Populism and Corporatism in the Middle East and North Africa: a Comparative Analysis
Populism and Corporatism in the Middle East and North Africa: a Comparative Analysis
Manochehr Dorraj 0
0 Department of Political Science, Texas Christian University , Fort Worth, TX 76129 , USA
This paper would first define the concepts of populism and corporatism often used to study political systems in Latin America and Europe, (specially Southern Europe). The utility and the relevance of the concepts for the study of politics in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions are delineated. Since our study of populism intends to not only shed light on populism as an ideology and movement, but also analyze its role as an instrument of incorporation of the newly energized masses in the political system and the consolidation of power of populist regimes, we believe the two concepts are organically linked and complementary and as such are integral to understanding populism not only as an opposition movement, but also in shedding light on the policies of populist states once in power. By making brief allusions to populist movements in other parts of the world, especially, Latin America, the commonalities and the differences are dissected. References are made to case studies of the Egyptian, Algerian, Libyan and Iranian revolutions as popular revolutions guided by a populist ideology and how these populist regimes once in power utilized a corporatist strategy to govern. These case studies would illuminate the particular political and cultural manifestations of Middle Eastern populism and corporatism, thus further contributing to our theoretical understanding of comparative populism and their application to the MENA political scene. Such broadly comparative approach allows us to engage in theoretical observations that put the MENA in a larger global context. It also challenges the theory of Islamic exceptionalism. In this paper, we first briefly define the concepts of populism and corporatism in a comparative perspective. Then the relevance and the application of the concepts in understanding the broad dynamics of the regional politics will be discussed.
1 Populism and the Middle East and North African Populism Defined
Populism as a movement and as an ideology is a multi-class as well as a cross-class
(Conniff 1982: 218)
. Insofar as its base of support is drawn from
different strata (although the lower classes often constitute the broader and more
solid core of this base) and insofar as it purports to speak on behalf of ‘‘the people’’
as a whole rather than a distinct class (Marxism), populist appeal cuts across class
lines. Accompanying this multiple base of support is a monist and unitarian
ideological thrust. In response to the fragmentation of modern life, the populists call
for a unifying vision that would make the creation of an organic society possible.
Populist ideologies tend to glorify the common man and advocate supremacy of the
masses over the elite
(De La Torre 2000: 4, Postel 2007)
. They also call for the
revival of traditional values, defying foreign economic, political and cultural
(Canovan 1981: 297, 2004: 241–252)
. These salient characteristics of
populism are complemented by its eclectic sources of ideological inspiration.
Modernization puts in motion old and new social forces. While empowering the
new industrialists, the bankers and the technocrats, it often impoverishes such
traditional social sectors as the bazaar merchants, the middle and lower classes that
have held tenaciously to their nativist values, and most notably the peasantry either
in rural areas or as new migrants to the cities. The new intelligentsia, elevated by its
modern education, aspires for a larger voice in the policy-making process. The
unionization of the working class also heightens its consciousness, facilitating its
mobilization and consequently increases their demand for political participation.
The impoverished social groups, however, experience a decline of social status,
finding themselves the losers in the process of modernization. The traditional sector
of the economy, the bazaar and the traditional middle class can no longer compete
effectively with the modern sector. The growth of agribusiness also leads to the
bankruptcy of a large segment of the peasantry and small farmers. While divergent
in their points of departure, both groups of losers tend to employ mass politics and
populist ideology to assert their position in the power structure
(Dix 1985: 39)
In a broad definition, Ernesto Laclau argues that populism is a by-product of a
‘fracture in the ‘‘power blocs’’ that leads one faction to appeal to ‘‘the people’’ in
opposition to the establishment ideology of the political elite, a process that may
occur at various ‘stages’ of development (Ibid). The success or failure of such an
appeal is contingent upon the emergence of charismatic leaders who abound in
populist movements. Peron, Cardenas, Echeverria, Vargas and Chavez in Latin and
Central America and Nasser, Ben Bella, Bomediene, Qadhafi and Khomeini in the
Middle East and North Africa are a few examples. To solidify their base of support,
populist leaders thrive on patron–client relationships found between the landlord
and peasants in agrarian societies. By implementing reforms that would benefit their
client groups and political constituency, they establish a dependent paternalistic
relationship that assures them a continued base of support
(Schmidt et al. 1977;
Gellner and Waterbury 1977)
Paul Taggart defines populism as a malleable ideology that encompasses several
distinct characteristics. First, it identifies with an idealized heartland, it glorifies
‘‘the little man’’, the underdog and the toiling masses. Second, populism as an
ideology or movement usually emerges in times of crisis. As such, it thrives on a
crisis milieu and purports to provide a remedy to national crisis. Those social groups
that are most susceptible to or adversely affected by the crisis are among the most
ardent supporters of populists. Such crises are often either economic, political or
cultural, or a combination of all three. The inability of the state to provide the basic
social needs, food, housing, health care and education allows the populists to step in
and fill the vacuum, thus posing themselves as a de facto dual power. The crisis may
also be political in nature, derived from the eroding legitimacy of the state either
due to its subservience to foreign powers, or due to incompetence, repression,
corruption or a combination of all four. The crisis may also be cultural in nature.
The indiscriminate introduction of the Western culture by the ruling elite may be
perceived by many nationalists as an alien and imposed cultural invasion,
undermining the ‘‘authentic culture’’ and national identity. A sense of social
malaise and cultural alienation may induce a quest for cultural authenticity and the
revival of a perceived ‘‘golden age.’’ The heterogeneous base of support of populist
leaders and their ability to mobilize people from different social strata and urban
and rural sectors may be partially explained by their appeal to those who might be
affected by all three crises chronicled above.
Another key to the appeal of populist leaders is their uncanny ability to arouse the
masses to direct political action, thus bypassing procedural and democratic politics.
The malleability and the eclectic nature of populism as an ideology allow populist
leaders to constantly adopt and adjust to their political environment. By pandering
to ‘the people’, and often to the most archaic elements of ‘the people’, populist
leaders are able to read the public mood and react to it effectively. This perhaps
partially explains their ‘popularity’. Mostly authoritarian, however, they often
replace mass mobilization and staged demonstrations organized from above for
genuine democratic political participation from below
(Taggart 2000; Lambert
Another significant characteristic of populism in the MENA region is its
purported third path of development between and beyond capitalism and
communism. While they borrow from both capitalism and communism, they adamantly
defy both to forge a new path of development that is perceived to be uniquely their
own. Narodniki’s peasant commune in Russia of the 1870s, Peron’s justicialismo in
Argentina in the 1940s, Nasser’s, Ben Bella and Bomediene’s Arab socialism in the
1950s and 1960s, Qadhafi’s ‘Third Universal Theory’ in the 1970s and Khomeini’s
‘Neither East Nor West’ in the 1980s all attest to this common ideological attribute.
