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Ian Birchall

Background to the Middle East Crisis

Part Two:
The Arab States

(November 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.63, Mid-November 1973, pp.21-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ISRAEL is the agent of imperialism in the Middle East. Any struggle against imperialism in the Middle East must be a struggle against Israel. Yet in four successive confrontations (1948,1956,1967,1973) the Arab states, despite apparent numerical superiority, have failed to inflict any lasting setback on the Israeli state. Partly this must be explained by the massive assistance given Israel by imperialism, but partly the explanation lies in the social nature and political strategy of the regimes righting Israel, and in particular Egypt.

The rise of Arab nationalism in its modern form after the Second World War is closely related to the establishment of Israel. It was during the 1948 Palestine War that many young Egyptian army officers – notably one Major Nasser – became fully aware of the corruption and inefficiency of the regime of King Farouk. And four years later, in 1952, a group of ‘Free Officers’ staged a revolt which established a new regime, a regime which Nasser was soon to head.

The political programme of the ‘Free Officers’ was similar to that of many regimes in other parts of the underdeveloped world – a mixture of social reform and modernisation at home and anti-imperialism (much more violent in words than in deeds) in its foreign policy. The original ‘six principles’ of the Free Officers were: ‘to liquidate colonialism’; ‘to liquidate feudalism’; ‘to put an end to the domination of capital over the government’; ‘to install social equity’; ‘to set up a powerful national army’; ‘to establish a sound democratic life’. [1] The very vagueness of these formulae was their strength in the short term; in the longer term conflicts could hardly be avoided.

The ‘installation of social equity’ was in fact a slow and modest process. A number of health and welfare measures were taken which, in a country like Egypt, ridden with poverty and disease, marked a very significant advance. When Nasser came to power virtually every Egyptian child suffered from eye-disease; by the late sixties less than ten per cent were afflicted.

But the reforms did not challenge the basic structures of power and ownership in Egypt. The land reform, for example, limited land holdings to a maximum of 200 feddans (just over 200 acres). The modesty of this can be seen by the fact that, in 1952, the year of the land reform, 94 per cent of landowners held less than five feddans, and 75 per cent of land was in holdings of under fifty feddans. [2]

As for the working class, the new regime made it clear from the beginning that they were to have no active role in the new order.

‘On 12 August (1952) the workers in one of Egypt’s largest spinning mills at Kafr el-Dawar near Alexandria rioted and seized control of the factory. Fearing that this action might lead to workers’ uprisings throughout the country, the junta promptly sent in troops to take back control of the mill, arrested some 200 workers and, after a brief court-martial, hanged two of the leading agitators.’ [3]

In the early years of the regime some improvements were made in workers’ standards. But by the early sixties this had come to an end. As a prominent economist put it:

‘During the past five years a lot has been done for the workers. Most of the new legislation has been in their favour. Now we have to reduce the costs of production in order to make our industries more competitive, which means there can be no new benefits for the workers for the time being.’ [4]

Independent political organisation of workers was strictly forbidden. Whatever the complexion of his relation with Russia, Nasser attacked the Egyptian Communist Party viciously in words and deeds. [5]

The impact of Nasserism on the other Arab states of the Middle East was considerable, unleashing a whole series of revolutions and counter-revolutions. Among the most significant were the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 and the short-lived union of Egypt and Syria (1958-61). Nasser’s rise was also a factor which inspired the Algerian revolt against French rule which began in 1954; though the French government’s belief that an attack on Egypt in 1956 would strangle the Algerian struggle showed a total failure to understand the dynamics of national liberation.

The other variants of Arab nationalism, despite the bitter hostility which often divides them, share many of the same features as the Egyptian example. The Baath (Rebirth) movement, which has had considerable influence in Iraq and Syria, combines nationalism with sharp hostility to Marxism. One of the founders of the Baath, Michel Aflak, described Marxism as ‘a Western ideology, foreign to everything that is Arab’, into which Marx ‘has breathed something of his vengeful Jewish spirit’. [6] In Iraq the land reform launched in imitation of Egypt’s was a total failure [7], and in Syria a decade of land reform left 50 per cent of the rural population landless. [8]

One Arab Marxist has analysed the basic features of the nationalist regimes as follows:

‘Both the Baathi and the Nasserite regimes have this in common: they are the regimes of an embourgeoisified privileged minority of petit-bourgeois origin which has merged with the remnants of the old social order (bureaucrats, ex-managers of nationalised enterprises, etc) and which appropriates the national surplus product through its control over the bureaucratic-military machinery of the state ... this privileged minority ... unable to revolutionise the relations of production, especially in the countryside ... has failed in the task of the primitive accumulation of capital – the precondition for development which requires, in the underdeveloped countries, drawing upon the abundantly available human labour power (which is basically a political question: mobilising the masses in whose interest socialism is built).’ [9]

