted the depth of the crisis. The fact that the leviathan state has nationalized civil society and etatized all political practice could have passed unnoticed against the backdrop of a world system stretching from China to East Germany. To be sure, the Arab Marxists have severely criticized existing dictatorships in the Mashriq, and the communists’ fight for pluralism in Sudan and Iraq has cost them untold sacrifices. But the credibility of their own democratic claims was doubtful in the eyes of many, since they posed no model for the future of their countries other than the Soviet one. For decades, anti-imperialism and socioeconomic development were inseparable from a political system that did not permit political freedoms or civil rights. No significant leftist faction could pose the problem of democracy without having its revolutionary credentials questioned by its followers.

The left’s loss of momentum has found expression in a debate on the “crisis of the Arab national liberation movement” initiated by the Lebanese communists. Because the crisis was attributed to the domination of non-Marxist trends, it became almost axiomatic that the “working class,” i.e., the communists, would have to play a (preferably, the) leading role at the expense of the pan-Arabists in pulling the movement back on track.

The dilemma of the Arab Marxists has not been resolved by the appearance of new movements whose raison d’etre was to revitalize the sclerotic communist parties. The Palestinian Popular Front and the Democratic Front, the Lebanese Organization of Communist Action, the Yemeni Socialist Party and many others all developed from non-Marxist origins and adopted Marxism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Two decades after their establishment, these organizations are almost mirror images of the communist parties in terms of structure, hierarchies and policies; they have not presented a viable alternative to mainstream parties. Attempts to set themselves apart are fraught with danger, as Nayif Hawatmeh, general secretary of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), must know well. His insistence on distinguishing his organization’s policies from those of Fatah has led an increasing number of his senior cadres, headed by Yasser Abed Rabbo, to develop into an independent faction that is on the verge of splitting the DFLP altogether.

After the Deluge

Splits, of course, are not a new phenomenon in the Marxist organizations of the Arab world or elsewhere. What is new is the context in which they are taking place. Diversity of views, even within the spectrum of different Marxist approaches, has been severely curtailed under the time-honored rule of democratic centralism. It was not this principle that reduced the possibilities of schisms, but the decisive importance of being recognized by the Soviet Communist Party and other “fraternal” parties as the true Communist Party of this or that country. For the rule was that other factions should be dismissed as right- or left-wing deviations according to the circumstances. Recognition entailed various material and moral favors, even if the party was confined to a handful of professional militants living in exile. The officially recognized party could benefit from scholarships, vacations, free medical care and, above all, a huge propaganda machine.

Thus, when the Syrian communists disagreed over some theoretical issues, including the question of whether the Arab nation existed or not, they had to resort to Soviet sages to help them resolve their differences. When the party ultimately split, not a single word was uttered in the Soviet media against the persecution of the “deviationist” group.

Perestroika brought a drastic reduction of material aid and facilities extended by the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, and the halting of aid from East Europe. The Soviet party’s ideological authority over fellow communist parties has crumbled. Hence the emergence of three communist factions in Syria and the rise of many others in the Arab world which, while not designating themselves communist, are nevertheless Marxist-Leninist, such as the Egyptian People’s Socialist Party, which recently split from the Egyptian Communist Party.

With Marxism at a low ebb internationally and in the Arab Mashriq in particular, Arab leftists are questioning the validity of past strategies. Since the vast majority now agree that attaining socialism is not on the agenda for the foreseeable future, an inevitable question arises: Is there any sense in calling a party communist, or even socialist? Such questions are precipitating splits within the Marxist movements, as their structures still do not permit a real diversity of views.

For the time being, the catchword that is keeping Arab leftists together is democracy. Even here there are those who try to achieve as much as possible within the existing regimes, while others maintain that democracy is unattainable without overthrowing them. Egypt and Jordan might provide some basis for the former claim; that is why their communist parties look more relaxed. When I asked Ya‘qoub Zayadin, secretary-general of the Jordanian Communist Party, if it had been contemplating any changes in strategy, I was startled by his indifference. “Look, comrade,” he said, “People respect us for our good behavior, for our honesty and our record of sacrifice for their happiness. They don’t care so much about ideology.”

In contrast, not even the most reform-minded Iraqi would expect Saddam’s regime to take any serious measures to relax its grip. Iraq’s probable “perestroika,” then, looks more like a Romanian revolt than a Soviet self-reforming system. Twenty years of uninterrupted brutal dictatorship have left the political culture of the people more impoverished than ever. Unfortunately, Iraqi and Arab leftists will have to learn one more lesson from perestroika and the Eastern European earthquake, namely that the more underdeveloped a country is, the less likely that its people will be able to develop radically different political and state structures to replace the ancient regime.

How to cite this article:

Isam al-Khafaji "Who’s Afraid of Bureaustroika?," Middle East Report 167 ( ).
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