Lessons from last time: national liberation in the Arab world

Many Arab leaders now facing revolts against their rule were themselves a product of the revolutionary wave in the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s that ended colonial occupation. James Supple looks at what went wrong and the lessons for today’s revolts

The Middle East’s people power revolt has destabilised regimes throughout the region.

Across the whole region, tiny corrupt elites have amassed millions of dollars in wealth, while the majority of the population has remained poor and desperate.

The regimes of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi have only clung to power by the brutal repression of their own people.

The regimes unravelling in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and further afield came to power in the wave of independence movements that overthrew European colonial control following WWII. These national liberation struggles saw a division of the region into two sets of regimes.

In the Gulf oil states, the monarchies and sheikdoms established as clients of British imperialism (like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia) remained largely intact. But in others including Syria, Iraq, Egypt and north Africa new post-colonial governments came to power.

Nasser came to power as a hero of the last wave of Arab revolutions, yet Mubarak was his direct successor

Incredibly, regimes like that of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya came to power as the heroic champions of the struggle for independence from colonial control.

The Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt was similarly the direct descendant of the popular military coup by Gamal Nasser and the Free Army Officers in 1952 which forced British occupying forces from the country.

Yet despite the hopes, these regimes not only failed to solve problems of poverty and Western imperialist domination—they degenerated into authoritarian dictatorships.

The new regimes emerging will face the same problems—so the attempts their predecessors made to deal with them, and why they failed, contain important lessons.


Western imperialist control has shaped the modern history of the Middle East. Colonial rule by Western powers saw the looting of resources and produced poverty and underdevelopment.

It was during WWI that control of the Middle East’s vast oil reserves became crucial for the European colonial powers. The decaying Ottoman Empire’s entry into the war on the side of Austria-Hungary allowed Britain and France to occupy the area, dividing it between them. Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, commented that controlling the Middle East meant, “the allies floated to victory on a wave of oil”.

Egypt had been occupied earlier by Britain in 1882, as a key strategic possession for the British navy due to the Suez Canal, which gave access to British dominions like India.

British control of Egypt meant Europeans enjoyed a privileged status where they were exempt from Egyptian courts and from paying any tax—to the benefit of rich Western investors. British rule produced increasing concentration of agricultural land, so that before 1952 over 90 per cent of rural families were landless or owned less land than was necessary to support a family of four. Just 2000 families controlled a fifth of all land.

An uprising against British rule in 1919 forced them to grant formal independence in 1922, but Britain continued to maintain troops in Egypt to control the Suez Canal until 1956.

Libya was controlled by Italy for 30 years after 1911. Italian settlers profited from development, but by 1951 the country had just four primary and secondary schools with a total enrolment of 300 students, and 83 per cent of the population was illiterate.

When the country was eventually granted independence in 1951, it had just 16 university graduates and was amongst the poorest countries in the world.

Nasser and Arab nationalism

Under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty signed in 1936, Egyptian governments were still effectively controlled by Britain until the Free Officers under Nasser staged a coup in 1952.

Nasser’s regime won widespread popularity as a result of efforts to address poverty and underdevelopment through a program including the nationalisation of banks, insurance companies, shipping, transport and the press. The property of Egypt’s 600 wealthiest families was seized. Land reform was introduced, eliminating the biggest landlords by limiting the amount of land any one family could own.

Nasser’s aim was to mimic the state capitalist strategy of Stalinist Russia, by using state control of the economy to impose a program of planned industrialisation. The regime spoke of its development plan as “Arab socialism”.

Nasser also became a hero of the anti-imperialist and “Arab nationalist” movement across the whole Middle East.

Colonial rule over the Arab populations of the region, and the humiliation of the Palestinians through the seizure of their land to create the state of Israel in 1948, produced an impetus for a pan-Arab struggle against imperialist control. As the most populous Arab country it seemed obvious that Egypt should lead this struggle.

Nasser’s popularity soared after he nationalised the Suez Canal and its $100 million in annual revenue in 1956 at the expense of its French and British owners. A joint invasion by Britain, France and Israel to try to retake it was abandoned as a result of US pressure. This gave Nasser a symbolic victory over Western imperialism. His call for Arab unity even led to a short-lived United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria in 1958.

“His picture was everywhere”, as Egypt expert Anne Alexander has written, “carried aloft in the streets from Cairo to Baghdad, on the front cover of Time magazine.” They can still be found on sale today in the markets of Cairo.

In Libya, a military coup brought Gaddafi to power in 1969. Although he used socialist rhetoric, he modelled himself on Nasser’s Arab nationalist politics, aiming to end the remnants of colonial control and develop Libya’s economy.

British troops were forced to leave and the giant US air base near Tripoli was evacuated. Much of the oil sector was nationalised and the regime attempted to use the increased oil revenue for development in agriculture, infrastructure and social services. The minimum wage was doubled and rents reduced.

Failure of national liberation

But the politics of Arab nationalism in Egypt, Libya and across the Arab world had a major shortcoming from the beginning. The new regimes never attempted to go beyond establishing an independent capitalist state.

Although they sometimes talked of themselves as “socialist”, the interests of workers were subordinated to the effort to industrialise the economy. Just weeks after the Free Officers coup in Egypt, two strike leaders from the Misr Fine Spinning and Weaving Company were executed by the regime after they led thousands of workers on strike.

The new governments were based on the middle classes in the state bureaucracy and the army. This meant that in the struggle against imperialism Nasser relied on the professional army officers and the military establishment. This was to prove disastrous in the 1967 war with Israel. Israel (with US backing) defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in days. The entire Egyptian air force was disabled in the first hour of the war.