Populist ideologies in the developing world are partially evoked by the economic
and cultural impact of the West, thus engendering nationalist ideological response.
The nationalist thrust of populist movements is demonstrated by a predilection and
affinity toward traditional cultural values. As a common cultural denominator and
the source of primordial loyalties, such values (including religion, especially in the
MENA region) unify the masses and enhance their mobilization. In contrast to Latin
America, where Catholicism is the dominant religion, much of the MENA region
embraces Islamic faith. This imbues MENA nationalism with a distinct cultural trait
rooted in Islam. This in turn may explain the rise of religio-politics as a powerful
force in the regional political landscape. Such forceful and pervasive presence of
religion in political life, for the most part, is absent in Latin American populism.
The partial explanation for this phenomenon might be found in the fact that the
Latin American countries embraced Christianity, as did the ‘Yankees Imperialists’
who dominated them. Thus, with the exception of Liberation theology, they could
not use Christianity (Catholicism, though different from the pervasive Protestantism
in the USA), effectively as the banner of national identity and the instrument of
mass mobilization. In addition, the church in many parts of Latin America was hand
in hand with the landed nobility and the political establishment. In contrast, serving
for many, as a source of cultural identity, distinctively different form the Christian
West, and heir to a history of political activism against the state in many parts of the
Muslim world in twentieth century, Islam was used effectively as the banner of
national identity and mass mobilization by populist leaders to combat the Western
encroachment and dominance and anchor their movement in the domestic culture
and stoke nationalism.
In contrast to Islam which has had a presence in the consciousness of most people
in the MENA region as one of the more potent and omnipresent source of their
identity since the seventh century, secular ideologies are fairly new in the region and
their roots do not go further than two centuries. They have not had a chance to
develop deep roots, especially among the poor and the poorly educated.
Identification of secular ideologies with repressive and corrupt secular elites has
discredited them. Further, as the political and cultural domination of the West
expanded in the twentieth century, the Muslims’ anxiety about safeguarding their
identity, ‘authenticity’ and culture intensified. In a reactive response to the West, the
infusion of nationalism and religion, often manifested in revival of Islam, was their
way of ending the identity crisis and reclaiming the ‘self.’
It is in this context that the revival of religion in the age of secular ideology,
combined with the mythical glorification of ‘the people’ as the repository of noble
virtues, transformed into a potent ideology of deliverance. ‘The people’ was now
projected as the new messiah that was going to deliver the society to the promised
land. This lends populism an alluring messianic aura. Populists promise a new
Utopia in which the alienated and the oppressed would find a new heaven in the
organic and egalitarian society of the future. No longer living a fragmented
existence, the individual can become whole again by embracing the new creed, the
‘political religion’ that would make deliverance and salvation possible. This
messianic attribute imbues populism with an appealing moral aura that many other
While William Jennings Bryan, the populist leader of the USA in the late
nineteenth century, used religious metaphors in his political speeches, his followers
were primarily among ‘the Bible people’ and he accused his political opponents to
be ‘sinners’, Latin American populism, decidedly lacked such pronounced religious
character. Quite to the contrary, the two better known leaders of Latin American
populism, Peron in Argentina and Cardenas in Mexico, were distinctly anti-clerical.
In contrast, Nasser in Egypt, Ben Bella and Bomediene in Algeria, Qadhafi in Libya,
all secular leaders, and Khomeini and Ahmadinejad, the leaders of Islamic Republic
in Iran, utilized Islam (to different extents) to mobilize the masses and sanction their
respective political agenda.
The mass appeal of populism lies in two distinct characteristics that it has in
common with all revolutionary ideologies: a pragmatic and a Utopian element. First,
insofar as populism is based on a critique of the status quo, it is pragmatic; insofar as
it promises deliverance to an authentic ‘golden age’ in which the national dignity is
restored and virtue and justice reigns, it is utopian. By championing the ‘superior
moral ethos’ of the toiling masses and promising social justice, populist leaders
promote themselves as the new messiahs who are going to deliver national salvation
as well as the moral regeneration of their respective societies.
While these general characteristics of populism provide a road map to chart the
multifaceted and contradictory features of this ideology, for the sake of accuracy in
analysis, it is important to distinguish between the classic populism of the late
nineteenth and early twentieth century that lasted until 1970s in some parts of the
developing world, and the neo-populism of the last 40 years. Since many parts of the
developing world, including Latin America, Middle East and North Africa, have
become more deeply integrated in the global capitalist economy, while rhetorically
alive, practically, the idea of economic nationalism has become obsolete. With the
downfall of communism in East Europe in 1989, followed by the Soviet Union in
1991, and China, increasingly opting for free enterprise and capitalism, socialist and
populist economic schemes have begun to lose luster in the face of integrative thrust
of global capitalism.
As the World Bank and the IMF loans became contingent on the recipient
countries’ implementation of ‘structural economic reforms’, many countries in the
developing world began to privatize their economies, dismantling state-owned
enterprises, subsidies and much of the social safety network, often associated with
classical populist economic models. Hence, globalization and the pervasiveness of
the free enterprise and the market economies made the classical populist rhetoric of
economic autonomy and nationalist self-sufficiency and control meaningless. As the
developing countries found themselves in competition with the former Soviet
Republics and East Europe for Western loans and investments, the old assumptions
of ‘dependency school’ and the virtues of economic independence from the
capitalist market economy gave way to welcoming the virtues of the ‘joint venture.’