Meanwhile many parts of the Arab world, despite their opposition to Zionism, have not reached this nationalist stage. Saudi Arabia, despite its massive oil income, remains

an old-style monarchy. All strikes and union organisations were banned following a big strike of oil-field workers in. 1952; and despite claimed increases in educational spending, in 1970 only 10,000 boys and 700 girls were getting secondary education (out of a population estimated between three and eight million – the Saudi Arabian regime resists anything so modernistic as a census). [10]

Egypt and Imperialism

SINCE NASSER and the other nationalist leaders could not mobilise the workers and peasants, they could not make a frontal attack on imperialism; their only hope for modernising the countries was to manoeuvre between the two world power blocs. Hence Nasser’s much-vaunted ‘neutralism’, his friendship with Tito of Yugoslavia and his leading role in the 1955 Bandung Conference of non-aligned countries. In financial terms the manoeuvres paid off; between 1957 and 1969 Nasser received, in loans and credit facilities (excluding military credits), £E 482.9 million from Russia and other Eastern bloc states, and £E 782.5 million from non-Communist states. [11]

Nasser’s relationship with Russia led less perceptive sources in the West to label him a ‘Communist puppet’. In fact, as Nasser pointed out, soviet aid and arms were given without conditions – i.e., the Russian leaders did not try to bargain for the release of Egyptian Communists languishing in Nasser’s jails. More important, Russia could not be counted on to support any consistent anti-Zionist line. Russia supported the establishment of Israel, and has put constant pressure on the Arab states to recognise the Zionist state’s right to exist. And during the recent war Russia allowed a higher level of Jewish emigration to Israel than in any previous month. [12]

But Nasser’s strategy of friendship with Russia did not interfere with his policy of attempting to reach agreement with the USA. The USA has now become the dominant imperialist force in the Middle East; US firms control well over half the oil reserves, as against less than ten per cent before the Second World War. Nasser never tried to confront this imperialism head on, but rather to seek common interests with it.

Certainly US-Egyptian relations were punctuated by a number of sharp clashes (the dispute over the financing of the Aswan Dam in 1956, Egyptian support for the anti-Tshombe forces in the Congo in 1964, and the six-day war in 1967). But good relations were restored in a fairly short time on each occasion.

A leading Egyptian journalist, Hassanain Haykal, whose views are often seen to be an unofficial reflection of the regime’s policies, went so far as to argue, in 1969, that the USA’s real interests lay with Egypt, and that the struggle against Israel was necessary only to persuade the Americans of this fact.

‘... the USA sees in Israel an instrument for attaining its aims in the area. No matter how far the Arabs go in their revolt against the US influence and how much they defy this influence, the US aims are guaranteed as long as Israel remains capable of intimidating the Arabs. If Israel’s ability to intimidate becomes doubtful, US policy will have to seek another course. Israel has proved to the USA that for the time being it is more useful to it than the Arabs. Although all the US interests in the Middle East lie with the Arabs, the USA continues to support Israel.’ [13]

Likewise Nasser’s strategy made him quite unable to fight consistently against reactionary forces elsewhere in the Arab world. In 1963, Colonel Aref overthrew the Kassem regime in Iraq in a coup which led to the murder of at least five thousand Communists and workers. Nasser hastened to stress the ‘unity of aim’ of the two regimes. [14] The Cairo radio programme Enemies of God, intended for the anti-monarchist revolutionaries in Saudi Arabia, disappeared during the six days war in 1967 and never returned to the air. [15]

After Nasser’s death in 1970, his successor, Sadat, accentuated the pro-American trends in Egyptian policy, even going so far as to make a dramatic if short-lived break with Russia. This was accompanied by a clamp-down at home on students, left-wing intellectuals and trade unionists. Sadat moved into King Farouk’s old palace, and the new privileged classes began to wallow in luxury. As the satirical poet Agmed Nagm describes them:

‘Sitting in large fast cars ...
Thick pasty necks
Fat bellies
Gleaming skin
Obtuse minds
Soaring incomes and
Swelling paunches ...’ [16]

The Struggle Within

SADAT’S POLICIES met growing internal opposition, in particular massive demonstrations by students in January 1972 and again in January 1973. The demands raised by the students brought out very clearly the links between the class stiuggle at home, and the struggle against imperialism. The following extracts are from a statement issued by the Councils for Defence of Democracy and the Homeland, groups set up in the Universities in January 1973:

‘... Prepare, organise, and arm the people in the belief that war-people’s war – is the only way to liberate the occupied land and to deal with the possibility of imperialist attack.

