Over the past sixty years, contemporary Arab political history has witnessed two significant shifts, each of which has resulted in enormous social, economic, cultural, and ideological transformations. The experience of the Arab world is not unique; rather, it is part of the contemporary “world story” in general, and experience of “the societies of the South” in particular, despite the uniqueness of the Arab experience, in general, and the experience of individual country. This review reconstructs the Arab experience since the early 1950s and distinguishes two historical stages economically, politically, and ideologically. The first stage is the era of decolonization and the rise of Arab socialism (1952–70); the second stage is the era of globalization of colonialism or neoliberal capitalism (1980–2011), which in the opinion of the author is responsible for the unfolding of events in the Arab world since the end of 2010. The goal of this comparison is intended as political and historical criticism of the current Arab condition. Comparing and contrasting both stages, and reconsidering the model and experience presented by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, it is concluded that the Arab nation is facing the choice between two critical options: socialism or neoliberal barbarism.

INTRODUCTION: A SHORT ACCOUNT OF CONTEMPORARY WORLD HISTORY

Over a decade ago, David Harvey argued in the introduction to his A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005) that “future historians may well look upon the years 1978–80 as a revolutionary turning point in the world’s social and economic history” (1). The explanation for this claim is simply summed up by displaying the faces of the four figures who played a central role in the adoption and globalization of neoliberal policies—Ronald Reagan, Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, and Augusto Pinochet—and also summarized in the introductory chapter of the book, which adds a fifth name that Harvey considers as important: the relatively obscure (but now renowned) Paul Volcker who took command of the US Federal Reserve in July 1979 and, within a few months, dramatically changed monetary policy.1

Four decades later, and after what Harvey characterized as decisive years, it now appears he was right: neoliberalism has significantly changed the world. However, the consequences were not only economic but also prepared the foundations for the hegemony of an alternative ideology, which also signified the absence of any counter-hegemonic or organic alternative to neoliberal capitalism and, hence, was considered to be common sense. Thus began the era of the ascendance of the new right-wing ideology, and thus neoliberalism prepared the foundations for the great crisis that has plagued the Arab world since the end of 2010.

Harvey’s work may be one of the most informative on neoliberalism. In the first two chapters, (“Freedom is just another word”) (Harvey 2005, 5–18) and (“Building consensus/consensus”) (39–63), which are necessary to understand the state of the world after four decades of neoliberal policies, Harvey discusses how neoliberalism penetrated and reconstituted feeling/common sense/public awareness in favor of its basic neoliberal concepts. He discusses the strategies pursued by the ideological and conceptual apparatuses to advance neoliberal ideology so it appeals to our intuitions and instincts, to our values and our desires, as well as to the possibilities inherent in the social world we inhabit. Universities and corporate media played an effective role in transforming neoliberal vision into a main stream ideology.

In both chapters the name of the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci is mentioned, and his theory of hegemonic strategies is used by Harvey: “For any way of thought to become dominant, a conceptual apparatus has to be advanced that appeals to our intuitions and instincts, to our values and our desires, as well as to the possibilities inherent in the social world we inhabit. If successful, this conceptual apparatus becomes so embedded in common sense as to be taken for granted and not open to question” (Harvey 2005, 5). For this, Harvey says later: “The founding figures of neoliberal thought took political ideals of human dignity and individual freedom as fundamental, as ‘the central values of civilization’. In so doing they chose wisely, for these are indeed compelling and seductive ideals. These values, they held, were threatened not only by fascism, dictatorships, and communism, but by all forms of state intervention that substituted collective judgements for those of individuals free to choose” (5). They were wise not only because “concepts of dignity and individual freedom are powerful and appealing in their own right” (5) but also because people would not have agreed with the principles of wealth redistribution and concentration at the top at the expense of the impoverishment of the majority (the main outcome of the application of neoliberal policies). They simply would have opposed them. Any “explicit project on the return of economic power to a small elite will not receive much public support. The attempt to defend the cause of individual freedom has been accepted by a broad public base, and thus [under the guise of these human values and the freedom of the individual] camouflaged the campaign to restore class power” (40). Simply put, therefore, Harvey tells us that human beings are not born neoliberal, but the public support is a result of an effective ideological campaign that uses individual freedom and “noble values” in order to achieve free flow of capital. It is also achieved through a systematic campaign aimed at rallying people against state-imposed regulations on capital in the name of freedom of individuals and human values.

The vision of Gramsci, which Harvey quotes, subsequently evolved further, specifically by incorporating the French philosopher Louis Althusser’s distinction between “ideological state apparatuses” and “political state apparatuses” that are responsible for resocialization and the formation of public and collective awareness for the reproduction of capitalist relations (Althusser 2001, 85–126). This entails an explanation for the rise of “identity politics” in the age of neoliberal capitalism. These identities that have been produced in the context of the conflict over the redistribution of wealth and the distribution of public income (such as “sect,” “denomination,” “race” and “ethnicity,” “gender,” and “nationality”) were very effective in the functioning of the system by placing it as a counter to social class. It worked to divide and fragment social class and, therefore, effectively weakened any potential resistance to the neoliberal system. In the Arab world, as we will see below, division was the most important mechanism (and consequence) of imperialist and neoliberal strategies. In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (2014), Ernesto Laclau and Chantelle Moffe argue that revolutionary (and counter-revolutionary and reactionary) strategies are possible due to the nature of group identity; it is neither fixed nor trans-historical, but rather flexible and fluid. This means, in short, that while anti-colonial identity construction is historically possible, it also means that divisive identities, fragmentation, and civil war projects are also possible.