Therefore, the post-1980s populist leaders had to build their coalitions with different
constituencies within the confines of national economies that its fortunes were
increasingly at the mercy of global forces over which they exercised little control
(Weyland 2001: 1–14)
While in the face of onslaught of globalization, the idea of economic populism in
large measure has become obsolete, the political and cultural appeal and relevance
of populism remains. Indeed, the perceived loss of control, centralization of power
and perceived powerlessness, commercializing of the Western culture and its
penetration in remote corners of the World, has galvanized populism. The
increasing assertiveness of the USA in imposing its will politically and militarily, in
particular in the MENA region, has bestowed upon populism a new lease of life,
thus giving birth to neo-populism
(Dorraj and Dodson 2009:127–153)
2 Corporatism and Governance
The intellectual origins of corporatism can be traced to such classical philosophers
as Aristotle and to such modern thinkers as Comte and Durkheim. As a concept of
state and society, corporatism is rooted in a synthesis of Roman law, Catholic
absolutism, specifically its Thomistic version [theological thought of the Italian
theologian of Roman Catholic Church, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)], an
organicstate tradition and the authoritarian political heritage of parts of Europe, especially
Southern Europe and Latin America
(Klaren and Bossert 1986: 26)
. Organic statism
emphasizes the unity of the political community, ‘the concession theory of
assertion’ and the central role of the state in achieving the public good
Bossert 1986: 27)
. In this scheme, the state is the prototype, the most natural and
most perfect form of political community. Churches, interest groups and private
associations and other institutions are organically and dialectically linked to the
state, drawing their power from it and empowering it in turn, thus constituting a
whole. The state also has a moral mission: to promote general welfare and
regenerate society. Drawing upon the Catholic tradition of Latin America, and its
Iberian culture, the corporatist concept of state and community also politically
enriched the Catholicism of the twentieth century and the Iberian culture. It
challenged Marxist class conflict and also negated liberal individualism as well as
the liberal notion of a decentralized, non-interventionist state.
Corporatists, like populists, believe that corporatism constitutes a third path of
development, a non-Marxist and non-capitalist path unique to Latin America and
stemming from its social history and political culture. Like populism, this claim on
authenticity lends corporatism a nationalist appeal vis-a`-vis ‘alien ideologies.’ As
the national ideology of social solidarity, purporting to be averse to unbridled
capitalist individualism and Marxist class conflict, it can be effectively used for
mass mobilization, thus making multi-class coalitions possible
(Pike and Stritch
1974; Wiarda 1974; Bianchi 1984; Richards and Waterbury 1990; Cammette et al.
. Urbanization, industrialization and the incapacity of the established
institutions to respond to the demand of the masses for increased participation
generate a political crisis. As modernization engendered social fragmentation and
anomie, the corporatist idea of an organic society in which political alienation and
social isolation are resolved became increasingly morally appealing as well.
Corporatist states are often strong, activist and interventionist in economic and
social life as well as in inter-group interest mediation. They attempt to forge
partnership between state, business and labor with the state playing the overarching
role of setting the direction, control and the agenda. The hierarchical nature of
corporatist states renders them as the ultimate judge and arbiter in interest
articulation and mediation. They do so by building institutions and mass
organizations that are ‘incorporated’ into the state. By putting their supporters in
charge of them, these organizations are often hollowed out and tightly controlled, no
longer functioning as representative democratic institutions that they were once
advertised. Thus, such mass organizations are often devoid of independence and
function as the arm of the state and a tool for the implementation of its policies
(Schmitter 1979; Wiarda 1997; Pinto 2017)
In the name of preservation of national interest and social partnership, corporatist
regimes justify their intrusion in cultural and political realms of life that under
pluralist states, for the most part, is left untouched and unregulated. However,
globalization, regional integration, democratization and the rapid pace of change,
accelerated by technological revolution, have posed formidable challenges before
corporatist regimes. For example, it might be the position of state in international
system, rather than its national standing that would dictate its ability to deliver on its
Hence, such international organizations as the International Monetary Fund
(IMF), World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its predecessor, the
General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), promote neo-liberal economic
policies. These include dismantling state-owned enterprises, abolishing or
substantially reducing government subsidies and imposition of austerity programs. They
stipulate that reception of their loans and financial aid program is contingent on
implementations of these ‘reforms.’ These policies clearly undermine the welfare
state and its ability to deliver its end of the corporatist bargain with the masses. The
looming presence of multinational corporations also undermine the ability of the
state to protect the domestic market and the most vulnerable strata to the classic
cycles of boom and bust pervasive in the capitalist economic cycle.
As the economy and with it the business become international and
interdependent, sovereignty of the corporatist states erodes and they find themselves
increasingly at the mercy of the global market, actors and organizations that they
do not control. Thus, their ability to set the economic and social agenda and to
deliver on their promises diminishes. The impact of North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA) on eroding the power of PRI (Revolutionary Institutional
Party) and its monopolistic grip on Mexican political life provides a clear example.
The emergence of PAN and other political parties and the ascendance of Vicente
Fox to presidency transformed the nature of the corporatist state and society in
Mexico. The Mexican case is a clear example that regional integration brings
corporate institutions under the reverberations of external powers and modifies them
The loss of its monopolistic powers to manage the economic, social and political
realms also erodes the abilities of the corporatist state as the mediator, the ultimate
arbiter and the provider of subsidies, social welfare, benefits and services. Thus, the
mantle of corporatist state as the ultimate steward of the national economy and the
defender of the national interest loses credibility and the regime becomes
susceptible to external pressures. As safeguarding and protecting the ‘national
interest’ become more challenging, the corporatist state is rendered ineffective and
Culturally, globalization and penetration of American popular culture in the
remote corners of the world has undermined the traditional sources of identity and
loyalty, often associated with the nation state. Thus, articulating a single unifying
national vision to rally the support of the nation becomes more problematic. These
challenges have not led to the disappearance of corporatism, rather to its
metamorphosis and rebirth as neo-corporatism to adopt and adjust to changing
global, regional and domestic scenes. However, it remains to be seen to what extent
neo-corporatism can successfully cope with the powerful forces of global, regional
and domestic challenges discussed above.
These, however, are not the only issues that have undermined the efficacy of the
corporatist state and have given rise to neo-corporatism. In Latin America, for
example, the traditional pillars of corporatism, the Roman Catholic Church, the
army and the oligarchy are losing power. The rapid growth of Protestantism in Latin
America in the last two decades has eroded the power of the Roman Catholic church
and has helped to further secularize politics. With the notable exception of
Venezuela, the democratization of the last two decades to some extent has
depoliticized the army, putting it back in the barracks. The subordination of the
military to civilian authority has transformed military–civilian relations in ways that
the army no longer holds the undisputable powers as it once did. Hence, the power
of landed aristocracy has diminished substantially as increasing integration of Latin
American into the global market has created manufacturing and service industries
and new financial and political elites.