‘... Construct a real war economy, instead of just laying down slogans and bombast about it. This will be possible only by abolishing the privileges and expense accounts currently enjoyed by the higher strata of society, by setting upper limits on salaries (no more than ten times the minimum wage), by eliminating further expenditures on items that do not serve the struggle, by ending imports of luxury goods, and by eliminating imperialist investments in Egypt, particularly investments in banking and the free market.

‘Extend complete support to all sections of the revolutionary Palestinian resistance. Lift all restrictions on the Palestinian movement, open the way for Egyptians to join in, and form popular support councils in the villages and cities, and at points of production.

‘... The living standards of the poor classes of people must be raised; production workers must be granted appropriate compensation for the nature of their work; workers in the private sector must be given a day off with pay; working conditions must be improved, and the workers must be guaranteed security. For these reasons we support the workers’ struggles in Helwan and Shubra el-Khaima, as well as all the union demands of the shipping workers and textile and cotton workers in Alexandria. We ask that they link their trade-union struggle to the political struggle. We condemn the repression, harassment, and firings that the noble working-class leaders are facing.’ [17]

It is against this background of Arab states, afraid to mobilise the working masses at home and afraid of a full confrontation with imperialism, that the relation of the Arab states to the Palestinian struggle has to be understood.

The Arab regime most directly involved with the Palestinians, Jordan, is the one which has shown most willingness to collaborate with Israel. King Hussein, apart from a few lapses into pro-Arab positions, has shown himself a worthy heir to his grandfather Abdullah, who concluded an agreement with Israel under British auspices in 1948. Hussein could wish for no better tribute than this, from an Israeli Professor in 1967:

‘Like very many Israelis I fervently desire an early arrangement with King Hussein of Jordan ... The Israelis have genuine respect and a sneaking affection for the brave little King, and one can hear expressions of almost sympathetic regret that he should have made the terrible blunder he did.’ [18]

But the other Arab states have also done their best to make sure that the Palestinian resistance movement was firmly under their political control. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation, established by the Arab states in 1964, was aimed primarily at preventing Palestinian organisation from struggling independently. The Arab states, after haggling among themselves, appointed as leader of the PLO, Ahmad el Shukeiri, whose sole talent seemed to be anti-Jewish demagogy. The Palestine Liberation Army was firmly integrated into the Arab state armies and had no freedom of action. [19]

After the six days war in 1967 the PLO lost most of its credibility and the initiative was taken by the more genuine fedayin (meaning ‘those who sacrifice themselves’) of Al Fatah and other groupings. But even here the guerrillas took an ambiguous attitude to the Arab states. Yassir Arafat, leader of Al Fatah, said in an interview in 1969,

‘We will not interfere in the internal affairs of any Arab country that will not in its turn put obstacles in the way of our revolution or threaten its continuation.’

Although other groups like The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, however, criticised the Arab bourgeoisie and saw itself as part of the ‘world liberation movement’ [20], they too were prepared to co-operate at different times with one or other of the Arab regimes.

In September 1970, King Hussein set out to show just how much he deserved the affection of the Israelis by launching a concerted attempt to exterminate the Palestinian guerrilla movement. In heavy fighting over five thousand people were killed. Time magazine subsequently alleged that the attack had been arranged at a secret meeting between Hussein and the Israeli Prime Minister. [21]

But it was not Hussein alone who took the responsibility for the massive attack on the guerrillas. The whole range of Arab states-with the very partial exception of Syria – stood by and took no action. They were more interested in trying to negotiate the American-inspired Rogers Peace Plan, which would have recognised the Israeli state. The betrayal of the Arab states was spelt out by Ghassan Kannafani, one of the leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine:

‘Let us recall the situation. On 23 July Nasser accepted the Rogers plan, and a week later the Jordanian government did so too. Once again the Palestinians were put on the shelf. If you read the Arab and international press between 23 July and 6 September, you will see that the Palestinian people were again being treated exactly as they were between 1948 and 1967. The Arab papers started writing about how “heroic” the Palestinians are, but also how “paralysed” they were, and how there was no hope for these “brave heroes” ...

‘... The Egyptian regime was one step removed from direct participation in this liquidation, since it had no direct contact with the Palestinians; it was in a safer position. The only way the Egyptian regime could help Hussein was by keeping silent: and that it did, to the extent that it could resist the pressure of the Arab masses. For the first three days of the fighting in September the Egyptian government, and all the other Arab governments were silent, because they thought that the resistance movement could not survive for more than three days. Then they were forced to move, because the people in the streets of Egypt, Syria and Lebanon were angry at the massacre; but the first five thousand Palestinian victims fell in Amman in silence, and no-one complained.’ [22]

What was left of the guerrilla movement was driven into the dead end of spectacular but futile individual terrorism.

