Arab Lefts

Understanding the Enigma of the Egyptian Left

Although the Egyptian street has always seemed to favor the emergence of left-wing power, this political current has been losing the battle to the Islamists and to the government for several decades now. This is due to a lack of autonomy fostered by the regimes of presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anouar El-Sadat, as well as a tendency to emphasize “identity” debates to the detriment of socio-economic problems.

Cairo, Tahrir Square, January 29, 2011.
Hossam El-Amalawy,“#Jan25 Revolution”/Flickr

The Egyptian Street is the left, and thus [political] change has never gone beyond the limits of radical revolution from within the [centers of] power. This clearly means that there is yet to be an organization representing the Street and bringing about change in society by changing the authority itself. The Street in most parts of the world is necessarily leftist, since it is the political symbol of the masses of workers, agricultural labor, and the progressive strata of the petty bourgeoisie. However, the Street in other countries has its own representatives and organizations, and they are the ones that engage, calmly or contentiously, with the existing authority. As for the Egyptian street, it is not merely leftist; it is in fact the left.

These were words of prominent Marxist writer Ghali Shukri1, as he reflected on the evolution of the Egyptian left against the backdrop of major political shifts since the 1920s. The late Shukri published these words nearly forty-five years ago. Yet somehow his observations captured the enigma the left would continue exhibiting over the next decades and well into the era of the January 25 Revolution (2011-2013). That is, a political current whose ideas about social and economic justice resonate strongly in the realm of contentious politics, but whose influence and organizational presence in official political life—elections, legislatures, party politics, etc.—is at best tenuous. The same paradox was front-and-center after President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in 2011 in the wake of a national uprising: a leftist “street” that is omnipresent yet devoid of representative organizations.

Protesters hopes

The uprising, whose slogan was “bread, freedom, and social justice,” raised hopes about the potential for a new era of leftist politics reflecting popular demands for social and economic rights. The expectation was not unreasonable. Such demands animated political action before and during the 2011 uprising. Thanks to decades of Washington Consensus policies2, Mubarak’s final years in office witnessed widespread socioeconomic discontent expressed through proliferating protest movements and labor strikes. In February 2011, labor action was arguably essential in tipping the balance in favor of Tahrir Square protestors calling for Mubarak’s departure. Put simply, the promise of leftist politics was in the air. Or so it seemed.

Within less than a year, an entirely different reality ensued. The Muslim Brotherhood scored multiple electoral victories, thereby steering elite-led politics toward conflicts contesting the religious identity of the state. Meanwhile, leftist political forces, be it newcomers or veterans, performed poorly in every national vote. Their voices and agendas were often drowned out inside diverse secular coalitions unified around the goal of countering Islamist currents despite holding diverse (if not contradictory) economic orientations. The contours of organized national politics, in other words, were overtaken by Islamist-secular contention, even though the “Street,” to borrow Shukri’s characterization, remained leftist.

“More identity, less class”

The paradox of the Egyptian left is not by any means unique. The gradual sidelining of class by identity conflicts in national politics has been part of a global trend, or what I describe in Classless Politics3 as “more identity, less class.” Despite the prevalence of social and economic inequalities and the obsession with cross-class encounters in mainstream media and artistic production, redistributive coalitions and the left in many parts of the world have been ceding ground to right-wing populism and ethno-nationalist movements.

Drawing on the experience of advanced industrial democracies, scholars have attributed this phenomenon to a host of factors. These include the success of right-wing populist movements in capturing support from classes traditionally allied with leftist parties, as well as the role of immigration, cultural pluralism, and regional integration in feeding ethno-nationalist attitudes. Another set of explanations revolve around the failure of the “post-materialist left” to devise realistic alternatives to the neoliberal status quo.

What is perhaps distinctive about Egypt’s journey to “more identity, less class,” on the other hand, is that it is hardly the product of recent or contemporary developments. The journey has been unfolding over the course of several decades. Certainly, one could pontificate endlessly about leftist forces’ missteps in post-2011 Egypt: They did not organize well enough in election seasons, they failed to devise appealing platforms, they could not break out of their Cairo bubbles, they did little to counter the anti-labor discourse political elites touted after Mubarak’s ouster, they shot themselves in the foot by supporting the July 3 coup, and more.