In the MENA region on the other hand, the corrosive impact of globalization has
ushered in dynamics that point to a different direction. While the landed aristocracy
and the agricultural sector have declined, neither the army nor the mosque display
any signs of erosion in their power. Indeed, Egypt and Algeria are still being
governed by military generals, and in Iran and Libya militias and paramilitaries
wield substantial power. Hence, the limited liberalization of the last three decades
has provided Islamists with an opportunity to use their organizational strength and
assert themselves, as demonstrated in the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in
The major wild card in the development of events in both regions that may play a
significant role in charting the future development of neo-populism and
neocorporatism is the nascent civil society. Whereas in Latin America, the civil society
seems more autonomous vis-a-vis the state or its organizational arms, in the MENA
region, due to pervasive repression and the stifling of political life, the mosque has
emerged to fill this vacuum. As the source of common cultural denomination and
identity for many, and as alternative to the lawlessness of the secular state, Islamic
parties have penetrated the organizations of civil society by providing social
services as well as ‘spiritual guidance and refuge.’ Therefore, in the near future, the
development of neo-populism and neo-corporatism in the region is not going to
happen in spite of Islam, but through Islam and its different interpretations.
Having briefly defined populism and corporatism, for the purpose of the present
study, we would not erect a wall between the two. Rather, we would agree with
Ronald Newton that ‘in natural corporatism are found the typical structures and
processes of populism’
(Newton 1986: 219–233)
. Such a theoretical synthesis and
the conceptual convergence of the two models also render them more applicable to
the study of social and political developments in the modern Middle East and North
Africa, in which elements of both ideologies dominate the political landscape and
mold its form and content. Finally, through a comparative analytical lens, we
attempt to elicit what the MENA region’s particular form of populism contributes to
our theoretical understanding of the subject.
3 Middle Eastern Populism: Variations Amidst Similarities
The colonial and semi-colonial status of much of the MENA region until the Second
World War induced retarded economic growth and galvanized a sense of aggrieved
nationalism. Introduced from without and geared primarily toward the interest of
foreign capital, industrialization in MENA never reached its zenith. One
ramification of this retarded economic development was that it never altered the agrarian
social relations fundamentally. In the new social order, new institutions and values
did not replace the old ones. They only nominally modified, cosmetically
modernized and ultimately revitalized them. Therefore, modernity of tradition
and traditionalization of modernity, the universal dialectics of our time, found its
succinct manifestation in the unfolding dynamics of MENA populism as well.
Ideologically, MENA populism was a synthesis of nationalism, elements of
socialism and Islam. In less developed countries in the regions, where the resilient
tribal character of the society and the preeminence of religious values never allowed
secular nationalism to take hold, Islam assumed a more pervasive role as the
ideology of nation building (e.g., Libya). Hence, the movement of nationalist
selfassertion often took on an Islamic cast. The Islamic revivals and renewals in the
nineteenth and the twentieth centuries were the earliest forms of populist
predilections in the region. The quintessential character of these movements was
their demand for autonomy, an end to foreign domination and the restoration of
Islamic institutions and values
(Burke and Lapidus 1988)
. Due to the appeal of the
socialist economic model, a home-grown interpretation of socialism developed,
endowing MENA populism with an egalitarian bent. The fusion of nationalism,
Islam and socialism, the tripatriate ideological constituents of populism in the
region, was blended with its patrimonial authoritarian political tradition. Nasser’s
Ben Bella’s and Bomediene’s ‘Arab Socialism’, Qadhafi’s ‘People’s Republic’ and
Khomeini’s labeling of his theocracy as the government of ‘the oppressed and
dispossessed’ are all examples.
In what follows, we would briefly analyze four populist revolutions of
postWorld War Two in the region.
The Egyptian populist leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser, saw himself as the savior of his
people and the protector of the poor. As an Egyptian scholar has observed, ‘Nasser
liked to look on himself as the representative of laboring masses and the people at
(Abdel-Fadil 1980: 109)
. After Mahmud Abdel Latif, a member of the
Muslim Brotherhood, failed in his assassination attempt, Nasser addressed the
crowd in the following words: ‘…My life is yours, my blood a sacrifice to Egypt.
I speak to you with God’s help after the mischievous tried to kill me. Gamal Abdul
Nasser’s life is your property; I have lived for you, and will do so until I die, striving
for your sake’. Nasser’s courage, audacity and championing of ‘the people’s cause’
evoked an intense emotional response from the masses. Nasser perceived the
modernization of Egypt as linked to the destruction of the old feudal system and the
landed aristocracy. He once asserted:
I realize we have upset big landowners, but was it possible not to upset them
and yet behold some of us owning thousands of acres, while others do not own
the plot of land wherein they are buried after their death?
(Nasser 1959: 53)
On another occasion, he is quoted as saying, ‘our socialist society is a promising
field for all who want to work but there is no place in it for millionaires’
. Nasser argued that Arab socialism was not against ownership, but
against ‘exploitative ownership’. He favored moderate gains by capitalists who were
not dependent on foreign capital.
If King Farugh’s personal weaknesses and his subordination to the British
government projected him as inept and illegitimate, Nasser’s fierce nationalism
exuded self-confidence and represented what was authentically Egyptian. He ‘spoke
the language and lived the life style of the common people’
(Hinnebusch 1985: 13)
His ‘Third Worldist’ rhetoric, his policy of positive neutralism and his skillful use of
Islamic symbolism* enhanced his popularity among the masses. His repeated call
for Arab unity and pan-Arabism and his galvanizing nationalist rhetoric restored
Arab pride and dignity and revolutionized their self-perception and identity. He
made the ordinary Egyptian and, for that matter, the ordinary Arabs believe in
themselves and take pride in their identity.
Instrumental in Nasser’s appeal was his adoption of a third path between
capitalism and communism—usually referred to as ‘Arab socialism’ and ‘positive
neutralism’. While he was not a socialist, his economic policies had a socialist
flavor. Like other populist leaders in the developing world, Nasser faced a dilemma:
to accept Western capitalism was to accept foreign ownership and the control by a
small elite of over 95% of Egyptian wealth
(Goldschmid and Boum 2015: 287)
accept communism was to alienate the Islamic factions. Therefore, Nasser opted for
a mixed economy based on state control and nationalization of major industries.