The repressive social order of the Arab states also weakens them in their struggle against Zionism because it makes them unable to exploit the contradictions in Israeli society. The whole of Israeli society is a creation of imperialism, and it would be quite wrong to believe it can be overthrown simply by its internal contradictions. But it would be equally wrong to claim that there is no class struggle in Israel. Israeli workers have a record of struggle and strike; in recent years the Oriental Jews, who suffer from severe discrimination, have begun to rebel; shortly before the outbreak of the recent conflict the ‘Black Panthers’ had achieved some success in the Histadrut (trade union) elections. [23] An Arab movement with a clear class perspective could counterbalance Israel’s military superiority by driving a wedge into her social conflicts.

The recent war against Israel marked no change in the line of Egypt and the Arab states; on the contrary, it showed their determination to continue along the same path. Sadat, despite his frequent bellicose speeches, went to war only after three years of trying to reach a settlement with the USA had failed. But the war was undertaken for quite limited aims, totally distinct from the aims of the Palestinian people. There was no attempt to mobilise the dispossessed masses of the Middle East, let alone the working class in the imperialist countries (such as the dockers at Leghorn in Italy who refused to load munitions for the US Sixth Fleet [24]).

The Al Fatah leadership, with some justification, were suspicious of Egyptian motives when first informed of the 1973 war, fearing a pretext for a new attack on them. [25] While they agreed to participate, the role of the fedayin was far from being the central one it could have been in a genuine anti-imperialist struggle. In Jordan, former fedayin who had fled after the 1970 massacre and tried to return during the course of the hostilities, were turned away by officials armed with a ‘black list’ of former ‘terrorists’. [26]

At the time of writing it is not clear whether the war is over for the moment or not; what is clear is that no solution of the fundamental questions is possible. As the leader of the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Nayef Hawatmeh, put it:

‘All imperialist-Zionist manoeuvres aimed at settling the Middle East conflict without taking account of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination are doomed to failure; only the Palestinian resistance is entitled to speak in the name of the Palestinian people which it represents and to decide its fate. We are not alone in the battle. All the progressive forces of the world support our just struggle.’ [27]

As far as Egypt is concerned, the future pattern is already clear; the appointment of the well-known pro-American Ismail Fahmi as Foreign Secretary on 31 October indicates that Sadat will pursue his wooing of Washington. At the same time he will probably lose again the mass popularity he won during the days of fighting. The students, and possibly the workers, will again start to challenge the regime.

Meanwhile the announcement by both Al Fatah and the Democratic Front that they would be prepared to participate in negotiations for a compromise solution [28] may lead to further divergences within the Palestinian movement. Both individual terrorism and loving up to Arab statesmen are more and more clearly dead ends. The lesson to be drawn from the tragic losses and suffering of the last few weeks is that the only road to the overthrow of Zionism is the revolutionary overthrow of the Arab regimes.


1. See New Left Review 45, p.69.

2. P. Mansfield, Nasser’s Egypt, Penguin 1969, pp.46, 199.

3. Mansfield, op. cit., p.45.

4. Mansfield, op. cit., p.172.

5. For an account of the role of the CPs in Egypt and Iraq, see I.H. Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith, due out early next year, chapter 9.

6. New Left Review 45, p.59.

7. M. Adams, Chaos or Rebirth, BBC 1968, p.65.

8. New Left Review 57, p.80.

9. Fawwaz Trabulsi, New Left Review 57, pp.79-80.

10. Cf. Fred Halliday in New Left Review 80.

11. Mansfield, op. cit., pp.184-5 (the Egyptian pound is worth something less than the pound sterling).

12. Le Monde, 3 November.

13. Al Ahram, March-April 1969; reproduced in W. Laqueur (ed.), The Israel-Arab Reader, Penguin 1970, pp.501-2.

14. Mansfield, op. cit., p.66.

15. New Left Review 80, p.21.

16. Guardian, 6 March 1973.

17. Intercontinental Press, 26 February 1973, p.220.

18. J.L. Talmon in Laqueur (ed.), op. cit., p.323.

19. Ahmad El Kodsy, Nationalism and Class Struggle in the Arab World, Monthly Review, July-August, 1970, pp.50-51.

20. Laqueur (ed), op. cit., pp.449, 452.

21. 23 November 1970.

22. New Left Review 67, pp.50-51.

23. Le Monde, 18 October 1973.

24. Le Monde, 20 October 1973.

25. Le Monde, 9 October 1973.

26. Le Monde, 20 October 1973.

27. Le Monde, 25 October 1973.

28. Le Monde, 6 November 1973.

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