The crises in the Arab world are as much about competing political ideologies as they are about resources, territorial ambition, tribalism and religion. Many in the west claim to speak against various Arab ideologies without actually knowing what they are speaking against. It is important not to deprive Arabs of their voice in the wider battle of ideologies that many other peoples have dealt with throughout history.
Here is a list of important political ideologies in the Arab world.
Ba’athism is an intellectual and political movement founded by the Damascene scholar Michel Aflaq. Ba’athism essentially posits the view that socialism is the best method by which the Arab world can liberate itself in the post-colonial world. However, Ba’athists reject both Marxism-Leninism and the social democratic model of Europe.
Ba’athists apply socialist principles to the unique historical, cultural, economic and geopolitical conditions of the Arab world. Whilst secular in nature, Ba’athism is not atheistic and incorporates various teachings of Islam into its ideology. Ba’athism however does not see itself as an exclusively Islamic movement as indeed many Christians have been party members. Aflaq himself was a Christian.
Ba’athism first came to the fore of political power in 1963 during Iraq’s Ramadan Revolution and Syria’s 8th of March Revolution. However, internal Ba’athist fighting plagued the movement. One of the biggest issues was the question of Pan-Arabism versus a ‘socialism in one state’ model.
The Ba’athist government of Iraq was overthrown in November of 1963 to be replaced by forces sympathetic to Nasserism. The Ba’ath party however would re-claim power during the 17 July Revolution of 1968 under the leadership of Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr.
In Syria things were if anything, more chaotic. Inter-party civil war caused a split in the global Ba’athist movement in 1966. Older Ba’athists who had favoured pan-Aarabism were violently ousted in favour of the leadership of hardliner Salah Jadid. Jadid increased the militancy of the movement and fully abandoned notions of Nassersim.
When Jidid attempted to militarily engage Jordan over the Hashemite Kingdom’s expulsion of Palestinians, another inter-Ba’athist struggle emerged. The more conservative Hafez al-Assad proved to be victorious and led a so-called ‘Corrective movement’ against Jidid’s supporters. Syria’s current Ba’athist President is Hafez’s son, Bashar al-Assad.
Since Saddam Hussein’s fall from power in Iraq where he took over from al-Bakar in 1979, Syria remains the only Arab nation with a Ba’athist government.
Named for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Nasserism strives first and foremost for pan-Arabism/Arab unity. Nasserism encourages a mixed economy of state-ownership of major industry and a regulated agricultural sector with local free enterprise. Nasser’s Egypt was secular and oversaw the arrest of Islamists including those in the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the world’s first Islamist parties.
Nasserism’s zenith was in the late 1950s. After nationalising the Suez Canal in 1956, Britain, France and Israel jointly invaded Egypt. Nasser’s skillful wooing of both Soviet and American diplomats led the two-superpowers to force the invading countries to call off the war. Nasser can in many ways lay claim to striking what would be the decisive blow against British Imperial power.
The following year came another victory when Syria and Egypt became a single state called The United Arab Republic. After Iraq overthrew its Hashemite monarchy in the 14 July Revolution of 1958, there were hopes that Iraq too would join the United Arab Republic. This, however, was not to be. The republican Iraqi leader Abd al-Karim Qasim opposed such a union. Qasim was himself later overthrow by Ba’athists in 1963.
Nasser had a final minor victory when his republican forces toppled the Saudi, Jordanian and western back Yemeni royalists in the North Yemen Civil War which began in 1962. However by 1967, Nasser’s fortunes faded. Egyptian/join-Arab defeat in the 1967 Six Days War led Israel to occupy the Sinai Peninsula. That same year after continual harassment from British irregulars, Egypt withdrew from The Yemen Arab Republic.
Nasser’s legacy remains powerful. For many Arabs, he represented the first and last best hope of a secular, modern, mixed economic Arab nationalist. Few figures as powerful as Nasser have emerged in the decades subsequent to his early death in 1970.
Communism in the context of the Arab world is unique insofar as it has been a deeply influential movement but has only ever properly held power in one state, The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, aka South Yemen. One could also say that Algeria’s socialist FLN owed must to Marxist-Leninist ideology.
Communist parties were once deeply influential forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Howeverб as Ba’athist and Nasserist forces consolidated, they viewed the Communist Party as a threat and at times it was severely supressed.
Interestingly, the Soviet Union, whilst sympathetic to Arab communist parties, refrained from fomenting leftist revolutions in the Arab world and instead was generally happy dealing with Nasserist and Ba’athist rulers. The communist Palestinian People’s Party ought to be a stronger force than it is, but by joining the corrupt PLO in 1987, progress has been greatly retarded.
Greenism/Third International Theory:
Muammar Gaddafi was the most potent and original intellectual force in Arab politics since the death of Nasser. His Green Book outlined how repressed peoples could liberate themselves from colonialism and build a society that rejected the dogmas of both capitalism and communism.
The Green book is deeply communitarian in its values and economic organisation. Whilst deeply original, parts of Gaddafi’s economic model were inspired by Tito’s ‘third way’ socialism in Yugoslavia.
Initially, Gaddafi sought to unite the Arab world under the Third International Theory, but when Arabs of all political backgrounds proved to be increasingly intransigent, he focused on promulgating his theories in Africa where many post-colonel and under-developed countries were often receptive. Nelson Mandela was a staunch admirer of Gaddafi throughout his life.
Third International Theory is part revolutionary, part socialist, part secular and part spiritual. It is a hybrid ideology that is unique to history.
The Arab world has its fair shares of monarchies/royal states including Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE. Whilst royalism generally only becomes ideological when it is forced to complete against another ideology, one can attempt to look for exceptions in the Arab world.
Some monarchs like the Hashemites are seen as a stabilising force because of their blood-relation to the Prophet Muhammad. Yet this wasn’t enough to save King Faisal of Iraq who was violently overthrown in 1958. Other monarchies like Saudi Arabia are so deeply immoderate that they cannot be called anything but a force for evil. The House of Saud’s sponsorship of terrorism throughout the Arab world is a great stain on the world.
Islamic politics in the Middle East have become more prominent in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century. Many see Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 as inspiring forms of Islamism in the Arab world. The oldest such organisation is the Muslim Brotherhood which was founded in Egypt in 1928.
Islamism in general, rejects many aspects of the modern world and is violently hostile to secularism. Nasserist and Ba’athist regimes have frequently suppressed Islamism in its many guises.
Recently, the extremist Gulf States of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have funded Islamist groups including and especially terrorist groups in otherwise secular Arab states. The current war in Syria is best described as Ba’athist war against Islamism as represented by ISIS and al-Qaeda.
The Arab world’s disunity is partly due to disagreements over a suitable ideology or group of competing ideologies around which Arab political regimes and movements can be structured.
Europe generally has conservative, liberal and socialist parties. America has the Republicans and Democrats. The Arabs have their versions of ideologies which suit them, but internal squabbling has made progress difficult. If Islam fills this gap, the Arab world may not recover for generations.