*Nasser is known to have used the Al-Azhar mosque to address the masses. His
portraits in Cairo and provinces were adorned by the slogan ‘‘Allah sent him to help
Instrumental to Nasser’s success was his charisma. The combination of his
personal attributes, his ability to draw on the patrimonial legacy of Egyptian
political culture and his articulation of deeply felt national sentiments made Nasser
enormously popular. His dominating presence, his mastery of the spoken word and
his call on the voiceless and the powerless masses to enter the political arena
projected him as the grand patriarch, the ultimate voice and the protector of the
Egyptian people. As Sandra Mackey puts it:
Gradually Nasser developed into a hypnotic speaker who combined
neoclassical Arabic with the language of the man in the street and the peasant in the
fields and added to them the chatty confidences of a father speaking to his
family. As a result, he became the accomplished master of the spoken word,
the most successful Arab communicator of modern time. In a culture in which
language is magic, his voice was his power. Resonance, cadence, and image
mesmerized people and pulled them to him
(Mackey 1992: 167)
Hence, the epithet al-rais (the boss) used by ordinary Egyptians of peasant origins
to refer to Nasser is reminiscent of a patron–client relation prevalent in the populist
politics and the political culture of the region. While attempting to transform Egypt,
Nasser effectively used traditional political relations and symbols to build his own
power base and the mystique surrounding his persona.
This cult of personality was a quintessential part of Nasser’s authoritarian
populism in which a program of social and economic reform on behalf of the lower
classes was combined with crushing the middle class intelligentsia, and the religious
(Muslim Brotherhood) and the secular (Wafd and communist) parties that opposed
him. Hence, in the final analysis, Nasser’s charisma was a two-edged sword. On the
positive side, his charisma allowed him to mold a heterogeneous coalition and lead
Egypt effectively at the hour of crisis. Yet, his charisma was responsible for
masking ‘the full measure of the difficulties confronting an Egypt slender of
resources and growing population’
(Baker 1978: 115; Vatikiotis 1978: 144)
Nasser’s rhetoric, promises and political ambitions far exceeded Egypt’s meager
resources and capabilities. Due to this paucity of domestic resources, Egypt’s
foreign policy and the political ability of its leadership assumed a particularly
significant role in its success.
Nasser’s evocation of nationalism and Arab pride promulgated nationalist
selfassertion throughout the region. The Algerian Revolution of 1954–1962 was one
such example. The French had ruled Algeria with an iron fist since 1830. French
colonialism was intent upon destroying Algerian cultural identity, primarily by
attacking their language and religion. Therefore, it is not surprising that the themes
of Arab nationalism and Islamic self-assertion dominated the Algerian Revolution
(Gillespie 1960: 3–121, Hutchinson 1978: 1–17)
. After 8 years of bloody armed
confrontation with the French, Algerian nationalists organized in the National
Liberation Front (FLN) gained their independence in 1962.
Based on a synthesis of Islam and Marxism, the Tripoli program of 1962
established the foundation of the secular socialist state, reinforcing the leaders’
plans for an independent Algeria with an Islamic culture. The first 3 years of
independence were under the rule of the charismatic leader of the FLN, Ben Bella.
High unemployment and the French attempt to destroy the Algerian culture put
industrial and educational reform on top of Ben Bella’s agenda. He also advanced
agrarian reform and established peasant cooperatives, state farms and state control
of foreign trade. The farm property previously owned by French colonialists served
as the base of ‘Algerian socialism.’
In 1963, Ben Bella signed the March Decrees, which legalized the takeover of
extensive agricultural and industrial property abandoned in the Coon exodus, and he
introduced autogestion, a system of workers’ management through popularly
elected officials. The state provided guidance and coordination within the
framework of national planning. Autogestion was meant to be the transformative
agent from the colonial economy to the socialist economy of the future
. The Algerian economy, however, suffered from the flight of European
skilled labor and the lack of managerial and technical expertise
(Nelson 1985: 79)
Hence, autogestion was abandoned a few years later. During the first congress of
1964, the charter of Algiers was published. It espoused the compatibility of
Marxism and Islam and reinforced the ideological foundation of socialism with
roots in nationalism and progressive Islam.
Ben Bella’s monopolization of power alienated many groups. He banned the
opposition political parties. Then, in 1963, he drafted a new constitution that gave
him immense power as the head of the state, the commander in chief of the armed
forces and the General Secretary of FLN. Ben Bella’s attempt to consolidate power
in his own hand and to curb the influence of the army, along with the failure of his
economic programs, led to a successful coup d’ etat in 1965 by the minister of
defense, Houari Boumediene. The 11 years of rule by decree that followed
effectively began the era of authoritarian populism in Algerian politics
and Ottaway 1970: 1–173)
Soon after seizing power in 1965, the new president began an extensive program
nationalizing industries (including the oil industry) and banks. He implemented a
more forceful state intervention in the economy. To expand state penetration of the
civil society, in 1967, Boumediene established communal (township) assemblies. In
1969, these institutions were complemented by creating Wilaya (provincial)
assemblies. In 1971, he initiated extensive land reform. Although he encountered
resistance from the private landholders, he managed to use a national charter
referendum (approved by 98.5%) to silence them. He emphatically committed
Algeria to socialism and recognized Islam as the state religion. Boumediene
envisioned the Algerian state as a system of decentralized local government
counterbalanced by a single centralized party, the FLN, and a well-established
Since 1962, the Algerian political culture has been imbued with a strong concern
for the impoverished masses. Because ending exploitation and oppression and
inaugurating ‘the reign of justice’ played an important role in revolutionary rhetoric,
FLN leaders, once in power, had to improve the quality of life and well-being of the
lower classes. Genuinely committed to the welfare of the masses, the FLN
implemented a wide array of social services and educational programs
Ottaway 1970: 158–159)
. The FLN leadership under Ben Bella and Bomediene did
not see a contradiction between its simultaneous adherence to the principles of
Islam and scientific socialism. On the contrary, they perceived the synthesis of the
two as a quintessential part of the identity of the Algerian people and state. This
synthesis has implied a somewhat puritanical and austere approach to moral and
religious affairs, but a technocratic and secular approach to economic growth and
(Ottaway and Ottaway 1970)
. The tension between this technocratic,
Western approach to development and the reaffirmation of Arab and Islamic social
and cultural policies constitutes the essence of the Algerian elite’s identity in the
Inspired in large part by Nasser’s example in Egypt, in 1969, a young officer in
Libya, named Mu’ammar Qadhafi and his fellow ‘free officers’ overthrew the
monarch, King Idris, and seized power. Deeply influenced by Nasser’s ideas of
‘Arab socialism’ and pan-Arabism, Qadhafi aspired to build a revolutionary Libya
modeled after Nasser’s Egypt. He immediately declared that the revolution was
accomplished for Nasser and in the name of Arab unity, so that Libya could join
forces in the fight against Israel
(Sicker 1987: 17, 47, 67)
. Freedom, socialism and
unity were espoused to be the main goals of the revolution.