Therefore, if social and historical conditions inform the formation of a particular social group as radical (or revolutionary), which might be different from the classical Marxism vision (not a working class), the basic concepts of theory must, therefore, be reconsidered. We should not shy away from rethinking the model, or even abandoning any preconceived assumptions however they might seem dear or “sacred.” As such, it is possible to explain how some anti-colonial and anti-imperialist categories that constituted the backbone of the Arab liberation movements in the past have become imperialist tools in the savage destruction that has befallen the Arab homeland since 2010.

In conclusion, neoliberalism has indeed changed the world. However, four decades later, the absence of an effective counter and organic alternative ideology to neoliberal capitalism, together with significant socioeconomic transformations, has resulted in a serious crisis of hegemony. With the absence of an organic counter-alternative hegemony, and especially as socialism has been systematically distorted and demonized by neoliberal propaganda and ideological apparatuses (socialism as totalitarianism and authoritarianism), neoliberalism ushered the rise of the right-wing era and proto-fascism in the West. In the Arab world, this era has been particularly bloody and destructive. From direct military intervention, as in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, to civil strife backed by Western imperialist powers, the result was nothing less than the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and massive destruction of infrastructure. The story of the world in the era of neoliberal capitalism is generally one and is summed up in two main issues: systematic redistribution of national wealth and income in favor of the elite at a time when growth rates have been declining globally and nationally relative to the previous stage. Additionally, the rate of productivity per worker has also been declining due to structural reasons stemming from the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism in the Arab world, as will be described below. But the world—and the Arab homeland—has seen a revolutionary turning point in its economic, social, and ideological history, ahead of the post-World War II era, specifically since the mid-1950s.

THE SOCIAL CONTENT OF THE UNIT: HOW ARAB NATIONALISM STOOD ON ITS FEET

“Egypt can only be Arab.” This is perhaps the most condensed summary of Gamal Hamdan’s history entitled Shaksiyat Misr: dirasa fi abkariyat al makan (The Personality of Egypt: A Study in the Genius of the Place) (1967). In over four thousand pages, Hamdan eruditely explores the fascinating interrelationship between Egypt’s geography and history and the total implication of Egypt’s location. This work employs not only a unique theoretical framework to rewrite Egypt’s history but also a grand intellectual scheme that recalls Fernand Braudel’s La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II (1972) that informed the writing of history for some time. Braudel’s study entails the recognition of the role of non-social limits and the inclusion and consideration of what might be characterized as non-social structures, for example, geomorphic, geophysical, and ecological forces, in the writing and making of a country’s history.

Hamdan’s comprehensive study also analyzes the colonization era of the Middle East and North Africa in what he called “the grand epic of geography,” highlighting the role non-social structures played in both colonization and resistance. In short, his fascinating work presents a very solid scholarly case for an Egyptian Arab nationalist ideology that informed the Nasserite era (a non-isolationist ideology contrary to the domestic Egyptian nationalism that preceded the 1952 era). Hamdan, however, was not the only Egyptian scholar to pay significant attention to this important issue. Hussein Mu’nis’ Misr wa Risalatoha (Egypt and Its Mission) (1973) is based on almost the same scholarly assumptions that informed Hamdan’s work, but is written in a less sophisticated style and seems to have been intended for the public rather than for the scholarly community. This work was so influential that the introduction to its first edition was written by President Nasser himself. Mu’nis again makes the case for Egypt’s role based on existing realities shaped by geography, history, and location. Although such scholarly orientation dominated Egypt’s geopolitical scholarship even before the 1940s, it primarily flourished during the Nasserite era since it explained and justified the Nasserite domestic and regional policies. However, these policies were not only informed by this geopolitical orientation but also they constituted the core of Nasser’s revolution and its Arab nationalist brand. Scores of other Egyptian scholars from various theoretical orientations and backgrounds also did not fail to recognize the implications of geography and history. The political significance and implications of this outlook lie primarily in two issues. First, it conceptualizes the interrelationship between local and regional realities as a basis for an Egyptian Arab nationalist ideology. Second, it lays the foundation for an anti-colonial and anti-imperial regional infrastructure under the Egyptian leadership. Therefore, Hamdan’s formulation undisputedly made the best case for Arab nationalism and Egypt’s Arab character produced by the great epic of geography.

Thus, Nasser’s view was the result not only of his military background, as well as his study of “the history of the campaigns of Palestine and the problems of the sea” and of the history of the region, but also of his deep understanding of the history and geography of Egypt itself and the state of the world in his time. Thus, Nasser argued in Falsafat al-thawra (The Philosophy of the Revolution) (1954) that “Rafah is not the beginning of our border” and that “Arab struggle for Palestine is self-defense” (Nasser 1954/1996, 80) and that “it is inevitable for each country to look around and conceive their situation and conditions dictated by their (geographical) position” (98). This was the case of Nasser, Hamdan, Wahida, Gharbal, and others; Egyptian’s patriotism is defined by the extent of their commitment to Arab nationalism.