But as British socialist Tony Cliff argued at the time, “the strength of any anti-imperialist liberation movement is in the masses of the workers and peasants mobilised”. Nasser’s military strategy was the exact opposite of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Vietnam. The NLF waged an anti-colonial war, first against France, then the US by delivering revolutionary land reform to the peasants, which allowed them to mobilise them in a mass guerrilla army that humbled US imperialism.

As a result of Nasser’s defeat, Egypt was forced to make its peace with Western imperialism. Anwar al-Sadat, Nasser’s Vice President, took over when Nasser died in 1970. He moved the country closer to the US, and signed a historic peace treaty with Israel. As a result Egypt began receiving massive amounts of US aid, much of it military aid to help prop up the military dictatorship.

Economic problems of debt and high inflation also led to the abandonment of earlier efforts at state-led capitalist development in favour of “free market” or neo-liberal policies. Sadat instituted the “infitah”, which meant a program of opening the country to foreign investment and the privatisation of state-run industries.

This shift was a product of Egypt’s need for Western aid and investment. If it was going to co-exist in a world capitalist system, Egypt needed access to the wealth and advanced technology that is controlled by the major corporations and their imperialist backers.

But this shift also produced increasing opposition from workers and peasants, whose living standards were hit by Sadat’s neo-liberal program as the price of basic goods rose and social spending plummeted. In 1977 there was a spontaneous uprising after the elimination of subsidies on bread, sugar and kerosene.

Meanwhile a small layer in Egypt’s ruling class have enriched themselves by acting as local representatives for Western multinationals and by building their own corporate empires supplying products for the global market.

The failure of national liberation in Egypt parallels the experience in many of the other third world revolutions against colonialism that took place after WWII. This process was described by Tony Cliff as one of “deflected permanent revolution”, where elites came to power because the working class did not play a leading role in the revolutionary upheavals.

Instead, a layer of intellectuals and middle class reformers took power—whether Castro in Cuba, Mao in China or similar nationalist leaders in other countries like Egypt, Algeria, Zimbabwe and Libya. They looked, not to the socialist transformation of the economy, but to use the state to modernise their economies through wide scale nationalisation of industries and planned industrialisation.

But after a couple of decades this economic route to national development began to fail.

The state capitalist model of Russia no longer worked in late 20th Century capitalism. The return of economic crisis to the world economy in the mid-1970s exposed the limits of independent state development and country after country opened their economies to privatisation and foreign capital investment.

Gaddafi’s ‘rogue state’

The failure of national liberation followed a similar path in Libya. Gaddafi’s Libya remained a “rogue state” in the eyes of the West for longer, as it funded anti-colonial fighters around the world like the IRA in Northern Ireland, the ANC in South Africa but also left-wing terrorist groups like Italy’s Red Brigades.

The US bombed Libya in 1986 in an attempt to assassinate Gaddafi. He survived but an estimated 100 civilians were killed when a missile hit a residential area. Sanctions imposed by the UN followed.

But from the late 1990s the West began to bring the regime in from the cold, so that US and British oil companies could get access to Libya’s oil fields. In 2003 Gaddafi agreed to scrap what turned out to be a fake weapons of mass destruction program and to compensate victims of the Lockerbie bombing, after secret talks with Britain and the US. In exchange the sanctions on Libya were lifted.

For Gaddafi, this held out the prospect of modernising and expanding Libya’s oil and gas industry through letting the oil multinationals back in. Tony Blair famously met Gaddafi in Libya in early 2004, drawing up deals that secured the first new oil exploration rights for Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell. US oil companies followed.

As in Egypt this represented a shift from the earlier state control of industry towards a neo-liberal approach. Import restrictions were also abolished, along with subsidies for electricity and other basic goods, in line with IMF advice.

Western governments also became major arms dealers to the Libyan dictator, with $500 million of arms sold by EU countries alone in 2009. Gaddafi had become just another Western-backed dictator in the Middle East.

Socialist alternative

The post-colonial governments in the Middle East failed because their social base was a middle class layer in the army and the state bureaucracy. The nationalist revolutions did not challenge the logic of capitalist production, locally or globally. This new elite had an interest in striking deals with imperialism, and exploiting their own populations, so that it could have “stability” and enrich itself through its control of major industries.

A solution to the problems of dictators, imperialism and poverty that blight the region can only come through a social revolution, in which the working class and the mass of the population take control of society in their own interests. Such a transformation would mean introducing a socialist society that addressed the immense inequalities of wealth through radical land reform and redistribution of the wealth controlled by big business and a small elite.

Such a revolution could not remain isolated in one country, but would need to spread region-wide to take over the oil wealth of the Gulf states and Libya, and use the wealth and resources to develop the whole region. But as we are seeing in the Middle East today, revolution can be contagious and a successful socialist revolution would be a powerful model to export across the region and across the world.

The experience of the Russian revolution in 1917 shows that even in a country where peasants are the majority, the working class is the only class capable of leading a struggle to build socialism.

Workers have a unique power, because they are concentrated in large numbers in the cities and have the potential power to shut down the oil, transport networks and other industries and bring society to a halt and topple corrupt governments. In countries like Egypt capitalist production has created a working class in the tens of millions.

As revolutionary situations of the last 150 years have shown, workers in struggle can also pose an alternative way to run society, based on mass democratic control of the workplaces and the economy.

The hope that the revolutions in the Middle East can develop in this direction is shown by the strike wave in Egypt, which has continued and grown since the downfall of the dictator. Their struggle holds the potential for the socialist transformation of the Middle East—and could chart a new direction for workers everywhere.


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