Qadhafi’s social philosophy, the ideological guide of his revolution, is referred to
as the ‘third universal theory’ and is articulated in his Green Book. The Green Book
criticizes the existing political systems and offers an alternative to them. Its main
objective is to encourage the oppressed people to overthrow their oppressors and
seize power. Qadhafi’s ‘Third Universal Theory’ declares that both communism and
capitalism have failed to fulfill human needs. According to Qadhafi, neither in
communism nor in capitalism is the real wealth and power controlled by the people.
Under communism the real power is not wielded by the working class, but by the
communist elite. Due to the domination of political process by interest groups and
factional political parties, Western democracies are not truly democratic either.
Western democracies, contends Qadhafi, often degenerate into the rule of a few over
the overwhelming majority
(Al Qadhafi 1980: 5–22)
. Qadhafi’s response to the
alleged shortcomings of both systems is his Third Universal Theory, which
advocates the creation of a ‘direct democracy,’ a genuine ‘people’s democracy.’
In Qadhafi’s version of people’s government or ‘peopledom’ (as the title of
‘Libyan Arab jamahiriyyah’ under his rule suggested) supposedly people as a whole
are directly involved in the political process of decision making.
Qadhafi’s charisma was partially rooted in his populist lifestyle. His ‘humble’
origins, as well as his strong identification with Islamic and Arab identity,
established him as an authentic son of the Libyan political culture. He mingled
freely with the masses, occasionally resided in a tent, insisted on driving his own car
unchauffeured and dropped all official titles, answering only to the word ‘brother.’
He admired the virtues of rural Libya and appeared interested in the welfare of the
common people who related well to him
(El Fathaly and Palmer 1980: 86)
Qadhafi began his ‘popular revolution’ by banning all political parties
Qadhafi 1980: 12–13)
. Calling them divisive, instead he created ‘people’s
committees’ and ‘the Arab Socialist Union’ to replace the government bureaucracy
and the political parties. Qadhafi borrowed Nasser’s model of the Arab Socialist
Union, a single mass political party designed to expand and integrate the regime’s
base of support. Such a monopolistic party would also eliminate alternative sources
of power and political socialization. As a prototype authoritarian populist leader,
Qadhafi left no doubt that the party should not be an instrument of democratic
participation; quite to the contrary, it should be an instrument of dictatorship. As he
put it: ‘The party is the contemporary dictatorship. It is the modern dictatorial
instrument of governing.’ The party is ‘fundamentally based on an arbitrary
authoritarian theory…i.e. the domination of the members of the party over the rest
of individual members of the people’
(Al Qadhafi 1980: 12–13)
Under his rule, the committees also became a direct base of mass mobilization
and support for the regime. He perceived these committees and their armed
detachments, ‘people’s militias’ and ‘the Arab Socialist Union’, as the instruments
of ‘direct democracy.’ However, the leadership of both organizations gradually
came to be dominated by the supporters of Qadhafi or, in the face of domination of
the Revolutionary Command Council, they became devoid of real power. Where
committees became organs of independent power, they were dissolved
To enhance lower class support for his regime, Qadhafi created free education,
profit sharing and unemployment compensation, and he proposed distributing oil
revenues more equitably among the people. To resocialize the populace and further
consolidate his base of support, Qadhafi began a ‘cultural revolution’ in 1973. He
declared the Shari’a, Islamic law to be the only source of law and himself the sole
arbiter of religious issues, thus elevating himself to political as well as spiritual
leader of his people. Like other charismatic authoritarian populist leaders of the
MENA, Qadhafi thrived on mass mobilization and mass support. Until 1987,
Qadhafi maintained a level of relative autonomy from his base of support. His
access to large financial resources provided by oil revenues freed him from any
genuine accountability to domestic groups or foreign patrons, thus rendering him
virtually impervious to domestic or international pressures
. By the1980s, however, ‘People’s Committees’ that were supposed to
be the organs of ‘people’s power’ had abused many of their powers, including
usurping the power of the country’s ordinary courts and were passing many
arbitrary and repressive judgments. Gradually, these committees became a power
unto themselves, mobilizing people through fear and intimidations. Thus,
increasingly, ‘repression rather than loyalty or reliance on Qadhafi’s charisma became the
(Vandewalle 1991: 220)
While deeply rooted in the Shi’ite political tradition, modern Iranian populism can
be traced to the failure of Mossadeq’s national reformist government in the 1950s.
The failure of the liberal democrats’ parliamentary tactics to secure independence,
democracy and social justice was a major catalyst for the ascendance of the populist
politics of the 1960s and 1970s. The generation that stepped onto the political scene
after a 1953 CIA-sponsored coup d’e’tat that restored the royal crown identified the
defeat of Mossadeq’s government with the ineffectiveness of liberal ideology and
the parliamentary method of political struggle. Hence, the polarized and highly
ideological political atmosphere of the 1950s, marked by the impact of the Cold
War on the one hand and the pervasiveness of national liberation movements and
revolutions in the developing world on the other, became the major international
antecedents of Iranian populism. The populist metamorphosis of Iranian political
culture during the 1960s had a major impact on the Neo-Islamic populism that
emerged as the guiding ideology of the clergy in the 1979 Islamic revolution
Khomeini’s Charisma as a grand ayatollah and ‘the source of emulation’ for the
Shi’ite faithful played a key role in uniting a heterogeneous coalition that toppled
the Shah’s regime. The constitution of the Islamic Republic enunciates the goal of
the revolution as ‘a movement aimed at the triumph of all oppressed and deprived
over the oppressor’
(Algar 1980: 19)
. This populist tone not only reflects the
composition of the movement that overthrew the monarchy, but also the ideology of
its leadership. After the revolution, the new regime confiscated the property of those
who had fled the country and nationalized major industries, including banks,
factories, insurance companies, foreign trade and undeveloped (Mawat) land—all of
them only to be denationalized later
(Bakhash 1989: 186–201)
. By 1982, ‘87% of
manufacturing firms employing over five hundred workers were government owned
or controlled. The corresponding figures for companies with more than one
thousand employees was 95.4%’
(Karimi 1986: 42)
. In this process, the entire class
of industrialists was replaced. The nationalized sector of the economy was referred
to as the mixed or ‘state-people’s’ sector
(Behdad 1988: 114–115)
. This sector was
countered by two additional sectors: the ‘people’s sector’, which included small
producers and the participation of the ‘people’, and a state sector comprising heavy
industry and other industries closely linked to the security of the state
. Great losses in state-controlled industries, however, caused the
government to reexamine its policies and return some of these industries to private
hands. While the profit motive was publicly downplayed, the government attempted
to boost the sagging economy by creating additional material incentives for private
investors. Since 1984, the economy has witnessed the burgeoning of small private
industries, and their share of profit in the market has increased
The new regime also built a wide array of institutions to buttress its support
among the popular masses. Among such institutions were the revolutionary
committees (Komitehs), which were spontaneous mass-based organizations that
sprang up throughout the country right after the revolution. Their origins can be
traced to neighborhood committees, which assumed the role of local security forces
patrolling streets and guarding the buildings. Later, some of these committees
evolved into armed detachments of clerics in Tehran and the provinces and some of
their members joined the ranks of the revolutionary guards. In collaboration with the
revolutionary prosecutor generals’ office and the revolutionary courts, these
committees also arrested individuals and confiscated property. As the power
struggle between the ‘moderates’ and the hard line ‘fundamentalist’ intensified
under Mehdi Bazargan and his successor Bani Sadr, committees assumed a new
significance as the coercive arm of the fundamentalists to implement their will and
subdue the opposition. Due to repeated public complaints about the arbitrary use of
force by the committees and corruption in their ranks, they were purged.