Arab unity, according Yassin al-Hafez, is thus first and foremost a historical process (Al-Hafez 2005). Second, it is based on the realization of the mechanisms of imperial and colonial hegemony (fragmentation, resources, oil, the Zionist entity), and is not merely a political agreement between two states. In this sense, President Nasser and, later, other Arab nationalist and leftist political parties (Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Libya, Yemen) realized the strategic dimension of unity and the importance of geopolitics, the facts of history, geography, space and time, and the “geographical sphere,” as Braudel called it, produced by “the great epic of geography,” according to Gamal Hamdan. The significance of this supreme vision was realized in the awareness and realization of the nature of imperial domination and the realization that independence and sovereignty can be achieved, especially in the age of great empires, only through unity. Therefore, Arab unity against the Zionist entity in particular, and against Western imperialism, is based on a simple rule: “As Arabs unite, Israel would seem weaker and smaller” (Da’na 2016, n.p.).

However, Nasser later realized that this view alone was not enough to achieve unity. Until then, Arab Unity lacked social content. Arab Unity until then, and due to that conceptualization, was standing on its head. This traditional vision lacked the mechanism for achieving it first, and it was deficient because it was based primarily on the view that unity is “an absolute idea.” Fragmentation and division of the Arab homeland into the existing states was not merely “due to the colonially drawn political borders” that resulted from the various imperial powers that colonized the Arab world. It is actually much more than that since it has its roots in production and relations of production (Al-Hafez 2005, 1222). Therefore, just as fragmentation and division of the Arab homeland had class and socioeconomic content, the unity project had to entail a counter-class content. This is why Nasser’s great contribution was in adopting a Third World socialist model, which was the basis for initiating mechanisms for economic development towards unity that Arab nationalism had lacked until that moment. Thus, Arab nationalism stood on its feet after it was standing on its head. The combination of geopolitics and socioeconomics signifies one aspect of the superiority of the Nasserite Arab nationalist view over the conventional Arab Marxist left, which remained captive to colonial borders and failed to realize the centrality of division as a dynamic of imperialist hegemony and focused instead on the socioeconomic conditions of each respective Arab country.

Additionally, as soon as nationalist ideas and unity projects encountered the obstacles of the old Arab social structure, Arab nationalists realized the centrality of socioeconomic content of unity and the importance of dismantling the traditional structures that have their roots in the colonial era. Therefore, Nasser’s policies at this phase can be characterized as “experimental” in this area, as Al-Hafiz described it, or “objective Marxism,” as Abdullah al-Arawi described it (Al-Hafez 2005, 1212). As such, Nasser’s model was actually more effective and productive than any other model that was informed by prior ideological commitment. The idea (Arab socialism in spite of its experimental nature at the time) seems highly simple today, despite its enormous efficiency and efficacy; it does not seem to have broken new grounds or represent a new theory at all. It is based on a simple “accountant” point of view on how the national economy should be administered in the aftermath of the Bandung Conference; the externalization of national surplus value must be prevented and all possible channels to leak surplus value to the north must be blocked. It should be used and expanded at home, and should be fairly redistributed in order to increase the share of the poorest sections of the population in order to create a popular base for the nationalist and unity project and constitute the material bases of its ideological view. This, by necessity, implies that a central role must be assumed by the state apparatus in order to control the macro-economy and its supervision with strict effectiveness, primarily effective supervision of monetary policy and tax policy to achieve the goal of non-diversion or externalization of value (reciprocal purchasing power parity (PPP)/real exchange prices support the effectiveness of the Arab Socialist model if compared with the neoliberal era). But Arab socialism did not only initiate an economic mechanism towards unity but also it provided the necessary condition for the hegemony of a historical national consciousness among a broad sector of the Arab population, which constituted the popular basis necessary to protect the unity project and achieve its objectives. This is evidenced by the distribution and redistribution of national income and the steady rise in the share of the poorest popular sectors in the Arab countries that have adopted this approach. In fact, the overall economic performance during the period of Arab socialism, 1960–80 (annual growth rate, rate of increase in per capita income, unemployment, debt, debt to service ratio of the national product), as shown below, confirms the superiority of Arab socialism over the next neoliberal phase.

But after the 1967 war, Arab socialism was subjected to a fiercely systematic dismantling process and the Arab world was reintegrated into the world capitalist system according to the terms of defeat. This deconstruction, despite its direct economic consequences, which can easily be measured empirically, has had disastrous cultural and ideological implications for the Arab world after 2010. Undermining the socialist foundations of Arab unity led to a disastrous ideological implication. The rise of identity politics and sectoral consciousness undermined class-based politics in favor of sect and denominational politics. As such, the destruction of Arab socialism and the introduction of neoliberalism sparked the ongoing civil wars fueled by external intervention. Moreover, the ideological implication and the distortion of the Arab political mind played a major role in the dissemination of previously prohibited, and even unthinkable, views. Thus, the demand for the intervention of colonial and imperial powers in certain countries was rendered a “revolutionary” demand, as some see it, although it was the very definition of treason in the previous stage.

NEOLIBERALISM: GLOBALIZED COLONIALISM

Since the early 1980s, and contrary to the era of Arab socialism, in which the primacy of the collective and public prevailed over the private and individual, the private sector dominated the public. While there was an increase in labor productivity and a rise in wages, the share of the working class in the national product was protected, and the increase in demand for labor was almost identical to the growth of the workforce in the first phase; the opposite took place in the second phase.

