The United States is about to adopt a realpolitik foreign policy in the Middle East. This will mean relying on one of the oldest ideologies in the region. How Arab left-wing nationalism fares politically and economically in this new era is paramount.
President-elect Trump’s view during the campaign was that authoritarianism is an essential partner for combating terrorism in the Middle East. The President-elect’s realpolitik route could likely see the distancing of United States foreign policy from the concepts of human rights and regime change towards security and state sovereignty. As the ideological foundation of several key regimes as well as the primary force for economic and political stability, it is necessary to analyze left-wing nationalism in the Arab World.
Left-wing nationalism was instrumental in throwing off the yoke of European colonialism and helped to establish the political and economic systems that governed and shaped the Middle East for much of the 20th century. Socially progressive and secular, the ideological platform had a place for women, sectarian minorities, and economic development. Left-wing nationalism has shown remarkable resiliency to survive during the political upheaval. It is the appeal of Arab nationalism, self-determination, and a certain degree of socialism that made most traditional leftist parties largely irrelevant.
In addition, historical relations between the Middle East’s anti-imperialist indigenous movements and the Soviet Union have now been replaced by strong ties with Putin’s Russia and the local ruling parties. As Russia reasserts itself in the region, the U.S. could see its own local relationships challenged. However, there are three left-wing nationalist parties that face significant political and economic challenges as the Middle East recalibrates to the changing geopolitical realities currently unfolding.
Fatah and the Palestinians
Fatah’s historical position in the Palestinian’s liberation movement, its diplomatic links with Algeria and logistical support from Syria in the wake of the Six Day War have made it an important ideological base of left-wing nationalism in the region. Based in the West Bank, Fatah is struggling to find a path forward that revives the party and lays the groundwork for a new caliber of leaders. Elections haven’t been held in over ten years. A Palestinian comedy group joked that the party’s next congress would be held in 2509.
The central problems faced by the party are President Abbas’ health and the prospect of Gaza’s former security chief and Fatah figure, Mohammed Dahlan, returning to Palestinian politics. Dahlan has been working on establishing a relationship with Hamas in Gaza as well as the Arab Gulf States. However, Dahlan and his allies will attempt to impact Fatah from an external position, having been barred from attending Fatah’s Central Committee 7th General Congress on November 29th. President Abbas’ strategy of isolating Dahlan does have the appeal to Fatah’s relative independence from political interference of the wealthy Arab Gulf elite that Dahlan’s faction relies heavily on. Just over twenty percent of party delegates attending the congress will be youth selected by Fatah cadres in the West Bank and Gaza over the last few years.
The Israeli occupation still keeps a heavy strain on everyday life. The Palestinian economy is growing slightly faster than Israel’s (3% annually to Israel’s 2.5%). Half of youth are unemployed. The Palestinians are highly dependent on importing Israeli goods and foreign aid from the traditionally wealthy Arab Gulf States is in sharp decline due to falling oil prices. Israel, for its part, has grand plans for a $5 billion seaport project off the coast of Gaza. In recent years, Israel has been quietly building relations with the Arab Gulf States, taking tentative but positive steps towards the normalization of relations.
President-elect Trump has indicated his interest in trying his hand at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. To do this, he will need to rely on a solid partnership with the Palestinian political leadership. Other international partners beckon. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev paid a visit to President Abbas in November. Russia, with its longstanding ties to the Palestinians, could soon be positioned to spearhead peace talks between the PA and Israel.
For Fatah, the question of the leadership succession, which continues to see potential rivals jailed and purges within the party, the arrival of the Trump Administration, the split with Hamas, the arrival of Russia, and the ongoing economic hardships makes the PA’s political stability tenuous.
The Baath Party and Syria
The Syrian Regional Branch of the Arab Socialist Baath Party just celebrated the 46th anniversary of the late Hafez al-Assad’s Corrective Movement, the interparty coup that led him to seize power in November 1970. Assad’s father greatly transformed the Baath Party, abandoning much of its ideology, to create a national network for the state’s patronage system. Subsequently, the party lost much of its avant-garde character for which it was known during the 1950s and moved away from radical socialist policies.