Another important institution was the revolutionary guards (Pasdaran-i Enqilab).
They became the main alternative to the regular army, which was mistrusted by the
regime. They performed the dual task of providing internal security and defending
the nation. They were deployed extensively both against the Kurdish rebels and in
the war against Iraq. If the revolutionary guards provided the regime with a military
arm, Bonyad-i Mostaza’efeein (the foundation for the dispossessed) became the
financial arm of the regime. This organization confiscated and administered the
property of the royal family and other officials of the Shah’s regime on behalf of the
downtrodden and provided many financial services to them
(Dorraj 2016: 245–262)
Hence, the institution of Friday Prayer leader (Imam Jom’aeh) allowed Ayatollah
Khomeini to appoint his relatives, former students and associates to key positions of
power. They in turn informed him of mass sentiment in the provinces and took his
messages directly to the people.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s charismatic authority and his credentials as the spiritual
and political leader of the revolution legitimized these institutions as the organs of
people–clergy power. His effective use of Shi’ite mythology and sacred traditions
rendered his message communicable to the ordinary people. For the laity, he
personified the link of historical continuity with their past and resolved their cultural
anxiety and crisis. Many of them identified with his simple lifestyle, his values and
vision. His politicized rendition of Shi’ism proved to be a potent political force for
mass mobilization, and his forceful personality kept the heterogeneous clerical
coalition together. He repeatedly referred to the dispossessed as the people who
have sacrificed the most for the revolution and are its true heirs
By championing their cause, Khomeini developed a sense of mutual identification
between the popular masses and himself. They looked to him for leadership, and he
mobilized them to consolidate his power.
In June 1979, the new regime established a housing foundation to build
affordable accommodations for the poor. Ayatollah Hadi Khosrowshahi, the head of
the foundation, also called for the seizure and distribution of private land. Some of
the shantytown dwellers were allowed to occupy the homes that were left empty by
the officials of the former regime. The influx of war refugees after the onset of the
Iraq–Iran War (1980–1988) exacerbated the housing problem. In some suburban
areas, such as the Zoor Khaneh region in Karadj, the poor forcibly took over the
public land and began to build homes. Before its dissolution into the Ministry of
Housing, the Foundation of Housing managed to distribute 12,000 plots of land to
lower income families in Tehran, build 7576 small units and assist private builders
with another 5095 units
(Bakhash 1984: 189)
. The formidable population growths
(more that 20 million in the past decade alone) have rendered these measures
insignificant and inadequate. Khosrowshahi’s vociferous political pronouncements
that he would distribute the land and the houses of the rich among the downtrodden
also led to the migration of large numbers of peasants to the cities. This migrant
peasantry that had played a significant role in the demonstrations which toppled the
Shah’s regime now constituted a major base of support for the regime
The policies of the regime toward labor, another constituent basis of its support,
also reveals a sequence of reforms and retreats. After the revolution, the Islamic
Republican party, which aspired to incorporate labor into the Islamic state,
advocated the retention of Islamic councils. Because the austerity programs
imposed by the exigencies of the war made the labor demands a political liability
and because of the unions’ penetration by some leftist organizations, the leadership
declared the very idea of workers’ councils non-Islamic and in 1982 banned them
(Bayat 1988: 41–55)
. Unlike the Latin American populism, in which labor unions
and workers’ councils played a significant role in the political process, in Iran
Shuras (Councils) did not have a significant impact on the political process due to
the weaknesses of the labor movement. This can be said about our other case studies
in the Middle East as well. While active, their influence was confined to the
expropriation of some major industries, and the struggle for better wages, better
working conditions and more power in hiring and firing. While labor has been
repeatedly mobilized throughout the revolution, with the exception of a brief
interlude (1979–1982), unionization has been discouraged. Such issues as increased
wages, insurance and retirement remain thorny and contentious. In a conciliatory
move toward labor, however, Rafsanjani’s government granted several concessions,
including acknowledging workers’ rights to collective bargaining, and to job
security and providing improved benefits and wages. Nevertheless, strikes were
common among workers who constantly struggled to keep up with spiraling
inflation. But most strikes were settled in a few days through bargaining and
(Petrossian 1992: X11)
Dividing the world into the camps of the oppressor and the oppressed nations (the
quintessential populist virtuous ‘‘us’’ versus wicked ‘‘them’’), Iran’s sympathies in
global politics were clearly with the developing world (the oppressed). Like Egypt,
Algeria and Libya, Iran was firmly committed to the Non-Aligned Movement and
the ‘‘Third World solidarity’’. Hence, Ayatollah Khomeini was given the title of the
leader of ‘the dispossessed masses of the world’ by his followers. Under his
leadership, Iran actively supported the movements of national liberation in the
. Iran’s trade with the developing nations also
increased considerably since the revolution
(Benard and Khalilzad 1986: 155)
However, since much of the developing world lacked the major industrial goods that
Iran needed, in the immediate years following the revolution, a debate raged among
the post-Iraq–Iran war ruling elite on the admissibility of seeking Western
investment and loans for the reconstruction of the country. In the ensuing years, the
Islamic Republic welcomed both Western and the Chinese investments in the
economy (Dorraj 2014: 127–141).