After three decades of neoliberal policies, the results are disastrous: “50 percent of the Arab population lives on less than US$ 2 a day (the poverty line) and spends more than half their income on basic foodstuffs,” according to a 2005 Arab economic report (Kadri 2015a, 33–34). But the US$2 threshold for income, and the fifty percent expenditure on basic foodstuffs should also be conceived in the context of the Arab homeland as a whole, and the circumstances of each country. This is significant because some Arab countries are the most dependent countries in the world when it comes to foodstuffs. In Syria, for example, where food is produced domestically, the US dollar can buy much more than it buys in Lebanon, where the majority of the food basket is imported. Therefore, when prices are isolated from the effects of international market and are determined primarily according to the national market, the return would necessarily be more rewarding. Thus, when half of every dollar is spent on imported food, while prices are determined internationally (as in Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya, for example), the PPP measure means that what the national currency buys at home is the same as the dollar abroad.

While real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in the region as a whole grew at a reasonable rate during the 1970s (4.33 percent), the rate dropped (3.43 percent) in the 1980s and grew at a very low rate during the 1990s (0.34 percent). With the outbreak of crises and wars after 2011, it fell below zero percent—then it became negative (table 1).

WHAT HAPPENED?

Economic development in the Arab world did not simply fail; rather, the Arab world has been forcefully and systematically stripped of its ability to develop, while its capabilities to grow have been growing (Kadri 2016). What happened in the Arab world in the last three decades only—the age of Neoliberal dictatorship—is that it has been subjected to a process of “reverse development” or “de-development” by stripping it of its potential to grow. The history of de-development in the Arab world is the history of neoliberalism. “De-development is the purposeful deconstruction of developing entities. Primarily, it involves stripping by force the working classes in those entities of the right to own and control their resources and use them for their own benefit. The fact of de-development is an argument for capitalist decadence, made manifest by the acute degrees of misery in security-exposed peripheral countries” (Kadri 2015a, 3; added emphasis).

All economic indicators (long-term poverty, high unemployment, and inequality levels, the flow of real and financial resources, military intervention and colonization, and many others compared with international standards) confirm that what happened over the past three decades is a deliberate and systematic dismantling of the Arab nation’s ability to grow (Kadri 2015a).

TABLE 1.

Yearly average real gross domestic product (GDP) growth per capita

1960–791980–2011
Yearly average real GDP growth per capita 
Syria 3.8% 1.2% 
Iraq 6.8% 2.1% 
Egypt 3.5% 2.3% 
GDP growth rate 
Syria 7.1% 4.0% 
Iraq 10.0% 4.9% 
Egypt 5.5% 4.3% 
Output per workers calculated in fixed local currency units 
Syria 4.5% 0.5% 
Iraq 8.6% 1.2% 
Egypt 3.3% 2.2% 
Average unemployment rates 
Syria 5.2% 13.2% 
Egypt 4.2% 10.9% 
1960–791980–2011
Yearly average real GDP growth per capita 
Syria 3.8% 1.2% 
Iraq 6.8% 2.1% 
Egypt 3.5% 2.3% 
GDP growth rate 
Syria 7.1% 4.0% 
Iraq 10.0% 4.9% 
Egypt 5.5% 4.3% 
Output per workers calculated in fixed local currency units 
Syria 4.5% 0.5% 
Iraq 8.6% 1.2% 
Egypt 3.3% 2.2% 
Average unemployment rates 
Syria 5.2% 13.2% 
Egypt 4.2% 10.9% 

Note: Factor productivity growth rate is calculated in constant local currency units.

Source: Kadri (2016, 74).

Before 1980, the rates were calculated using at least ten consecutive observations of Iraq, fifteen for Egypt, and twenty for Syria, based on available data. After 1980, the economic performance of Syria and Egypt depended more on oil. The output rate per worker in the neoliberal era is amplified by oil revenues, which in fact means much less.

Above all, during the past five decades, the Arab world has been the scene of the highest frequency of war on earth. Since the end of the Cold War, as Perry Anderson puts it, “The Arab states have come to constitute a zone for Western military intervention without parallel in the post-Cold War world” (Anderson 2015, 5). War here is not just the violent and brutal face of global capital, but also a mechanism of capital accumulation. The successive wars in the Arab homeland have always been a mechanism for integrating it into the global capitalist economy. Most importantly, it was the mechanism that reformed and subjugated the dominant (defeated) classes in the Arab world, as is usually the case after each war. The war has always imposed its terms on the defeated and the gradual loss of the Arab nation’s sovereignty, and even the fundamentals of its concept of national security has always been the outcome (the true meaning of development) by subjecting it to neoliberal policies.

The cycle of war is essentially a socio-economic cycle that cannot be explained by the history of war and war literature, nor by the specialized military science that only serves to reify the concept of war, although it might be interesting to read (e.g., Biddle 2004). It is precisely for this reason that a distinct historical tendency can be observed in the evolution of capitalism towards the destruction of man and the destruction of societies and perhaps the world later. Death in war generates not only profit and accumulation of capital but also the coverage of the sometimes large deficit resulting from non-military consumption. War in the case of the capitalist economy contributes to the payment of the deficit resulting from the crisis of the non-military (civil) economy.