The Pan-Arab ideology of the Baath Party was useful for reigning in the army and establishing a sectarian, statist economic system in Syria. Now faced with ideological competitors, the reality is that Pan-Arabism was in a steady decline in Syria long before the start of the civil war. Public sector employees that once made up Syria’s middle class (the party’s base) now face daily hardships. The siege and checkpoint economies have given power to new militias that will strive to maintain their influence. The return of traumatized and angry Sunni refugees will also create new grass roots political tension.
Post-war economic recovery in Syria will be highly dependent on Russia, China, and Iran. Beijing’s help will especially be critical for repairing Syria’s energy and telecommunications sector. This heavy reliance on foreign assistance will erode the Baath Party’s emphasis on nationalism and state sovereignty in the war’s aftermath.
However, despite the presence of foreign actors, Damascus will adopt an absolutist position at every diplomatic turn during peace talks. This was indicated by the government’s recent rejection of a proposal for autonomy in the war-ravaged city of Aleppo. President Assad will continue to use a carefully planned PR strategy to encourage restoration of diplomatic ties and economic recovery after the war.
For better or worse, Syria’s Arab neighbors will have their own post-war roles. On the economic front, there is speculation that the Lebanese city of Tripoli could serve as a vital business and logistical hub for Syria’s reconstruction and infrastructure development. To Syria’s east, the Iraqi Baathist, surviving in the form of the Naqshbandi Army, could find some sort of accommodation with the ruling Dawa Party in Baghdad. This development will certainly also impact the situation as Damascus attempts to reassert state control after the war. Syria’s Baath Party looks set to live on after the war, but in exactly what form is unclear.
The National Liberation Front and Algeria
Algeria’s ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), was greatly influential on other revolutionary movements after gaining independence through its armed struggle with France. As an ideological leader in the vanguard of “Arab Socialism,” the FLN was the first government to give diplomatic and logistical support to the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Algeria’s culture of protests has long been an example and trendsetter for the entire region.
As a key member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Algeria also prides itself on promoting a policy of noninterference in Arab internal affairs and has traditionally played a role in facilitating mediation in regional conflicts. It also has close ties with the Syrian government and has sought to protect it in the UN. The NAM, with the arrival of the Trump era, also looks well positioned to continue playing its traditional role on the sidelines of major international organizations promoting a policy of non-interference. There have even been links made between the Syrian Civil War and political isolation and cruelty of Algeria’s own Black Decade. A national amnesty deal, such as what Algeria offered, will likely be replicated in Syria, but is likely to be much more turbulent given the severely heightened sectarian nature of Syria’s conflict.
As with Syria and the Palestinians, Algeria’s future leadership is a central focus of observers, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika just returned back from receiving health treatment in France. The inner workings of FLN and its plans for leadership succession is highly secretive. Often described as a “trinity,” the FLN survives through the role of three crucial pillars of power: the army, the leadership, and the party. The FLN’s aging leadership and economic reform remains a primary concern for the direction of the country.
The National Coordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD) largely failed to gain widespread traction during the 2011 protests. The direction of Algeria’s economy is being closely monitored by observers. An estimated 13 percent of the country’s GDP is allocated towards an array of subsidies. Algeria’s trade deficit is an estimated $15.4 billion thanks to the low energy prices. The government’s efforts to diversify the economy are speeding up. The future of Algerian politics, its own Islamist currents, and the economic predicaments that lay ahead will test the durability of the FLN. The incoming U.S. Administration will keep Algeria close but will be kept in the dark in regards to the country’s leadership politics.
The future of Arab left-wing nationalism
With the rise of a plethora Islamist factions, the region’s old guard has seen contention and confrontation in various political theaters. Despite the ideological challenges from religion and democracy, the political and economic systems that provide essential social services and a semblance of order and stability have allowed not just the Arab monarchies, but the “deep states” rooted in leftist nationalism, to survive. Corruption and injustice, though often stated as the breach of the social contract with the ruling parties, is more often associated with attempts to adopt neoliberal economic policies and attempts of democracy promotion from foreign forces.
For the United States, there is a penchant to recall the era of Arab dictatorships as a time of stability and the Trump Administration will likely work to rebuild relations with key players in its quest to squash the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. Though the US, Russia, and increasingly China, may rely on the remarkable resilience of these aging state systems, the fundamental problems that rest just under the surface will continue to give strength to occasional social upheaval and violent unrest in the region for yet some time.
Chris Solomon is the GRI Guest Post Editor and a Senior Analyst.