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The Destructive Legacy of Arab Liberals: Attempts to Compromise With Western Interests Amounted to a Sellout

Demonstration through Norwich City Centre (UK) against the Israeli massacres of Palestinians in Gaza -  January 10, 2009. (Photo by Roger Blackwell)
Demonstration through Norwich City Centre (UK) against the Israeli massacres of Palestinians in Gaza -
January 10, 2009. (Photo by Roger Blackwell)

By Joseph Massad
It has become commonplace to present Arab Islamists of all political stripes (liberals, conservatives, radicals, neoliberals, moderates, extremists, nonviolent, violent, etc.) as a most, if not the most, dangerous political force in the Arab world since the 1967 War.

In fact, and as the following will show, it has been a new brand of Arab liberals — secularists and Islamists (though the former have been far more dangerous) — who have been and continue to be a most dangerous and destructive political force in the post-1967 Arab world.

The Western, Israeli and Saudi war against Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and anti-imperialist Arab nationalism required the birth of a new liberal intelligentsia. Their emergence on the scene in the late 1950s and in the 1960s, before the war, was part of the American-sponsored “cultural Cold War,” which financed intellectuals across the world for the anti-communist and anti-socialist liberal imperial crusade that also targeted anti-imperialist Third World nationalisms.

This was part and parcel of the Eisenhower Doctrine, which the Americans inaugurated in 1957 to intervene militarily and in every other way in the Middle East to fend off Soviet influence. It was in this context that the US intervened in Lebanon in 1958 against Arab nationalism with Saudi- and US-funded Lebanese liberals cheering on in the liberal press.

Many of these liberal Arab intellectuals were lackeys of US intelligence and they and their newspapers were financed by the US and Gulf regimes, especially the Saudis. They would exalt the virtues of the liberal West against Soviet and non-Soviet forms of communism and socialism and would attack Nasserist Arab nationalism.

While some would argue that Arab liberals are not true to the liberal tradition, I am less concerned with how well they approximate an imaginary Western liberalism, or whether they are “true” or “false” liberals, than with the fact that they present themselves and are presented by others as adhering to “liberal” principles. These include free parliamentary and executive elections, freedom of expression and of the press, freedom of association, civilian control of government and the military, a capitalist economy and varying degrees of separation between government and religious authorities.

Out of Egypt

In the post-1967 War period, the emergence of this new brand of Arab liberals was seen as confined to the Egyptian Sadatist intelligentsia whose main aim was to combat Nasserism in both its socialist and nationalist aspects and promote pro-Americanism. As the new century dawned, the Egyptian example became widely generalized across the entire Arab world.

The 1970s Egyptian liberals sang the praises of American power and imperialist capitalist penetration of their country and pushed for full surrender to the Israeli Jewish settler-colony under the banner of the “peace” negotiated by Nasser’s successor, President Anwar Sadat.

They insisted that Israel should be forgiven all its sins and that rendering Egypt its lackey and the lackey of the US would bring about many economic and political benefits to Egyptians. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose liberal transformation in the 1970s allowed them a seat at the Sadatist table, would join the political contest on the side of the liberal secularists against the Nasserist legacy.

Aside from state intellectuals, prominent litterateurs and artists pushed for this campaign. These extended from writers Yusuf Sibai to Naguib Mahfouz, and lesser figures like playwright Ali Salem, not to mention famous composer and singer Mohammed Abdel Wahab, intellectuals and academics of the ilk of Anis Mansour and Saad Eddin Ibrahim and many others. While Mahfouz and Abdel Wahab belong to an earlier generation of Egyptian liberals that have little in common with the post-1960s liberals, including mediocre state functionaries like Mansour, who edited the state-owned magazine October, they all joined the Sadatist ideological project in one way or another.

In this context, it should be mentioned that while the earlier generation of Arab liberals that emerged in the early part of the twentieth century and prospered in the 1920s and 1930s were mostly pro-European in their “civilizational” outlooks, they were not always pro-colonial, though a good number of them were. Indeed some, like Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed, the “father of Egyptian liberalism” and anti-Arab Egyptian nationalism, were even friendly to Zionism. Al-Sayed would go as far as attending the celebrations of the opening of Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1925.

While the Sadatist liberals were condemned and excommunicated across the Arab world (indeed Sibai, who served as minister of culture under Sadat, was assassinated by the Abu Nidal group on account of his visit to Israel and his support for the Sadatist surrender), their alliance with the US and Israel and their promotion of the selling out of Egypt to a new business class would not bring prosperity. Rather, it brought enormous poverty to most Egyptians and destroyed whatever achievements in education and healthcare the pre-liberal Nasserist order had achieved.

The only thing that increased and became more advanced in this liberal-supported Egypt was the level of political and economic repression for decades to come and the alienation of millions of Egyptians who lost even the possibility of an economic future, except for the hundreds of thousands (later upwards of four million Egyptians) whose employment was subcontracted to neighboring countries — Libya, Jordan, Iraq and the Gulf states. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Egyptians languished at home in dire poverty.

Liberalism spreads to Palestine

Soon, and by the late 1980s, the political and economic line the Egyptian liberals pushed for, let alone the international alliances they favored, would be adopted wholesale by a new class of Palestinian, Iraqi and, to a much more limited extent, Algerian intellectuals, who had until then been solid anti-imperial leftists and socialists.

In this vein, West Bank and Gaza-based Palestinian intellectuals pushed for a two-state solution that would grant those territories an independent state at the expense of diaspora Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

It was the rights of the latter two groups of Palestinians that these intellectuals, under the sponsorship of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), wanted to barter for an independent state granted exclusively to the one-third of the Palestinian people that lives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Indeed, many began to predict that the US-sponsored “peace process,” which they supported, would turn the West Bank and Gaza into a new “Singapore,” an economic miracle that would transform the lives of these Palestinians at the expense of the rest.

Once the PLO adopted this line of thinking fully, Palestinian liberal intellectuals became advisors, consultants, negotiators and ministers in the Palestinian Authority and brought about more massive poverty across the West Bank and Gaza, the erosion of international support for Palestinian rights and multiplied the forces of repression of the Palestinians by adding the PA security forces to the Israeli occupation army. This has led to the squandering of Palestinian political and economic achievements during the first intifada.

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