The struggle for domination that leads to wars is in essence a struggle to sustain the way of life in imperialist countries, and a mechanism for the reproduction of hegemony, reproduction of the Western imperialist model, and the preservation of mechanisms of wealth and surplus flow to the West from all corners of the earth. This is exactly how one can understand the value and function of war, conflict, death, and instability in the South today (specifically, the Arab world). Therefore, if Lenin’s (1999) study on imperialism is the most important text that explains the nature of the conflict around the world, Marx’s labor theory of value is the mechanism that reveals the essence of the conflict (Marx 1990), because every sociologist or historian or even any economist or political scientist knows that any serious social theory should be based on Marx’s labor theory of value. It is precisely for this reason that the reality of what is happening in the world and the mechanisms that govern and regulate its processes and transformations cannot be understood on the basis of any theory that ignores Marx’s labor theory of value.

It is true that war and military production in themselves produce nothing (or do not produce anything useful, and that the chances of survival of human kind are greater without them). However, militarism and war constantly re-tabulate the law of value or redefine the relationship with value constantly by crushing the particular value of the people of the South and the value of their labor power. In short, this is specifically why the goods that originate in imperialist countries are not exchanged for their real value, and they are multiplied, sometimes tens of times, by the value of goods produced in the countries of the South (thus the North is rich and the South is poor) (Wallerstein 1993, 1–6). This is also one reason why global capitalism has turned the societies of the South (and specifically the Arab world and even the world when necessary) into an open shooting field over the last three centuries. Market relations and exchange are essentially class relations and power relations, which explains why the price is always much higher in the case of the North than the real value of the commodity.

The economic history of our Arab homeland in recent decades alone can repeal and significantly revoke all the common and accepted assumptions of the neoliberal economy, turning them upside down; it is a vivid witness to the history of eradicating the development potential of Arab homeland and the disasters it has been suffering. Economic liberalization does not work to increase productivity, as the prophets of neoliberalism and capital messengers have been claiming. The exact opposite actually happened in the Arab world, as Kadri (2015b, 140–60) shows.

Over the past three decades, labor demand has grown at a much lower rate than that of the labor force, while in the 1960s and 1970s (years of state intervention and economic management) labor demand growth was almost equal to the labor supply rate. Moreover, since the early 1980s (the beginning of the neoliberalism invasion of the Arab homeland) there have been no major shifts in the sectoral composition or composition of companies in the Arab world, which would have allowed, had it happened, them to be more flexible to labor demand or to have a greater substitution between work/capital equity. That is why it was not bigger companies with better technology that led growth by substituting more efficient machines (as the propaganda goes), but the free market conditions and terms that only defeated societies would accept were the ones that led to the layoffs (Kadri 2015a). By contrast, “the inefficient public sector” (as the propaganda goes) proved its worth. It was socially effective because it continued to function efficiently as a “cushion” for the social welfare of the entire population.

THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE REVOLUTION: ARAB NATIONALISM AND COUNTER-ARAB NATIONALISM

Nasser’s most important feat may be his revolutionary idea, which was able to transcend national isolationist ideologies and pre-modern identities. While his idea enabled the Arabs to enter history as a nation, it necessarily made him one of world’s most dangerous leaders. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Nasser was “the most dangerous enemy of Israel,” according to the Zionist political, military, and intelligence elites in the usurping entity at the time (Ben-Yehuda 1993, 306). This danger, as it seems and as we know today, was not really in Egypt’s military capabilities at the time, or that Egyptian military might have represented an existential threat to the Zionist entity. But the idea that formed the centerpiece of Nasser’s revolution was frightening not only to “Israeli” elites but also to the imperial elites of Britain, France, and the United States. It is not surprising that Anthony Eden, British prime minister and Winston Churchill’s successor, was angry with his aides: “What is all this nonsense about isolating Nasser or ‘neutralizing’ him, as you call it? I want him destroyed, can’t you understand? I want him murdered [. . .] and I do not give a damn if there is anarchy and chaos in Egypt” (Dreyfuss 2005, 101).

In Egypt, British imperialism established a geographic barrier that hampered the possibility of achieving Arab unity by excavating the Napoleonic project and planting the Zionist entity in the heart of the Arab world. But after the occupation of Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century and the utter destruction of the project of Muhammad Ali to establish an Arab state (Al-Hafez 2005, 733–34), Britain promoted an Isolationist Egyptian nationalist ideology. The sole and fundamental problem of this Egyptian nationalism was that it produced and spread a false Egyptian consciousness, which was not limited to a confounded awareness of the question of Palestine only (the Egyptian nationalists’ sympathy and solidarity with the Arabs of Palestine was based on religious solidarity with the Muslims and Christians of Palestine), but it also led to the rise of another dangerous illusion: Egyptians can achieve their full freedom in a world dominated by great empires—and this also led to some erroneous comprehension of the Orabi revolution and the 1919 revolution.

After the Zionist colonization of the heart of the Arab homeland, which consequently led to the separation of Egypt and Syria geographically, British colonization encouraged the formation and dissemination of an isolationist national ideology. This isolationist ideology, which could not have led to real liberation and independence for Egypt, failed, by implication, to conceive the Zionist entity as a real enemy, let alone an existential threat. It could not have understood the reality of this entity and the meaning and consequences of its existence on Egyptian independence and sovereignty.