Accurate or not, the problem with this line of reasoning is its inattention to history. It proceeds on the assumption that the left’s weakness can be reduced to a set of actions that happened in 2011-2013, as if history began only on January 25, 2011. More precisely, missing from such a discussion is an understanding of how Egypt arrived at a political field tilted in favor of Islamists and against the left. Pursuing this question compels us to inquire: Why did a leftist political organization never emerge in Egypt in the decades preceding 2011? And why did a strong Islamist organization manage to survive the turbulence of the Mubarak era until it entered in 2011 in a politically opportune position?

Nasser’s and Sadat’s heritage

Taking on these questions demands a deep dive into the contexts and consequences of two historical interventions that arguably shaped the long-term balance of power between Islamist and leftist forces. The first is Anwar Al-Sadat’s policies toward the Islamist movement in the 1970s. The second is Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s policies toward the communist movement in the preceding decade. The combination of the two interventions, as I argue in Classless Politics, had a lasting impact on the structure of Egypt’s political field in more recent times. In effect, the said policies set Islamist and leftist currents on “divergent paths of institutional development,” thereby structuring the evolution of their organizations, especially with respect to their autonomy from the state. Understanding the origins and effects of these two divergent paths gives us critical insight into the sources of the left’s woes after 2011.

As Sadat faced off with a strong leftist opposition to his attempts at economic liberalization and shifting Egypt’s alliances westward, the president resorted to what I call “Islamist incorporation policies.” The latter analytical construct denotes the opening of political space toward Islamist currents with a view to sidelining and containing the regime’s leftist opponents. The biggest beneficiaries of this relatively open political environment were the nascent Islamist student movement and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Brotherhood leaders, who had just been released from prison, were trying to revive their organization after suffering decades of repression under Abdel-Nasser. Thanks to Sadat’s lax attitude, the Brotherhood’s aging leadership was able to recruit the support of large swaths of the Islamist student movement. As historian Abdullah Al-Arian explains in Answering the Call4, it was that generation of student activists who made the Brotherhood’s return to the political scene possible, notably at time when its survival as a political organization was anything but certain.

Equally importantly, the Brotherhood managed to forge a path forward for reconstituting itself without compromising its independence from the state. Sadat tried to keep the Brotherhood and the Islamist student movement under the control of his ruling party and security apparatus. He failed. That failure was significant, because it allowed the Brotherhood in subsequent decades to develop as an autonomous political organization, unlike other opposition political groups that remained largely dependent on the state, including leftist ones. This independence persisted even after Sadat’s death, partly due to the dynamics of conflict inside the Muslim Brotherhood and partly due to the Mubarak regime’s own strategic calculus.

Old divisions

The left, on the other hand, was dealt a very different path of institutional development, one that kept it dependent on the state and vulnerable to regime manipulation and intervention. Once again, the formative period of the 1970s was critical. Much like there was a strong Islamist current on university campuses—which the Muslim Brotherhood was able to coopt in its organizational rebuilding efforts—there was in fact a promising and dynamic leftist current on campuses. Unlike the experience of Islamist currents, however, the energies of that leftist student movement were never channeled into a permanent political organization for the left.

In the absence of a credible and organized leftist political force capable of unifying the fragmented opposition to Sadat’s economic and foreign policy projects, the idea that leftist currents could have replicated the experience of their Islamist counterparts was inconceivable. The communist parties that existed before the 1970s had dissolved themselves under pressure from Abdel-Nasser, and many of its leaders and activists subsequently joined the Vanguard Organization, a political arm of the ruling Arab Socialist Union (ASU). Abdel-Nasser capitalized on the chronic divisions among communist leaders, as witnessed in the prior decades. In any case, the communists’ capitulation to Abdel-Nasser in 1965 would shape the left’s political fortunes for decades. More immediately, it meant that as the era of infitah5 commenced, the left was in disarray, lacking the leadership to unify the dispersed (albeit troublingly loud) opposition to Sadat’s right-wing administration.

Certainly, the underground communist groups that emerged on the contentious politics scene managed to put up a heroic fight, in some cases establishing a footing inside the student and labor movements despite an unfavorable political climate, not to mention the fact that labor unions6 had been kept under a restrictive state-controlled neo-corporatist framework since the 1950s. Nonetheless, such groups were largely contained, if not crushed, by a security apparatus that for much of the 1970s was obsessed with leftist activists, who did not enjoy the same latitude their Islamist counterparts were afforded by Islamist incorporation policies.

