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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 Fattahal-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.”

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[*Lí-hó - Taiwanese Hokkien]

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