Then came the Nasser’s revolution, which was always asserting the important view of “looking beyond the borders,” specifically beyond Sinai, or what he called “facts of time and place.” For this reason, Nasser wrote: “Rafah is not the border of our country.” He also noted that “there is no escape for every country to look around and look at its sphere and conditions in the place in this troubled world” (Nasser 1954/1996, 90, 98). In the philosophy of the revolution, Nasser summed up his new vision in one sentence, reflecting a long history of the hegemony of isolationist ideology and distorted Egyptian national awareness and fantasies, and also represented a realistic gateway to Egypt’s true liberation and independence: the era of isolation was over, declared Nasser. In the third and final part of the philosophy of the revolution, Nasser elaborates on his new vision through his presentation of the three circles (Arabic, African, and Islamic), which evolved over time as his Arab nationalist consciousness underwent changes. However, these changes were due to two intertwined factors that Nasser eventually came to realize: first, the nature of the Western imperial project; and second, the nature of its relationship with the Zionist project in the land of Palestine.

“Israel,” in Nasser’s view, “was only a trace of the effects of colonialism,” and he believed that the idea of “Israel” itself would not have been possible at all without the role played by English colonialism, otherwise it would have remained foolish “fantasy.” Perhaps that’s why he argued that “colonialism is the great force that places the whole region under an invisible siege, which is a 100-fold stronger than the siege that surrounded our [Egyptian] trenches in Falluja [Palestine] and our armies and governments in the capitals, from which we received orders.” As shown by Nasser’s historical presentation of the “facts of space” specifically (the second and third sections of the philosophy of the revolution), his reading and interpretation of the history of Egypt and the region informed by his military background, on the one hand, and his reading the history of the establishment of the Zionist entity, on the other, led him to conclude that “When the Palestine crisis began, I was deeply convinced that fighting in Palestine was not fighting in a foreign land, and it was not a pursuit of passion, but it was a duty of self-defense.” His conclusion contradicts the a-historical and false visions of history that have been used to distort the realism of Arab nationalist ideas and to characterize Arab nationalist ideology as instinctual and irrational. When Nasser was a high-school student and took part in the annual protests of the Balfour Declaration, passion was the motivation behind that enthusiasm, he said. However, Nasser’s awareness and understanding of the true meaning of the Balfour Declaration and its implications for Palestine, as well as for Egypt itself and the region as a whole, changed when he became a student at the military college and studied the history of Palestine’s campaigns. He studied, as he said, “the history and circumstances of the region that rendered it an easy target to be snatched by the fangs of a group of hungry monsters.” The fighting of Arabs in Palestine was a matter of self-defense, as Nasser stated, and the fighting of the Arabs in Palestine would remain a matter of self-defense in the future (Nasser 1954/1996, 95, 101–02).

Therefore, Nasser’s true revolution was not overthrowing the royal monarchy that ruled Egypt until 1952, neither was it the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the significance of the great historical event notwithstanding, or the construction of the High Dam or agrarian reform, despite its economic and developmental importance. His great revolution, as summed up by (Al-Hafez 2005, 734), was in the “shift that he brought about by restoring Egypt to its natural sphere as an active force.” This vision “gives a clear picture of Nasser’s historical vision that surpassed all other thinkers and pre-1952 Egyptian politicians.” This shift was the basis of a new Arab consciousness in Egypt and the Arab world and represented a new counter course to the isolationist ideologies that were supported by Western colonial powers. The nationalization of the Suez Canal, the construction of the High Dam, and agrarian reform were only some consequences of this ideological shift. Participation in the Yemen war was also another outcome. Muhammad Hassanein Heikal mentions that he was personally against Egypt’s participation in the Yemen war and admitted that he was wrong. After the nascent revolution of Yemen, Nasser believed it was not possible to “leave the Yemeni revolution alone.” He also believed that leaving the Yemeni revolution alone could have had serious implication on the Arab national liberation movement in general (Heikal 1976, 66).

Nasser’s Historical Block

Nasser’s choice, therefore, was “unity in the struggle” or advocating “the one struggle,” as he called (Nasser 1954/1996, 101), which is essentially a policy aimed at mobilizing all available powers and resources not only for the Arab nation that was his first and most important constituency but also for Africa (the African circle), the Islamic world (the Islamic circle), and beyond (the Non-Aligned Movement). In the language of Antonio Gramsci, Nasser’s choice was to construct a “historic bloc” capable of liberating Egypt, the Arab region, and the South because none could be liberated and victorious alone in a world dominated by the great empires. Egypt, or any Arab country, alone would not be free as long as there was a Zionist entity on their land. We may disagree on the most effective formulation of Arab nationalist ideas, but the essence of what Nasser has put forward confirms their extreme realism and rationality as well as their urgent need to accomplish the liberation of the nation. The individual state is incapable of accomplishing anything (development, liberation, justice). Its structure is designed to fail and reach the dead end, and the tyrannical rulers are but an expression of the conditions of that state, or the idea of the state which is not different from the racist colonial ideas that informed the division of the societies of the South.

