Why The Left Has Gained So Little From The Arab Spring

Leftist movements in the Arab World are divided and marginalized, even after leading the region's democracy uprisings. In Tunis, Arab leftists got together to try to reverse course.

In a file photo, a Socialist flag flies in Beirut.
In a file photo, a Socialist flag flies in Beirut.
Jano Charbel

TUNIS — While leftists played an active role in the 2011 uprisings and in the events that led up to them, they have since been eclipsed by the better-organized political Islamists, military authorities, businessmen and members of the ancien régimes.

This was the backdrop of a conference held last week in the Tunisian capital called "Contemporary Leftist Politics in the Arab World.” The event touched on what the broader leftist movement across the region has been grappling with as the possibilities of the 2011 uprisings continue to unfold.

The conference was organized by the Germany-based Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Tunisia. Named after the communist leader Rosa Luxemburg — who was killed alongside many of her fellow leftist insurgents in January 1919 at the hands of German troops following an attempted workers' uprising in Berlin — the foundation inaugurated its first office in North Africa on October 8.

The conference builds on two books published by the foundation this month in Arabic and English mapping out the different leftist movements in several Arab countries, while attempting to draw new lessons from history.

Speaking in Tunis, renowned Egyptian labor lawyer, human rights activist and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali declared, “The time for socialist politics is approaching.”

That statement, however, came against a chorus of self-criticism that drove many discussions at the conference. Ali, the founder of the Bread and Freedom Party, said that the emergence of the left "depends on the ability to respond to the demands of the populace and the streets."

He declared to his fellow leftists: “We should overcome our infighting and schisms, we must move beyond talk of shortcomings and failures. Social and economic struggles lay ahead of us, therefore we must be prepared and organized. We must shirk violence, even if it is directed against us.”

Ali noted "generational conflicts" between the political outlooks of younger and older leftists.

The Arab left "is stuck in an ongoing struggle between Islamist states and military states,” Ali continued. “Both sorts of states threaten to bury the peoples' revolutionary demands.”

He also slammed the position of some leftist figures and groups vis-a-vis the Egyptian military’s ascent to power over the past year.

“Some have chosen to side with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in hopes of wiping out Islamist politics,” Ali explained. “Others have sided with him in hopes of landing themselves in office, or winning parliamentary seats in the upcoming elections.”

Palestinian factions

Egypt’s problems were echoed by representatives of the leftist movement in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Bassem Salhy of the Palestinian People's Party (PPP) explained that the leftist movement is fragmented amongst several small parties — primarily the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, small communist parties and the PPP.

“We've been seeking to unite our ranks for years, but have been unable to do so,” he said, acknowledging that the left continues to be eclipsed by the Islamist Hamas Party and the liberal Fatah Party.

But unity is difficult to realize, he pointed out, "especially in light of the fact that the Israeli occupation is actively seeking to thwart efforts toward unity and reconciliation — even amongst Hamas and Fatah.”

Another Egyptian socialist activist, Mohamed al-Agaty, argued that the left is not short of ideas — it just hasn’t been given a chance to implement them.

"Many alternatives were proposed by leftist and progressive groups since the January 25 revolution, nearly all of which were ignored or sidelined,” Agaty said.

With the exception of a handful of elected parliamentarians and appointed ministers who served brief and interrupted terms, the Egyptian left did not succeed in influencing state policies.

Ahmed Abdel Hameed, a member of the Revolutionary Renewal Group, listed several reasons underlying those “shortcomings” in the Egyptian context, including a historical disillusionment with the politics of the Soviet Union and its subsequent collapse, "the rigid bureaucracy of old and new leftist parties alike, outdated classical centralism, the inability of leftist groupings to unite in viable political fronts or coalitions."

Leftists must learn from these mistakes and undo them if they seek to rise to prominence in the region, Abdel Hameed argued.

Tunisian optimism

Despite these complications, Ali expressed hope for a new impetus for the movement. "Leftist youth in Egypt have sided with recent student protests," he pointed out, and the right to protest regardless of political allegiances. “Leftist youth in Egypt have taken an open stance against the new Protest Law, which greatly empowers the police, restricts the right to protest and the freedom of assembly."

But many at the conference contended that taking part in formal political processes is an important element for the success of the left.

Agaty said that the setbacks suffered by the Egyptian left were at least partially attributed to "repeated boycotts of elections and referendums that have kept leftists from interacting with voters and the general populace."

Egyptian leftists remain divided as to whether or not to run their candidates — or even to cast their ballots — in light of the draconian political conditions currently prevailing in the country.

In Tunis, Peter Schäfer (RSL) and Hassan Zeitouny of Union of Lebanese Democratic Youth.

State officials have still not specified the exact dates for Egypt's parliamentary elections, which are already overdue according to the provisions of the new Constitution.

Tunisian representatives at the conference appeared more determined with regards to fielding their candidates in their parliamentary elections, which are slated for October 26.

Leftists in Tunis, where a unified left-leaning coalition called the Popular Front has been gaining traction since 2012, appeared more united and prepared for these upcoming legislative elections.

A spokesperson for the Popular Front, Mawloudi al-Qassoumi, explained that this coalition initially included 11 constituent groupings, which have now dropped to nine, including Marxist and Nasserist parties, pan-Arab populists and others.

Despite their relative optimism with regards to the upcoming parliamentary elections, Tunisian leftists expressed concern that the Islamist Ennahda Party would win a majority of votes and seats.

"We must move beyond sloganeering and merely chanting revolutionary demands,” Qassoumi urged. “Otherwise, we shall continue to fail and lose opportunities to reach out to the general population.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!