Likewise, the licensed left, or the sectors of the left that were allowed to participate in formal politics as embodied by the experience of Al-Tagammu Party, was subject to state repression under Sadat. The tragedy of Al-Tagammu, however, was to a great extent rooted in the unfavorable legal and political framework under which it operated (and that persisted under Mubarak). This framework compromised the party’s autonomy, reinforced its dependence on the state, and exposed it to regime interventions that undermined the party’s formerly meaningful connections to labor. Thus, the once promising experiment of Al-Tagammu was ultimately pushed into complete irrelevance.

Alliance with Mubarak

Beyond the issue of repression, Al-Tagammu later underwent an internal transformation in the 1980s in response to the perceived threat posed by the political ascendance of Islamist currents. This concern pushed the party into an alliance with the Mubarak regime under the banner of resisting the so-called “Islamist threat.” As Al-Tagammu became too preoccupied with fighting battles with Islamists over the identity of the state—often alongside Mubarak’s cultural establishment—it lost much of its ability to mount a credible opposition to the regime or to articulate a meaningful alternative to state-led economic liberalization policies. In other words, the legacies of Islamist incorporation (and their role in centering battles over the religious identity of the state) steered many sectors of the left, as epitomized by Al-Tagammu, toward culture wars and away from questions of redistribution and economic priorities.

This is to say, the story of the Egyptian left is the story of a path of institutional development that prevented independent leftist organizations from emerging, developing, and surviving along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood. The respective policies of Abdel-Nasser and Sadat foreclosed the possibility of such a path. Abdel-Nasser pressured independent communist parties to self-dissolve, coopting large swaths of them into the state apparatus. In ways, Abdel-Nasser was able to get out of the communists what Sadat was never able to get out of the Muslim Brotherhood: their autonomy. Thus, on the eve of infitah, the left was in a state of division and disarray, hardly equipped to replicate the Brotherhood’s experience in reviving its political and organizational presence. As for leftist forces licensed to participate in politics since the mid-1970s, their path was highly dependent on the state and vulnerable to debilitating state interferences.

The divergence in paths of institutional development across Islamist and leftist currents, as I explain in Classless Politics, left a lasting mark on the configuration of politics in the subsequent decades, especially on the eve of Mubarak’s downfall in 2011. One cannot speak of the left’s failure to overcome the prowess of their Islamist counterparts in post-2011 Egypt without a serious engagement with this historical context. This is not by any means a case for structural determinism or a claim that agency and contingency had no hand in shaping the political outcomes in question. The argument is that the political field inherited from the previous authoritarian eras stacked the cards in favor of certain outcomes (albeit without determining them)—outcomes that imposed on the left a host of uphill battles after 2011.

It is within that historical context that one could begin comprehending the enduring enigma of the Egyptian left. The legacies of Abdel-Nasser and Sadat prevented the rise of an organized leftist current capable of representing class-informed politics, not to mention the social and economic discontent generated by decades of exclusionary economic policies. The result is a chronic tension between two realms. The first is, per Ghali Shukri’s depiction, a leftist Street that can only represent itself through contentious political action. The other is a formal political sphere that, in moments of political openings, tends to reflect, not the Street, but the asymmetrical political field former autocrats had built, even if unwittingly.

1Athawra Al mudadda fi Masr, Egyptian General Book Authority, 1978.

2Editor’s note. The “Washington Consensus” is a tacit agreement to make financial aid to developing countries conditional on “good governance” practices as defined by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. See The Roots of Revolt. A Political Economy of Egypt from Nasser to Mubarak, Angela Joya, Cambridge University Press, mars 2020.

3Classless Politics. Islamist Movements, the Left, and Authoritarian Legacies in Egypt, Hesham Sallam, Columbia University press, 2022.

4Answering the Call. Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt, Oxford University Press, 2014.

5Editor’s note. Infitah literally means “opening”. It designates the policy led by President Sadat who broke with the socialist policies of his predecessor Abdel-Nasser, liberalized the economy and privatized part of the public sector.

6Workers and Thieves. Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Joeil Beinin, Stanford Briefs, 2015.