The Curse of Arab socialism

*** Note from the editor: this is an edited article, originally written  by Essam Elkorghli for Arab Millennial***

The current mentality of citizens following the Arab Spring can be summed by the phrase “والله الحكومة تاعبة” (the government is indeed dysfunctional).

Before, there was a centralised government that provided most of the population with a sense of stability that many Arabs nowadays long for. Today’s trends feature a radicalisation of youth, corrupt government and a state of stagnancy to the extent that the people do not know when the current statelessness will end. It has to be noted that this level of incompetence cannot be completely detached from the Arab regimes that preceded the Arab Spring.

Following Western colonisation of the Middle East & North Africa, the new nation states saw a rise in leaders who represented a sentiment of Arab socialism similar to that envisaged by Michal Aflaq (Devlin 1975). Autocratic rulers developed institutions under the emblem of nationalisation and protectionism, while at the same time protecting themselves from uprisings and internal disputes. This was all presented under the guise of socialism (Qaddafi 1976), but not the kind of socialism that Karl Marx had hoped for.

What Marx had envisioned was a society denuded from wage labour, as well as an abolished central government to protect the nation from a potential development of bourgeois despotism. Marx envisaged a society where everyone would be equal in status and wealth regardless of their identity. Besides strong and nationalised institutions, nothing of what Marx aspired for was anywhere near what transpired in the Arab world after the formation of various postcolonial nations.

Economists and rational choice theorists who have delved into the economic development of nations have put an immense weight on the role of institutions in the convergence of the economy. North (1994) stated:

Institutions are the humanly devised constraints that structure human interaction. They are made up of formal constraints (e.g., rules, laws, constitutions), informal constraints (e.g., norms of behaviour, conventions, self-imposed codes of conduct), and their enforcement characteristics. Together they define the incentive structure of societies and specially economies.

In the context of the MENA region, it is how we are used to standing in lines: some people are above the law while others are the underdogs. Arab socialism has instilled an over-reliance on governments to provide us with our bare necessities.

But just like Ross (2001a) and Jensen & Wantcheckon (2004) deduce, leaders with access to natural resources will go through hell or high water to stabilise their autocratic regimes and establish institutions that provide the people with the most basic of necessities, which is what we saw before the commencement of the revolutions. What the MENA region — the countries with political destabilisation — are experiencing at the moment is an indignation caused by what Freud called deinstitutionalisation.

Similar to the concept in psychology, being deinstitutionalised occurs after being institutionalised, meaning that one becomes used to the
forms of behaviour and conduct provided by various institutions, eventually realising that such institutions no longer exist and are either vanished or replaced by other inadequate institutions.

In economics, an obstructive familiarity with inefficient processes is known as “path dependency”.

Path dependency is causing people to lose trust in central government and therefore the people will be reluctant to believe in any government.  They will see that the problems in their lives were made true through the bourgeoisie in their various governments. Very often, this will not be overcome unless force is applied, as is evident in Egypt today.

In many respects, the Arab Spring repeats history, and history tells us that, after overthrowing a despotic regime, a weaker form of governance often takes power and struggles to keep things in tact.

It is not entirely fair to blame current Arab leaders for their various failures today, as so-called Arab socialists, such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, may have intentionally developed a deeply rooted and intertwined system of reliance upon their bureaucratic regimes. Sometimes, a new form of governance may uphold more democratic values coupled with market liberalisation, as in Tunisia’s case.

Other times, revolution will result in disorder and a confusing sense of prioritisation as many new institutions need to be rebuilt and populations need to be familiarised once more through public awareness campaigns.

Tunisia may have had some success following the Arab Spring due to its earlier transitions away from socialism and towards market liberalisation under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Notably, Ben Ali changed his party name from the Destourian Socialist Party to the Democratic Constitutional Rally, also making some constitutional amendments during his tenure.

Relatively more positive cases like Tunisia’s will momentarily solve issues of path dependency and create a support matrix for the “proletariat”. However, Marx believed that this will only result in further disparity between people, because neoliberalism may result in different rates of economic empowerment and will inevitably proliferate class gaps, promulgating individualism (Kelly 2008).

Despite this, it is more than clear that the bureaucratic nature of many past Arab socialist states has had negative consequences on Arab regimes today. If the Arab Spring fails, we cannot completely ignore the historical impact.



Devlin, John (1975). The Baath Party: a History from its Origins to 1966 (2nd ed.). Hoover Institute Press. ISBN 978-0-8179-6561-7.

Jensen N, Wantchekon L. 2004. Resource wealth and political regimes in Africa. Comp. Polit. Stud. 37:816-41

Kelly, Patty. Lydia’s Open Door. University of California Press, 2008.

Marx, Karl, et al. The Communist Manifesto. Signet Classics, 2011.

North, Douglass C. “Economic Performance Through Time.” The American Economic Review, vol. 84, no. 3, 1 June 1994, pp. 359–368.

Qaddafi, Muammar. The Green Book. Martin, Brian &Amp; O’Keeffe, 1976.

Ross ML. 2001a. Does oil hinder democracy? World Polit. 53:325

Featured image| Karl Marx | Michael Hemmingsson |flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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