Nasser’s followers in the world were apparently aware of the importance of the global alliance against colonialism and imperialism that Nasser sought. Patrice Lumumba, “the martyr of the world revolution,” as the iconic international revolutionary Che Guevara characterized him, was a Nasserite. In his last letter to his wife Pauline and friends, Lumumba concludes his testimony by saying: “Long live Africa” and not “Long live the Congo.” The more you read about Lumumba, the victim of “the most important political assassination of the 20th century” (De Witte 2001, 184–85), one feels he was a good student of Nasser and also sees the specter of the Arab leader and the Nasserite idea and vision for the South in all the lines of his testimony and details of his short life. Therefore, Lumumba attempted to liberate Congo and Africa from the quagmire that befell the societies of the South and paid his life for it. Perhaps this is why Nasser wrote to Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah after the murder of Lumumba: “I spend long nights in tears, and I feel the fire in my heart whenever I remember that our troops were there serving with the United Nations forces, and that the freedom we went to protect was assassinated within before our eyes.” The Congo and the “brutal crime of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba” were also the focus of Nasser’s first message to then-US President John F. Kennedy (Heikal 1988, 501–24, 523).

It is remarkable that Nasser met Lumumba only once (during the 1958 African summit in Accra, Ghana, before Lumumba was elected as prime minister and while the Congo was still under colonial rule), but Lumumba decided later to ask that Nasser care for his children as the assassination attempt against him was unfolding—Nasser honored Lumumba’s last will and raised his children as part of his family until his death.2 This behavior suggests that the connection between both leaders was greater than mere respect or appreciation. They shared the idea of the revolution as well as the idea of establishing the historic anti-colonial bloc.

The late Bolivarian revolutionary Hugo Chavez declared on a television interview on August 4, 2006 (during the July war in Lebanon) that “not only [do] I feel Arab” but also “I am [a] Nasserite.” This is indeed true, and the iconic Latin American leader Simone Bolivar, Chavez’s inspiration, was the Latin American Nasser. Thus, Nasser is a school of global revolution. When listening to Guevara’s speech at the United Nations in 1964, repeating “Latin America” despite being a spokesman for the Cuban government, it can be concluded that he was also thinking in terms of the circles of both Nasser and Bolivar.

But Nasser’s revolution and the historical shift he led did not, of course, enfold without the eruption of the contradictions inherent in Arab society. Nasser realized from the beginning that his Third World socialist model would uncover existing contradictions in Egypt and the Arab homeland. He understood early on the importance of facing the enemy from within—a sector within Arab society whose interests intertwine with the colonial and imperial powers and contradict Nasser’s attempt to liberate the Arab homeland. Therefore, Al-Hafez was correct to argue that the Nasserite project revealed the forces of division, their counter interests, and their ideology (Al-Hafez 2005). The experience also revealed the shortcomings and romanticism of the Arab unity consciousness at that time, as Hafez pointed out—this is a separate subject that ought to be discussed while taking into consideration that Nasser’s perception of Western imperialism and the nature of its relationship with the Zionist entity evolved over time. However, Nasser’s attempt initiated the era of unity for the Arab homeland, that is, Nasser’s attempt provided the Arab unity project with the legitimacy and ideology it had lacked until that point.

What led to unfolding of tensions and contradictions in the Arab world between Nasser’s followers and the pro-colonial old forces of division was the nature of the Nasser revolution itself. It was not only a national liberation movement but also a social revolution. Nasser led two revolutions at the same time: the first against Western colonialism and imperialism; the second against feudal and capitalist forces in Egypt and the Arab homeland, which were supported by the alliance of some (reactionary) Arab forces, the Zionist entity, and Western imperialism, and all wanted to get rid of him personally, as the various assassination attempts show.

Ideological Invasion: The Sect against the Class

The ability of the global capitalist system to reproduce itself and, by implication, ensure the flow of wealth and surplus from the South to the North depends on fostering new mechanisms, which might be savage and materialize in bloody and violent fashion in the South. It also assumes a significant role for the dominant classes and elites in the South, as well as political, cultural, and Western hegemony over the world. This is why most national liberation movements in the South evolved into “conscripts of colonialism” (Scott 2004).

This is, of course, not only due to the nature and structure of the global capitalist economic system but also because it is based on an unequal cultural exchange between the North and the South, which forms the basis of the process of hegemony, The Marxist anthropologist Stanley Diamond argued that “In fact, acculturation has always been a matter of conquest. Either civilization directly shatters a primitive culture that happens to stand in its historical right of way; or a primitive social economy, in the grip of a civilized market, becomes so attenuated and weakened that it can no longer contain the traditional culture. In both cases, refugees from the foundering groups may adopt the standards of the more potent society in order to survive as individuals. But these are conscripts of civilization, not volunteers” (Diamond 1974/2009, 204). In its quest for hegemony, the capitalist system would not hesitate even to break the backbone of local cultures and national liberation projects that pursue a non-Western path by using brutal force to restructure its economy (as in the case of Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and later in Syria in 2011).

Therefore, since the mid-1970s (as part of the campaign to dismantle the heritage of Arab socialism) (Kadri 2016), the Arab world has been subjected to a sweeping invasion of the ideological field leading to a kind of collective and mass re-education of large sectors of the population. These campaigns have been effective as they targeted the economic basis/bearer of the national idea as well as ideas of national liberation and unilateralism. Ideological invasion usually precedes violence and wars in prioritizing goals, and sometimes its consequences are much more serious in undermining the national idea. For example, growth in (socialist) Syria and Egypt declined during the wars of 1967 and 1973 by only one percent (despite the fact that they were defeated and savagely destroyed). In the era of neoliberalism, the ratio was higher as the available data informs us.

