The current debate on the compatibility of Arab-Muslim culture with Enlightenment ideals of rationality, democracy and tolerance is curiously devoid of historical reference. In the Arab world, the debates on democracy and progress regained momentum during the late 1970s, when the Islamist movements began to attract a wide spectrum of people who had hitherto been considered the “natural” pool from which the left would draw support. Recognition of the need for radical change in their societies by Arab intellectuals, and a resurgent attraction to liberal democracy, is not a byproduct of the so-called new world order. Nor is it an intellectual property to which any writer can lay claim.

This, unfortunately, is what Kanan Makiya attempts to do in Cruelty and Silence. Makiya shares the Orientalist penchant for placing democracy outside the boundaries of its historical context, and confuses efforts to explain historical processes with apologetics for political regimes under which such processes take place. As a result, Makiya’s courageous denunciations of despotic Arab regimes, notably Baathist Iraq, slide all too easily into an array of polemical generalizations masquerading as political theory. [1]

Why do some ideas, philosophies and norms appear so natural to people at one point, while the same paradigms are summarily cast aside at other periods? During the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, most calls for change in the Middle East, as elsewhere, and much of the critique of the status quo, were cast in leftist-Marxist terms. This discourse has virtually dissolved in the Arab world today into one of the two dominant trends: Islamism and liberalism.

Both of these trends are the product of, among other things, a crisis of Arab state structures. If World War I left a legacy of separate states, World War II left a legacy of monolithic, radical populist regimes professing the need to unite the “Arab nation.” The Gulf war marked the end of this era, and signaled the terminal circumstances of Arab state and societal structures. Some might cite the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel as the key event, arguing that the fall of the Nasserist model in the face of its flagrant incapacity to confront Israel led directly to the rise of the ultra-nationalist regimes. In fact, several of these regimes came to power in the aftermath of the June 1967 war. A July 1968 coup brought the Baath to power in Iraq, and 1970 saw a “correction” in the Syrian regime. Libya’s version of this sort of regime was installed in late 1969. Somalia announced its “socialist orientation” a few years later.

The same years after 1967 paradoxically saw a flourishing of critical thought in the Arab Mashriq, and the rise of secular, non-orthodox Marxist movements. Sadiq al-‘Azm’s Critique of Religious Thought appeared in 1969. The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s text on religion was translated into Arabic. Works on the sexual revolution were reproduced in a region where virginity is a fetish. Saadallah Wannous shook the Arab world with his play “A Joy Party for the Fifth of June,” a manifesto against mukhabarat (secret police) rule.

The implications of 1967 were reminiscent of the Russian defeat in 1905 at the hand of tiny Japan. The poet Adonis wrote of the Arab pilot who treats his MiG fighter the way a Bedouin treats his camel. Nizar Qabbani contrasted the harem mentality prevalent in the Arab world to the phenomenon of Israeli women soldiers. The popular Egyptian singer Sheikh Imam mocked Nasser’s generals, busy accumulating personal wealth between triumphalist speeches on “liberating Palestine.”

How did monolithic rule manage to flourish under such circumstances? Is it merely, or primarily, the absence of notions of democracy and individual responsibility in Arab social thinking.

The emphasis at the time was how to build strong states. The ruling elite thought the missing factor was technology, but young intellectuals responded with the example of the Vietnamese capacity to confront “imperialist technology” efficiently. The international political ambience surrounding the 1967 defeat contributed to such discourse. Che Guevara’s guerrilla focos, the student and worker revolt in France, the Prague Spring — the issue was not how to move from a bankrupt capitalism to a fossilized Soviet socialism, but rather how to create a new political culture altogether. It seemed appropriate — even essential — in this context to reject “reformist” concepts such as democracy, pluralism or human rights in favor of “revolutionary democracy.” “Official” Communist parties were isolated for advocating a gradual transition to socialism and some form of constitutional rule to replace martial law and interim constitutions.

