The Rise of Religious Powers and the Failure of the Left in The Middle-East

Souad Sharabani: In the past three decades or so, Communists, trade unionists and secular nationalist movements like pan Arabism were replaced by religious and ethnic dividers as the forces that mobilize, galvanize and divide the people in the Middle-East. We see the same results in every country with different circumstances. What are the factors that explain the rise of religious fundamentalism and the decline of the left? I had the opportunity to sit with Ramzy Baroud to talk about these issues and more.

Ramzy Baroud is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of He is currently completing his PhD studies at the University of Exeter. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

Ramzy Baroud: In the Middle East, and in the Arab world in general I would say the socialist alternatives were failing, particularly with the decline of the Soviet Union’s influence. The Soviet influence unified the ranks of various Arab countries that always revolved within the Soviet Bloc. South Yemen was a particularly potent example.

That failure was not simply the outcome of socialist bloc’s crumpling geopolitical regional models, but also because Middle Eastern countries (also under the influence or due to pressure from western hegemons) were experiencing a rethink. That was the time of the rise of the Islamic alternative, which was partly a genuine attempt at galvanizing the region’s own intellectual resources, and partly because of the funds coming from rich gulf countries to control the rise of the Islamic tide.

That was the time when the slogan: Islam is the Solution became quite dominant. That new slogan pierced through the collective psyche of various Arabic intellectual groups throughout the Middle East and beyond, specifically because it seemed to be an attempt at tapping into the region’s own historical and cultural references.

The general idea was: both US-western and Soviet models have failed or are failing, and there is an urgent need for alternative.

Souad Sharabani: when you are talking about the how the Soviet Union failed the Middle East, that also tells me that the left throughout the years was not able to build a solid foundation among their people. So that even when the Soviet Union collapsed the left would have been able to remain on solid ground among their people?

Ramzy Baroud: that is a good point. If you look at the rise of the left and the various political manifestation of the left in Europe, in Asia, in Latin America, you find it, more or less followed a set model, some experiences more accentuated than others, starting at universities, the work place and so on.

The rise of the left necessitated some kind of marriage between the ideas, mobilization and action.

If I must generalize, in the Arab world, there was a relatively a strong intellectual component of the left. But the intellectual left hardly ever managed to cross the divide between the world of theories and ideas, which was available to the educated classes, into the work place, the peasants and the average man and woman on the street. Without mobilizing the workers, peasants, and oppressed masses, the Arab left had little to offer but further rhetoric.

Souad Sharabani: Could it be that in the Middle East at the time, the majority of the population was, and still are peasants/rural communities, and the left was predominantly in urban centres and therefore were unable to penetrate into these communities?

Ramzy Baroud: Perhaps, but I would say unwilling, not unable. It is important to navigate through the course in which politics and power intertwine. Where political elites are based in urban centers, and the power is divided between whichever group manages to prevail. These elites have their specific political affiliations, parties, newspapers, and universities. Whatever arrangement is being hashed between the elites, as a result of conflict or agreement, it is often sorted out in these power centers, far away from the rest of the country, where the factories and the farms continue to operate without much disturbance, enriching the rich and furthering the misery of the poor.

Rarely did the left challenge that paradigm and reach out beyond the confines of these hubs of power.

Souad Sharabani: Why was that the case?

Ramzy Baroud: Mostly because of the mindset, and the understanding that politics is also the business of the elites, not the poor. And any political change that happened had to go through the same dynamic. The left is a component of that dynamic, to challenge it would be to challenge their own access to power.

Souad Sharabani: Were the governments’ at the time more oppressive towards leftist groups than Islamic ones?

Ramzy Baroud: Of course both groups were oppressed through out the years. The levels of oppression differed depending on the country. For example the left was not as oppressed in Iraq as they were in Saudi Arabia. Some progressive leftist elements were incorporated into the regime, were allowed to operate within acceptable margins of the ‘political life’ there. The Ba’ath party had some tolerance for some and no tolerance for others, all depending on who agreed to play by the rules.

There was no room for leftists, or any manifestation of the left in Saudi Arabia, or for anyone who opposed the King for that matter.

In fact, because of that shared oppression of political Islam and radical left, there was a degree of affinity between activists from both of groups, as they shared prison cells, and were tortured and humiliated together.

Souad Sharabani: The religious groups or parties that came to power throughout the Middle East people did not support them for strictly theological reasons, but more for social, political and economic reasons am I right?

Ramzy Baroud: I think the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood vs. Al Nour Party in Egypt is enough to confirm your assumption here. The Al Nour party arrived to the political scene quite recently, and is more driven by religious rhetoric than any particular sociopolitical program. Yet they are far less popular than the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood are more worldly and open to political compromises, yet they were much more popular among Egyptians if you compare them to the Salafia.

Souad Sharabani: The Islamic groups like the Hizbalaha in Lebanon, the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, or Hamas in Palestine, created almost parallel governments providing their people the services that their governments stoped providing such as health care, education, housing, and other forms of welfare support. Am I correct?

