6 - 12 November 2008
Issue No. 921

Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Arab roadmap left
Liberal and leftist forces in the Arab world are the best placed to forge a new 
social contract for the Arab people, writes Amr Hamzawy* 


There is a general presumption that tends to dominate our discussions on the 
importance and social efficacy of the liberal and left-wing forces compared 
with those of Islamist forces. It holds that the social fabric and prevailing 
cultural norms and political structures in Arab countries obstruct the growth 
of the former while facilitating the growing popularity and influence of the 
latter. Admittedly, there is considerable and diverse evidence to the fact that 
this impression is partially true. 

The sway that the religious dimension has over public debate, the decline in 
the popularity of left-wing parties and the ideas they espouse, and the 
powerful rise of Islamist forces are incontestable. However, it is 
simultaneously true that, in spite of many institutional restrictions, Arab 
liberals and leftists do not lack the social openings and political space 
needed to build grassroots support around alternative visions or complementary 
positions to those of the ruling elite and Islamist forces. In fact, the first 
step that the left must take in order to recover from its current frailty is to 
conscientiously take stock of the essence of the issues that open the avenues 
into society and that shape the potential realistic contours of the spaces for 
political action. 

The following are four such issues that I believe are of central importance 
across the board in the Arab world.

SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC RIGHTS: With the exception of a few instances in the Gulf, 
Arab countries are gripped with severe economic and social problems, most 
notably widespread poverty, high unemployment and illegal immigration; 
deteriorating educational, health and other primary social services; and 
crumbling social security networks. Moreover, the neo-liberal economic policies 
adopted by most Arab ruling elites since the 1990s have worked to exacerbate 
these problems during the past few years (even if they led to some improvement 
in overall rates of economic growth), driving entire sectors of the poor and 
limited-income classes towards severe hardship. 

Since the 1980s, Islamist forces have constructed an expanding social service 
network in the fields of education, health and other support services, thereby 
partially supplanting the ineffective government agencies that are officially 
charged with these tasks. For the most part, however, the Islamists do not have 
clear perceptions on how to deal with the deficiencies in the people's economic 
and social rights, and in their publicised statements and programmes they 
continue to swing back and forth between an economic liberal tendency that 
regards the market and the private sector as the engines of growth and a quasi- 
leftist tendency that advocates the return to the powerful, centralised, 
paternalistic state.

The Arab left and socially committed liberals (a term I use to distinguish them 
from the economic neo-liberal cliques in and around the ruling elite who 
advocate and practise a form of rampant capitalism unhampered by restrictions 
and social obligations and who are interested solely in profit) have a genuine 
opportunity to formulate an alternative vision that casts to the fore the 
essential issues behind the gross disparities in economic and social rights, 
namely the questions of justice and equality, fighting unemployment, building 
effective social safety networks, and reducing the ever-widening gap between 
rich and poor in Arab societies. Undoubtedly, liberal and leftist 
conceptualisations will be markedly different. However, the work of identifying 
the flaws and weaknesses in the opinions of the ruling elites and the Islamists 
and of exposing the injustices in Arab societies will bring them closer 
together and, simultaneously, bring them closer to broad segments of grassroots 
opinion. I am convinced that the best conceptual approach to this task is to 
focus discussion on the missing social contract in our countries. There is an 
urgent need to formulate a true consensus on the actual substance of such a 
contract and to pressure both the ruling elites and the Islamists to consider 
the relevant issues.

POLITICAL, CIVIL AND INDIVIDUAL FREEDOMS: All the official talk of democratic 
reform and political liberalisation over the past few years has not been 
translated into a qualitative shift in that direction in any Arab country. 
Little has changed or seriously improved in such vital matters as the rotation 
of authority, the rule of law, the separation of and checks and balances 
between powers, and broadening popular participation in public life. Nor has 
the growing political influence and activity of Islamist forces brought a 
tangible and lasting expansion in the realm of political party competition. 
Simultaneously, the Islamists have failed to strengthen their pressure on the 
ruling elites to implement democratic reform. Indeed, in many cases, they have 
fallen prey to participating in official contexts that have proved ineffective 
and for which they are paying a heavy price in terms of declining popularity.

The poor and stagnant levels of political, civil and individual liberties and 
the declining credibility of the government's and Islamists' reform banners 
offer leftist and liberal trends the opportunity to home in on such issues as 
the freedom of association and the freedom to form political parties and to 
syndicate, the freedoms of opinion and expression, the right to worship, and 
the need to eliminate all forms of discrimination in all these areas. In their 
advocacy of such essential rights, political liberals and the left must come up 
with a clear and succinct discourse centring around equal citizenship, 
secularism and plurality and targeting in particular the more politically and 
socially disadvantaged sectors of the population, such as religious and ethnic 
minorities, women, and those whose personal lifestyles or preferences depart 
from social or religious norms. 

THE CONSENSUS-MAKING CULTURE: The polarisation between the ruling elites and 
Islamist forces has caused the zero-sum mentality and simplistic absolutist 
approaches to dominate all public debate and political life in the Arab world. 
Unfortunately, many left-wing intellectuals and activists have also fallen prey 
to such black- versus-white reductionism. Not all components of the ruling 
elite or all the various shades of Islamism are tainted. True, at present the 
ramifications of the predominant attitudes and policies of the official and 
Islamist camps are grim. However, any realistic and serious search for avenues 
to economic and social reform and to democratic transition can not ignore a 
systematic exploration of areas in common with the ruling elites and Islamists 
and, accordingly, the process of identifying the bases for possible 
coordination and negotiation with them within the local and national framework 
in every Arab country. I have no doubt that the only way forward in this regard 
is to resist the temptation to formulate and disseminate an inflexible and 
stereotypical image of the type of change that is needed, in accordance with 
which evil ruling elites and Islamist extremists must be replaced by honest and 
socially committed leftists. 

alone in suffering the banes of cruel economic, social and political hardships 
and injustices. These are universal human concerns, as diverse as their 
manifestations and repercussions may be. The causes of justice, freedom, 
equality and social solidarity are gaining increasing priority in the 
humanitarian agendas of both industrialised and developing nations. Certainly, 
the recent financial crisis that shook the fiscal pillars of the global 
economic order has heralded the end of the era of unbridled rampant capitalism 
and trained the intellectual spotlight on the major bastions of capitalism on 
possible corrective strategies and, eventually, on a consensus on the means and 
principles for striking a new balance between the economic domain (in its 
narrower sense of activities undertaken for financial gain) and the social 
domain and the attendant concepts of fairness, freedom and equality. 

Refreshing the global outlook on the nature of the best means to manage the 
relations between the state, society and the citizen offers the Arabs a broad 
and important scope for linking our discussions on a new social contract to 
extremely vital and dynamic dialogues that are taking place beyond our borders 
in the West, the East and South. Political liberals and the left are best 
poised to establish that link. They are the most familiar with the intellectual 
approaches and conceptual instruments that shape such dialogues around the 
world. Also, if they can rediscover themselves and revive the memory of their 
former social efficacy, they can bridge the gap between the attitudes and 
rhetoric of the Arab ruling elites and the Islamists, on the one hand, and the 
forward-looking ideas and aspirations of the collective human conscience.

* The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International 

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