In the Arab world, identity formation based on division was the most serious consequence of undermining the Arab nationalist idea. Simply, the redistribution of national income prepared the foundations for the subsequent ideological invasion. Although pre-capitalist feudalism is the womb in which sectarian and sectarian identities are represented and produced, modern sectarian identities of division, and most importantly, their existence at the expense of workers in the political sense (i.e., as a political actor not a result of pre-capitalist assets, but as a product of capitalist colonial relations). What is remarkable now is that the reconstruction of cultural identity as a sectarian divisional identity is the main narrative and the current trend in social science (becoming more like a trend in social science) for the main institutions that use identity experts collectively and intensively (i.e., not only the department of economics at universities, but social sciences as well). This strongly strengthens the ideological division of the working class and society in general by placing sectarian identity against class. In this case, it becomes one of the most dangerous types of Orientalism (Makdisi 2017).

Identity, of course, is a fluid and variable state and has no inherent intrinsic quality. Irrespective of the fact that it limits the ability of the working class to obtain a higher share of social output, or even maintain its share, it lacks an analytical or political framework that interprets the interrelations between individuals and groups. However, this is dangerous: when this identity and its cultural values become a point of political gathering, they become, as new sectarian forms (sectarian identities), effective economic and ideological ammunition for capital and against society in general, and the working class in particular. Thus, “sect against class” became the magic formula of neoliberalism to redistribute national income at the expense of the poorest and for the interest of the richest. Thus, identity was a mechanism of fragmentation, and therefore of imperial hegemony.

In the period of political and ideological retreat of socialism and national ideology, the reconstruction of identity accelerated and the political collapse of the working class accelerated, and the share of capital of social output accelerated at the expense of the people and the poor. The absence of a counter-awareness in this case will lead to the sustainability of the decline, and a decline that increases social disintegration across sectarian and ethnic lines. Thus, if civil wars were established first through the economy that undermined the nationalist ideology and nationalist idea, then they were followed by ideological counter-campaigns to fill the ideological vacuum resulting from undermining the national idea. Western universities, experts, and non-governmental organizations played an active role in reinventing and politicizing identities.

CONCLUSIONS: REGIONAL INTEGRATION

The new deceptive slogan for international financial institutions is “inclusive social growth”: growth cannot be achieved without compensation for the working class (Kadri 2016). But when neoliberalism is at the core of empowering the private sector at the social level, it is unlikely that a trickle-down effect would take place (for the workers and the poor), and, as such, this idea seems to be mere propaganda. Profit-based wealth depends mainly on cost reductions and simultaneous increases in productivity, but productivity has declined in the Arab world. Thus, the accumulated wealth in this model (especially in the absence of high productivity) was mainly based on a redistribution and a steady reduction in the share of the working class in GDP. Thus, the wage share of the national product in the Arab world has declined steadily since 1980, and reached the lowest rates in the world, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The proposed formula for overcoming the crisis produced by these policies is based on the following assumptions:

  • As a socialist Arab nationalist solution does not seem currently feasible due to the unfortunate state of affairs in the Arab homeland, particularly as the difficult circumstances of some major Arab countries (Egypt in particular) prevent this program from being initiated in the short term. An alternative proposal that might be considered in the near and medium terms is a form of regional integration.

  • In the current globalized international environment, any potential sound developmental attempts cannot succeed in one country, especially if it is in an area or territory of great importance to the imperialist powers. As such, regional integration remains the only possible option.

The proposed regional integration scheme is essentially intended to consolidate development within a regional policy framework supported by specific common measures to ensure common interest in the region, and this is also conditioned by a number of factors, the top most being the scope and magnitude of systematic and purposeful economic coordination with the rights-based policy aimed primarily at lifting the population out of extreme poverty. These measures can only be effective depending on the contribution and participation of labor (not capital) in the formulation of economic policies of the state, the most important of which is sovereignty and security (usually ignored in the literature of the main stream economic trend). What is meant by security here is general financial and economic security for labor, which is the essence of sovereignty.

The above narrative is not merely an academic approach comparing two models or two historical stages, as much as an attempt to identify the choices facing the Arab nation these days. These options are not merely a conclusion or a set of practical recommendations, but rather options with real existential implications for the Arab nation. After eight years of the catastrophic quagmire that destroyed major Arab countries, and after forty years of neoliberal dictatorship, the consequences of continuing the same approach will be more disastrous than any nation could bear. For Arabs, as a nation, for the Arab world, the question has become existential. The consequences of continuing this approach after the experience of the so-called “Arab Spring” will be far greater than any people can tolerate. Thus, we are at a fork in the road and before us are only two options: socialism or barbarism.

1.

Paul Volcker was president of the US Federal Reserve in both the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations and the first neoliberal figure in this sensitive position.

2.

The Egyptian Yawm Sabea magazine published a long interview over four consecutive days (September 30, 2010–October 3, 2010) with Patrice Lumumba Jr. in which he narrated his family’s experience with Nasser’s family. It all began with a very daring Egyptian intelligence operation to smuggle Lumumba’s family to Egypt. Later, Lumumba’s children lived their childhood in Nasser’s home with his children, and they referred to President Nasser as “father” and his wife Tahiya as “mother”.

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