Friday, October 31, 2014

Arab leftists meet in Tunis to address their shortcomings & hopes

Mada Masr
The left of the Arab world
The region's leftists meet in Tunis to share concerns, hopes
October 13, 2014
Jano Charbel
Why is the leftist movement in the Arab World weak, divided and marginalized? Why have leftist movements not landed themselves in power in any country since the so-called Arab Spring? What hopes lie in store for them?

While leftists played an active role in the 2011 uprisings and in the events that led up to them, they have since been eclipsed by the better-organized political Islamists, military authorities, businessmen and members of the ancien régimes.

These were some the questions and thoughts put up for debate at the ¨Contemporary Leftist Politics in the Arab World” conference held in Tunis last Thursday. The event touched on what the broader leftist movement across the region has been grappling with as the possibilities of the 2011 uprisings continue to unfold.

The conference was organized by the Germany-based Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Tunisia. Named after the communist leader Rosa Luxemburg — who was killed alongside many of her fellow leftist insurgents in January 1919 at the hands of German troops following an attempted workers' uprising in Berlin — the foundation inaugurated its first office in the North Africa region on October 8.

The conference builds on two books published by the foundation this month in Arabic and English mapping out the different leftist movements in several Arab countries, while attempting to draw new lessons from past histories.

Speaking in Tunis, renowned Egyptian labor lawyer, human rights activist and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali declared, “The time for socialist politics is approaching.”

That statement, however, came against a backdrop of self-criticism that loomed behind many discussions at the conference.

Ali, the founder of the Bread and Freedom Party, said that the emergence of the left ¨depends on the ability to respond to the demands of the populace and the streets.¨

“We should overcome our infighting and schisms, we must move beyond talk of shortcomings and failures. Social and economic struggles lay ahead of us, therefore we must be prepared and organized. We must shirk violence, even if it is directed against us,” Ali said.

He added that there are ¨generational conflicts¨ between the political outlooks of younger and older leftists.

The Arab left ¨is stuck in an ongoing struggle between Islamist states and military states,” Ali continued. “Both sorts of states threaten to bury the peoples' revolutionary demands.”

He also slammed the position of some leftist figures and groups vis-a-vis the Egyptian military’s ascent to power over the past year.

“Some have chosen to side with [President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi in hopes of wiping out Islamist politics,” Ali explained. “Others have sided with him in hopes of landing themselves in office, or winning parliamentary seats in the upcoming elections.”

Egypt’s problems were echoed by representatives of the leftist movement in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Bassem Salhy of the Palestinian People's Party (PPP) explained that the leftist movement there is fragmented amongst several small parties — primarily the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, small communist parties and the PPP.

“We've been seeking to unite our ranks for years, but have been unable to do so. Therefore, we are presently just seeking coordination amongst these different factions — for this is the least we can strive to achieve,” he said.

Echoing Ali’s thoughts, Salhy hoped that the Palestinian left will not be eclipsed by the Islamist Hamas Party and the liberal Fatah Party.

But unity is difficult to realize, he pointed out, "especially in light of the fact that the Israeli occupation is actively seeking to thwart efforts toward unity and reconciliation — even amongst Hamas and Fatah.”

“We need to step away from classical and outdated leftist politics. We need to move toward the politics of socialist renewal and reinvigoration,” Salhy concluded.

Another Egyptian socialist activist, Mohamed al-Agaty, argued that the left is not short of ideas — it just hasn’t been given a chance to implement them.

¨Many alternatives were proposed by leftist and progressive groups since the January 25 revolution, nearly all of which were ignored or sidelined,” Agaty said.

With the exception of a handful of elected parliamentarians and appointed ministers who served brief and interrupted terms, the Egyptian left did not succeed in influencing state policies.

However, participants chose to refer to their ¨shortcomings¨ rather than using the word “failures.”
Ahmed Abdel Hameed, a member of the Revolutionary Renewal Group, listed several reasons underlying those “shortcomings” in the Egyptian context, including a historical disillusionment with the politics of the Soviet Union and its subsequent collapse, ¨the rigid bureaucracy of old and new leftist parties alike, outdated classical centralism, the inability of leftist groupings to unite in viable political fronts or coalitions.¨

Leftists must learn from these mistakes and undo them if they seek to rise to prominence in the region, Abdel Hameed argued.

Despite these complications, Ali expressed hope for the new left in terms of their contemporary social, political and economic stances.

¨Leftist youth in Egypt have sided with recent student protests,¨ he pointed out, and the right to protest regardless of political allegiances. “Leftist youth in Egypt have taken an open stance against the new Protest Law, which greatly empowers the police, restricts the right to protest and the freedom of assembly."

But many at the conference contended that taking part in formal political processes is an important element for the success of the left.

Agaty said that the setbacks suffered by the Egyptian left were at least partially attributed to ¨repeated boycotts of elections and referendums that have kept leftists from interacting with voters and the general populace.¨

Egyptian leftists remain divided as to whether or not to run their candidates — or even to cast their ballots — in light of the draconian political conditions currently prevailing in the country.

State officials have still not specified the exact dates for Egypt's parliamentary elections, which are already overdue according to the provisions of the new Constitution.

Tunisian representatives at the conference appeared more determined with regards to fielding their candidates in their parliamentary elections, which are slated for October 26.

Leftists in Tunis, where a unified left-leaning coalition called the Popular Front has been gaining traction since 2012, appeared more united and prepared for these upcoming legislative elections.

A spokesperson for the Popular Front, Mawloudi al-Qassoumi, explained that this coalition initially included 11 constituent groupings, which have now dropped to nine, including Marxist and Nasserist parties, pan-Arab populists and others.

However, there are a host of other leftist, labor and communist groups which are not affiliated to this front, and which have already fielded their candidates.

¨The absence of a cohesive or unified left means a weakened stance, and an inability to realize the revolutionary demands of the populace,” Qassoumi said.

Despite their relative optimism with regards to the upcoming parliamentary elections, Tunisian leftists expressed concern that the Islamist Ennahda Party would win a majority of votes and seats.

¨We must move beyond sloganeering and merely chanting revolutionary demands,” Qassoumi urged.

“Otherwise, we shall continue to fail and lose opportunities to reach out to the general population.”
*Photo by Jano Charbel
Author's note: Amongst the most serious shortcomings/failures of leftist movements in the Arab world is their inability to coordinate with local labor movements, trade unions, farmers' organizations, student unions, neighborhood-watch committees, environmental activists, squatter communities, etc.
Nearly none of the participants at this conference in Tunis mentioned these civil society groups, nor did they mention their inability to coordinate with them. 
Most participants had state-centric outlooks and proposals - focusing on elections and representative democracy. Many of these participants spoke of leftist political parties, their role in parliamentary/presidential elections and "representative democracy." Nearly none spoke of direct democracy, or grassroots independent organizations.

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