In these circumstances, scores of Arab “new left” movements mushroomed: the Popular Front and the Democratic Front among the Palestinians, the Organization of Socialist Action in Lebanon and the Union of Working People’s Cells in Lebanon, the Iraqi Communist Party-Central Command, the League of Communist Action in Syria, the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Arab Gulf in Bahrain and the National Liberation Front in southern Yemen. Though originating from diverse nationalist currents, these organizations shared an emphasis on armed struggle as the means to achieve a new social order.

False Premises

The ultra-nationalist regimes that arose in the Arab world after 1967 tried to legitimize their precarious positions by appropriating the discourse of the “new left,” emphasizing the inability of the previous regimes effectively to combat Israel and imperialism, a national front in which the ruling party would play the leading role, and armed struggle. The underlying emphasis was on the need for strong states. The reservations of the new Arab left movements toward these regimes related more to the latter’s seriousness in implementing their programs than to the content of the programs themselves. Most oppositions challenged the existing regimes on the seriousness of their commitment to these ideals.

In 1974, though, Egyptian peasants demonstrated different attachments when they ran by the thousands alongside the train carrying Presidents Nixon and Sadat from Alexandria to Cairo. It is highly likely that many of them were paid for their participation, but only a few years earlier, fighting American imperialism had been a holy nationalist duty in Egypt. Nixon’s popularity may have been attached, in the minds of many Egyptians, to the illusionary dollar signs of future prosperity. Still, this was one sign of a dramatic change that would culminate less than two decades later in the defeated Iraqi rebellion and a destitute people’s eager surrender to “enemy” forces in a desperate search for security under foreign occupation.

One should not jump to hasty conclusions about “pro” or “anti” Western dispositions among Arabs. The point is that the post-World War II state model erected on the ideological premise of “sovereignty” as an ultimate goal was breaking down. Under the regimes firmly ensconced in the major Arab capitals, the concept of the “nation” took on a metaphysical essence. The logical outcome of this was the perfection of a monstrous state machine which saw treason in any sign of opposition or dissent. The bipolar Cold War environment was conducive, as these regimes — not limited to the Arab world — were able to widen their margin of maneuvering space through “non-alignment.” Terror machines against the populace could work more or less smoothly; no outside power wanted to irritate a regime they wanted to pull to their side. Many ultra-nationalist regimes legitimized the structures they had erected, and the oppression they exercised, by invoking the “achievements” of the “socialist camp.” With the end of the bipolar world, the survival of ultra-nationalist regimes hinges upon the way they have invested their material assets to enhance independence and improve social conditions in their countries.

Their territorial record (to take just one highly sensitive measure) has not been inspiring. Israel occupies all of the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights, and 7,000 square kilometers of Lebanese territory. When the Baath came to power in 1968, Iraq exercised full sovereignty over the Shatt al-‘Arab. Seven years later, Baghdad signed a treaty giving Iran half of that waterway. During the 1970s, 7,000 square kilometers of Iraqi territory were ceded to Saudi Arabia and Jordan in “border demarcation procedures.” Turkey has an agreement with the Iraqi authorities to enter Iraqi territory in pursuit of Kurdish fighters. One need not detail the last tragic episode, in which half a million Western troops were stationed in the region and occupied, for a time, some one sixth of the total area of Iraq.

The different responses of Iraqis and Egyptians to the nationalist adventures of their respective regimes is apparent. Or is it the difference between 1967 and 1991? One need only contrast the demonstrations that erupted in Egypt (and elsewhere in the Arab world), which forced Nasser to withdraw his resignation and punish his senior aides considered responsible for the June 1967 defeat, with the March 1991 intifada in Iraq, which had the sole purpose of overthrowing the ruling regime.

Arab Thought in a Dismal Age

The Gulf war revealed a deep cleavage among Arabs. The familiar discourse of ultra-nationalism fell on deaf ears among the vast majority of Iraqis (whom this discourse addressed as the “Germans” of the Arab world who would unify the “nation”). By contrast, many Arabs not directly affected by the war took such a discourse seriously. Yet even they could see how ineffective they had been in mobilizing the masses.