Ramzy Baroud: That’s true. This momentum began with the nationalization of various oil industries, and the increase of oil prices. The region was flooded with a lot of money that came from the Gulf. We started seeing that slowly constructed apparatus of institutions, educational, health related and so forth.

The point of contention is: was this all planned in advance? I will argue that the rise of political Islam was not pre-calculated, but rather it just happened. The Saudis wanted to translate their wealth to influence, and various Muslim communities welcomed the pouring of funds, and began to build institutions, construct hospitals, mosques, schools, establish newspapers, and so on. The Americans then seemed okay with the idea that these groups will counter the Soviet influence, especially considering the war in Afghanistan.

Souad Sharabani: It is very interesting to note that in Iran, in Egypt and in many other Middle Eastern countries, we talked about the fact that the peasants and the working poor are the big supporters of Islamic parties, but it is also the merchant class. What do they have in common?

Ramzy Baroud: Surely you can find a common ground between people of various walks of lives. You can always find a wealthy Republican and a poor or lower middle class individual putting their class differences aside and uniting behind a political party, no matter how odd that unity may seem.

In the Middle East, religion or sect has always been grounds for unity, even if that unity seems frivolous or challenges obvious class conflict.

Souad Sharabani: Originally the educated classes were the force behind the left in the Middle East, now we are seeing the educated classes joining the religious groups. Is it because they were unable to improve their lives under the existing systems?

Ramzy Baroud: The early 1990’s was a turning point. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought to an end its political influence and outreach. At that time there was a lot of oil money coming in. Numerous Islamic Universities opened up all over the world. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries were able to send tens of thousands of students all over Europe to get engineering and other degrees. The tide was reversed in terms of the demographics of the educated classes.

The hegemony over education was largely broken. Look at Hamas in Gaza. Many of their leaders and members have high degrees, in engineering, or medicine. And that has become very common among all Islamic groups in Palestine, in Egypt, in Morocco and so forth. So the hegemony over education and over the articulation of the discourse is longer in the hands of the political or intellectual elites.

Now your other point about employment, this is actually the key point here. In most of the Arab countries, we do not have functional independent institutions that operate outside the realm of governments, where you could still be a leftist and operate in a free uncontrolled environment, maintain your ideology and still thrive academically and financially and professionally.

So ideologically driven intellectuals are left with few options: either live on the margin of society – you know, the maverick communist guy sitting in a coffee shop in Cairo speaking about the proletariat – or join existing institutions to remain financially afloat. Those who opted for the latter, needed to compromise to the extent that some of them are now mouthpieces for the very governments that continue to oppress their people.

Some of them ended up working for semi government institutions, some of them would end up working with NGOs, but the vast majority of them seemed to disconnect from their masses-rich slogans and old values.

As a result, the thrust of their political power as a group has diminished so greatly through out the years. If you think of Egypt for example, can you think of one overriding powerful leftist organization that operate in Egypt? Not a single one. There are ‘leftists’ but they hardly register as movers and shakers of the current political landscape.

Souad Sharabani: The Islamic Brotherhood of Egypt, Hamas, Hizbalaha, or even the Ayatollahs of Iran, these governments are not interested in creating a Taliban style governments in their respected countries. Am I right?

Ramzy Baroud: far from it, really. They are interested in power, but within a more dynamic political atmosphere, which would both guarantee their existence and influence.
Their challenge was to come with some form of political vision that would allow them to maintain a substantial degree of Islamic identity, yet create a functional modern political institutions, that intersects, to an extend with the principles of modern political democracy.

It is not easy to come to terms with all that real democracy actually entails in a region that has few, if any, democratic experiences.

Souad Sharabani: The conditions in the Middle East are very bleak. Wherever I look I see wars, death and destructions. Is there any hope in site?

Ramzy Baroud: Don’t forget these societies fought and are fighting against extremely corrupt, brutal, calculating manipulative dictatorships like Hosni Mubarak that have been in existence for decades. It is not just about an individual dictator but it is the class that has controlled every aspect of life in every nation. In order to uproot these corrupt systems, the price is predictably high. But someone has to stand up and challenge the system.

Needless to say that old colonial and neocolonial powers are very much invested in the Middle East because of oil, and because they want the Middle East to be ‘stable’ according to whichever way it suits their interests.

I think there is another issue that is quite important and that is the demographics of the Arab world. For the most part, they are very young populations, who grew up with social media. They had access to ways of communicating their oppression, and organize.

And Egypt in particular for me is not a source of depression it is a sort of optimism. Now since the crackdown by SISI, every single day that youthful population is now being educated the language of revolution. They are spending time in jails, and that what revolution is all about. It is about spending time in jails, it is about murder, it is about being liquidated by the regime, and it is about suffering and it is about pain. And once that is saturated only then you will have the true mindset of revolution. And I think now, the Egyptian public beginning to educated themselves what revolution is, and what is needed of them once SISI comes down. And I think it is only a matter of time before SISI is out.

Soud Sharabani for 30 years has been a freelance radio journalist based in Toronto Canada. She has worked for the CBC and BBC, as well as for PEN INTERNATIONAL.