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Arab revolutions: The history and legacy of the Arab left

While there is understandable disappointment with the outcome of the Arab Spring, a revolution requires a long-term perspective, and its success cannot be judged by the seizure of power alone.

The 2010-11 Arab uprisings surprised even the most seasoned observers. The wars and the rise of authoritarian regimes that followed the protests were often viewed as a return to normal, the end of revolutionary desire. But both the surprise and the verdict of failure stem from a lack of understanding of longer-term revolutionary processes, especially the history of the Arab left during the 1960s and 1970s.

While the reassessment of Marxism that followed the 1989 collapse of the USSR brought on the demise of the left globally, this process had begun ten years earlier in the Middle East, where the revolution in Iran, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan had marked a watershed in the region’s history. These structural changes in turn changed the process of knowledge production and definitions of subject areas, while a short-term focus by politicians and media, along with changing perceptions of Middle Eastern societies, led to an increased interest in political Islam. Scholars and activists both young and old begun to view the history of the left through the lens of defeat.

Events in 2011 spurred two intertwined developments: the renewal of interest in the long-neglected history of the Arab left, and the start of a relationship between the activists of today and the activists of the 1960s and 1970s, long considered the defeated generation.

The uprisings highlighted a dependence on obsolete analytical tools among social scientists and helped bring about new methods, categories, questions and approaches to help provide relevant explanations of Arab societies and politics at a time of multi-layered disruption. Since the late 1970s, the left had been analysed mainly through the lens of its relationship with political Islam. After 2011, there was a desire to further rethink the left beyond the secular and religious divide, and to shed light on the resilience of Arab radical and democratic traditions that have survived wars, state coercion, neoliberal globalization, and several failed attempts to bring about change.

Scholars started searching for new narratives. For instance, the history of the left during the period from the 1950s to the 1970s was now viewed through the prism of power plays by states and communist parties in the context of global and Arab Cold Wars. Historians started painting a more complex picture of the relationship Arab communist parties had with the state and the USSR, by deciphering leftist anti-state movements, and examining the dynamics of rupture and continuities in militant and intellectual trajectories. The leftist movements of this period have also seen a recent revival through memoirs, novels, fictional biographies and the dissemination of historical records and documents.

These changing perceptions of the past have triggered the remobilization of activists from the 1960s and 1970s and led to a better understanding and even cooperation across the generational divide. Younger activists have started reconsidering this long-despised period and its leading figures. Egypt’s Arwa Salih is a case in point. A leader of the Communist Workers Party, she was considered, in leftist circles, a controversial figure for her role in the internal struggles that split the party and for her harsh critique of dogmatic attitudes towards women among leftist militants. She committed suicide in 1997, leaving behind a series of essays, and have recently captured the attention of a new generation who have developed numerous narratives around this fascinating and tragic figure.

The 2011 momentum marked a turning point for both leftist activists and academics. Through the revival of revolutionary hopes and a sense of urgency for social and political change, the uprisings connected hopes for a better future to revolutionary desires of the past. While there is understandable disappointment with the outcome of the Arab Spring, a revolution requires a long-term perspective, and its success cannot be judged by the seizure of power alone.