A characteristic feature of ultra-nationalist rule is the process of complete identification of nation with state, and state monopolization of the economy, culture, private life and, above all, politics. Every struggle takes on a highly politicized form, manifest as competing factions within the regime or between the regime (the nation) and its enemies.

While this mystification of state power as the trustee of a great cause, be it the nation or socialism, is not peculiar to the Arab world, it has assumed unprecedented dimensions there. Opponents were always treated as foreign agents, or at least as if they were receiving instructions from “outside.” Iraqis, unlike Egyptians, lack a deep-rooted national identity, and have suffered most from accusations of collaboration with the CIA, the ex-Soviet Union, Iran, Syria and others.

The need for unity, however fictitious, took unusual rhetorical forms. Pan-Arabist jargon took the term shu‘ubi out of its Abbasid context, where it referred to non-Arab Muslim subjects of the empire who called for equality of Muslims irrespective of race, and instilled it with the sense of “anti-Arab.” The Christian Michel ‘Aflaq, a founder of the Baath Party, in a speech a few months after the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war, enumerated the enemies of the nation as “a coalition grouping the Christian West, the Communist East and the Persian shu‘ubis” — virtually the entire world against the Iraqi nation!

Such an ideology, to be viable, must appeal to a social base. Brutal dictatorship and physical harassment alone cannot account for the survival of such regimes for a quarter-century. Even less can dictatorship explain the enthusiasm with which their slogans were welcomed by Arabs not under the rule of such regimes.

One piece of the answer lies in the experience of Egypt, Iraq and Syria with parliamentary rule and multi-party systems directly after gaining formal political independence. This has more recently produced a nostalgia among some Arab intellectuals for the days before so-called “civil society” was suffocated by the nationalists. But those regimes owe their rise and survival precisely to the absence of civil society. Their life cycle comes to an end when the embryo of such a society begins to develop.

The urban-based, colonially imposed parliamentary systems could not incorporate or represent the masses in countries where the urban population never exceeded 25 percent of the total. Rural residents had the right to vote, but the vast majority of the “representatives” of those areas had been “absentee” tribal sheikhs and/or big landlords who lived in the major cities — Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt, Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, Baghdad and Basra in Iraq.

The crucial point is not the ratio of urban-to-rural population, but the tendency of most writers paying homage to the late “civil society” to reduce these societies to their “cosmopolitan” centers, where they perceive an apparently thriving cultural and political life. Life was something else in rural areas, and in larger provincial towns from which most of the next generation of leaders would originate. Under then-prevailing conditions, representation and political solidarities and alliances could not take the shape of free and voluntary individual choices. Parliamentary seats, to take an example, were understood to represent the Sunni, ‘Alawi, Shi‘i, Christian, Armenian, Syriac, Copt, Druze, Isma‘ili, Kurdish and Turkmen ethnic and sectarian groups, tribal federations and other “primordial” associations.

Civil society presupposes the emergence of notions of “citizen” and “individual” which are quite incompatible with societies where agricultural activities are carried out by members of the same clan, and where urban artisanal and commercial activities are divided among ethnic and/or sectarian communities. Disintegration of such ties, which only began during World War II in Egypt and in the 1950s in Syria and Iraq, is the product of complex historic processes. It is not only Orientalists who fail to take note of this process; many liberal and leftist Arabs also resort to explaining the rise and persistence of brutal Arab regimes in terms of racial and cultural traits, such as the absence of “individualism,” without considering how a so-called civil society had existed at all in the absence of such norms.

Missing Links

Kanan Makiya, in Cruelty and Silence, shocks Western readers with facts well known to Iraqis who have not had the chance and connections to publicize them. Implicit in his work is the notion of the authoritarian suppression of “civil society,” but at no point does he attempt to define the term. The evolution of civil society involves two distinct but overlapping processes. The disruption of pre-bourgeois relations must be accompanied by a drive toward modernization and industrialization that takes now atomized individuals through a process of differentiation in the framework of new socioeconomic structures.

What were the peculiarities of the Arab world, if any, in this regard? Objective conditions (not the malevolent will of imperialism, as so much Arab writing implies) led to a deteriorating situation in agriculture, compared to the opportunities provided to migrants in “traditional” cosmopolitan centers. Urban slums grew at a much faster rate than did the overall population. Between 1937 and 1966, the proportion of Cairo’s population to Egypt’s total almost doubled, from 8.6 percent to 16.5 percent. [2] Iraq’s population rose almost threefold between 1919 and 1968, but Baghdad’s population jumped eightfold during the same period. The pace of industrialization and job creation lagged far behind these urban population increases.

The so-called informal sector — variously called “the people,” “the masses,” or simply “mobs” — remained largely unpoliticized. They did play a role during upheavals whose sparks were ignited by other, more articulate urban elements, but this role was not always revolutionary. Such “masses” were behind the famous burning of Cairo in January 1952.

At the same time, a much smaller coterie of first- or second-generation immigrants from impoverished provincial towns had acquired modest education or training and made its way into the expanding state apparatus (civil, military or paramilitary). They faced a different experience. Through networks formed around notables from their towns of origin, they entered schools and found jobs. But they were confined to lower grades and looked upon with disdain by established Cairenes, Damascenes or Baghdadis. Suburbs named after the towns of origin of these immigrants still exist in these cities. Here, solidarities of common origin formed, or were consolidated, and social life was organized. Such immigrants looked upon the big city both as a place where they could enhance their social and economic positions and as a place which deprived them of the means to participate in the comfortable lifestyles of longtime residents. No wonder they viewed their class positions within such societies in terms of local antagonisms. Animosity developed against city dwellers in general, rather than against certain strata. One of the great contemporary Arab poets, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, himself a migrant from a humble village near Basra, described Baghdad as “a grand brothel.”

The fact that urban economic structures could not expand beyond certain limits in the Arab Mashriq added to this sense of isolation among these provincial immigrants. What little expansion occurred in these structures drew from the larger pool of rural unskilled migrant workers, creating a cleavage between the migrant poor and those of provincial origins. The trade unions, moreover, were more concerned with raising the standard of living of their members — the already employed — than with creating job opportunities.

It is within this context that one should look for the roots of statism: The state apparatus became the locus for enhancing the social positions of particular groups and localities. Pan-Arabist currents, which began as urban movements, eventually mobilized not poorer rural migrants but the sons of petty traders, lower civil servants and the like who originated from provincial towns. But their anti-establishment rhetoric also appealed to the great mass of marginalized rural folk, whether still resident outside the big city or piled into its slums.

Communist parties addressed the suffering of the poor, but the composition of these movements was largely urban. Such parties had their golden age when urban strata (not classes) were the principal, if not the only, actors in Mashriq politics. Once provincial migrants came to dominate the state apparatus, and destitute rural migrants constituted the raw material for populist agitation, Communist and other urban movements had either to withdraw or to incorporate the populist discourse, thus playing the role of minor accomplices on a terrain that was not theirs.

What the pan-Arabists crushed, when they came to power, was not civil society. It was the sociopolitical dominance of “civilized” urban dwellers. The brutal regimes in the Mashriq (and elsewhere) should not be merely seen as manifestations of “backwardness.” They are rather the product of large, uninstitutionalized and undifferentiated strata within the context of a modernization drive. The conditions for the rise of mass awareness, beyond intellectuals, of the brutality of certain regimes are contingent upon the existence of such differentiated urban strata — created, ironically, by the same brutal regimes. The more successful a regime is in “modernizing” a country, the more likely that the outcome will take the form of a democratic consensus to overthrow that same regime! The flagrant economic failures of the Arab ultra-nationalists account for the fact that the mass oppositions they have generated view their oppression in Islamist or tribalist terms that mirror images of the old pan-Arabist rhetoric.

Dilemmas of Emerging Thought

Those who still insist on the need for “strong” states know full well that their preaching falls increasingly on deaf ears. They represent either a tiny minority of the Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi intellectuals who played the role of mouthpieces of ultra-nationalist regimes, or they come from Arab countries that have not experienced such regimes — Palestine, Jordan and Tunisia, in particular.

Leftists within this current face a complicated problem: If modernization and building strong states is an ultimate goal, regardless of the political and human costs, then they should rather hail the achievements of regimes like Taiwan and South Korea, which they consider imperialist. Arab nationalist regimes have paid a much higher cost in terms of human suffering, with miserable socioeconomic results. What strategies can the left adopt to address the overriding dilemma: democracy or development?

Arab liberals face equally serious challenges. Democracy, constitutional regimes and multi-party systems emerge from within existing social fabrics. Given the drastic failure of the modernization drive in the Arab world, a whole spectrum of dislocated populations, including the modern educated middle class, tend to express their solidarities in particularistic terms: tribal, ethnic, sectarian, regional, religious. The most optimistic outcome that liberals can count on in such circumstances would be a regime in which all those identities reach a compromise to share power. Such an unstable solution, reminiscent of the Lebanese experience until the mid-1970s, is far from anything like a civil society.

Liberalism thrives only after periods of revolutionary change create conditions conducive to civil society. Liberalism then proceeds to institutionalize and legalize this new status quo. In present Arab circumstances, such solutions are not viable. Disenchanted, marginalized and uninstitutionalized sections of the population share no common ideals or norms. Particularistic trends, including most of the Islamist movements, articulate the popular aspirations for change within a discourse that is superficially evolutionary. The Egyptian Muslim Brothers and the Lebanese Amal, which was originally called the Movement of the Disinherited, vividly illustrate the dialectics of the rise and fall of pseudo-revolutionary discourse. When certain communities begin to enhance their socioeconomic positions, they assert their aspirations through anti-establishment discourse and practices, creating political lobbies. Once these organizations are incorporated within the regime, the disenchanted masses to whom they owe their rise turn to other expressions — the multitude of Islamist groups in Egypt, or Hizballah in Lebanon.

The dilemma of the Arab Mashriq lies in the existence of a huge gulf between two badly needed objectives: democracy and the rule of law, on the one hand, and radical social change, on the other. The Gulf war has illustrated full well how many Arab intellectuals (and many Western leftists) still identify modernization with despotic regimes, just because they happen to raise anti-imperialist slogans while fully capitulating to US demands.

Democracy, though, cannot be stable when political liberalization leads to the hegemony of an infitah bourgeoisie, and a savage laissez faire system in which ever expanding numbers of people face the threat of marginalization. This dilemma assumes tragic dimensions when constitutional rule is identified with archaic systems, as in Kuwait, and modernization is associated with a grim despotism, such as that of Saddam Hussein. [3]

It is high time for Arab intellectuals and Western leftists to rethink the nationalist-imperialist dichotomy which has comprised the backbone of their analysis and the core of their vocabulary. Effecting radical change in the Arab world entails rethinking the meaning of national sovereignty. Is it possible for a regime to consider its sovereignty preserved as long as “its” land and throne are intact, even if “its” people turn to other sovereigns?


[1] In Republic of Fear (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989), Makiya, writing as Samir al-Khalil, cited Isaac Deutscher’s explanation of the rise of Stalinism and then proceeded to “pardon” Deutscher before moving on to attack those “half-baked Marxists and ‘progressive’ nationalists” who “raise the issue of backwardness as a justification for violence.” p. 98.
[2] Figures are from Widad Murqus, Sukkan Misr (The Population of Egypt) (Cairo: Markaz al-Buhuth al-‘Arabiyya, 1988), pp. 20-21.
[3] For a vulgar apology for Iraqi dictatorship as a vehicle for modernization, see Peter Gowan, “The Gulf War, Iraq and Western Liberalism,” New Left Review 187 (May-June 1991).

How to cite this article:

Isam al-Khafaji "Beyond the Ultra-Nationalist State," Middle East Report 187-188 (March/April 1994).

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