While national populism of different shades has dominated the political scene of
MENA in the postcolonial era, the question of the specific form of government is a
wide open one:
The acceptance of Western military organization, including the citizen army,
and of Western administrative organization, including the merit system, and of
Western industrial organization, including state capitalism, does not commit
the Middle East on the central question of the nature of legitimate government
(Binder 1964: 5)
So wrote Leonard Binder in 1964. He might have added that in the Middle East a
stable government could be, in essence, anything but a democracy in the Western
sense of the word.
On one hand, the historical social conditions under which Western democracy
developed are no longer present in the MENA region. On the other hand, the
colonial impact and the socio-cultural developments of the region have deterred the
development of Western-style democracy in the area. Instead, we have witnessed
the rise of nationalism and populism with religious or constitutional colorations.
Although inspired by examples of Western enlightenment and rationalism, the
constitutional movements in Turkey (1876), Egypt (1879) and Iran (1906) were not
movements in pursuit of Western democracy. They were primarily nationalist
reactions to Western encroachment and a desire for less arbitrary rule. Due to the
pervasive role of Islam in political and cultural life, no secular political ideology
emerged in the Muslim Middle East and North Africa until the nineteenth century.
Because the study of politics was confined within the realms of shari’a, it is not
surprising that ‘even in nationalism one finds religious overtones’
. The movements of nationalist self-assertion from Egypt to
Algeria to Libya and Iran all provide examples. Although we have witnessed
numerous attempts at democratization in the region in the last 30 years, the
establishment of a democracy in the MENA region so far has remained an elusive
8 Comparison and contrast
Post-World War II, Middle Eastern populism emerged during the Cold War and the
rise of national liberation movements. These circumstances enhanced the
emergence of polarized ideological politics. The victory of the Chinese, Algerian,
Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions lent new credence and viability to armed
struggle. Where allegiance to the state was not yet ascertained, this unprecedented
entrance of the masses into the political arena in the post-independence period
popularized mass politics. Industrial growth and urbanization introduced new social
forces to the political scene. Populist ideology incorporated these newly energized
forces. More significantly, the populist revolutions in Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Iran
were movements of nationalist self-assertion that through modernization of tradition
and traditionalizing of modernity introduced a new political culture. This new
political culture in turn served as the new source of political socialization to reorient
the political loyalty of the populace.
In Arab socialism, Arab nationalism, pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism, the major
ideological trends in the Arab world and the larger MENA region, one can detect a
populist essence. The Egyptian, the Algerian and the Libyan revolutions that had
unmistakable populist characteristics, for example, synthesized many aspects of
these ideologies. The personal attributes of Nasser, Ben Bella, Bomediene and
Qadhafi, to a large extent, were also dependent upon their capacity to draw on the
underlying populist character of these ideologies. The Iranian revolution in contrast
was decidedly informed by a populist interpretation of Shi’ite Islam under
Khomeini’s charismatic leadership.
In all four countries, populism was both the means and the end of the social
reform. It was simultaneously the source of ideological inspiration and political
legitimization. How can one discuss Arab socialism and its search for equity
without mentioning its primarily lower and middle class base of support? How can
one speak about non-alignment and neutrality without referring to the populist
protests against Western neo-colonial policies? How can we separate pan-Arabism
from the revival of Islamic values, which, for the overwhelming majority of Arabs,
have become an inseparable part of their identity? How can we explain the
ascendance of Shi’ite Islam as the ideological banner of protest for the majority
without reference to it being the source of common cultural denomination for the
majority of Iranians?
All of these ideological elements are dialectically linked. Arab socialism, for
example, synthesized elements of nationalism, pan-Arabism and Islam, and some of
its advocates attempted to find precedents for it in the Qur’an and Hadith attributed
to the prophet Muhammad. Furthermore, Arab socialism distinguished itself from
Marxism by emphasizing the significance of religion and spirituality and by
focusing on class solidarity and unity rather than class struggle
. Hence, its advocation of the third path between communism and
capitalism—an attribute of Iranian Shi’ite populism also—denotes as much the
erosion of legitimacy of both West (for its economic exploitation) and East (for
Russia’s past history of imperial domination and its professed atheism under the
Soviet regime) in the region as it denotes a need for self-assertion in the era of
neocolonial domination. In Egypt for example, a segment of the educated elite desired
the restoration of the Pharaonic golden age
(Gershoni and Jankowski 1986: 13–20)
Nasser in his liberation rally, the single monopolistic mass party, often emphasized
the ‘teaching of religious observance and orthodoxy’ to the youth. Nasser was also
an advocate of Islamic unity (Nasser 1954: 77; Dekmejian 1971: 38–39). In Iran in
contrast, Khomeini overtly advocated a return to the pristine Islam of the seventh
century as the only path of salvation. A populist essence is also evident in Qadhafi’s
‘Third Universal Theory’, Ben Bella’s ‘Arab socialism’ and Khomeini’s ‘Neither
East nor West,’ all of which claim to supersede both capitalism and communism and
to revive Islamic identity and culture. The populist ideology also served as an
instrument to build a corporatist state. Hopwood captures the essence of this
allencompassing corporatist spirit of the Nasserist state in Egypt when he describes the
Liberation Rally, inaugurated in 1953 (and replaced by Nation Union in 1957,
which was itself replaced by the Arab Socialist Union in 1962) as the following:
It was not to be a party but a means of rallying the people round the new
rulers, an organization to mobilize popular support and to squeeze out
potential opposition. Throughout his political life, Nasser viewed such
organizations only as a means of obtaining the consent of the people to his
rule, not as a means of encouraging political discussion and participation. He
was opposed to any group other than the RCC seeking power and he wanted to
encompass all of political life within one organization
(Hopwood 1985: 87)
Political control and mass mobilization were the two main motifs behind the
creation of such single monopolistic mass political parties. Its counterparts in
Algeria (FLN), Libya (Arab Socialist Union) and Iran (Islamic Republican Party)
performed the same functions.
Another attribute of corporatism, its opposition to class strife and its emphasis on
national unity and class collaboration to achieve national goals, is patently present
in the ideologies of our four revolutionary leaders. For example, according to the
Charter of National Action submitted by Nasser to the National Congress of Popular
Forces in 1962, the main premise of ‘Arab Socialism’ is that the Egyptian people
must oppose ‘the dictatorship of any classes.’ Rather, they would opt for ‘the
dissolution of differences among classes’ by creating a democracy that is based on
‘the entire working forces of the people’
(Abdel-Fadil 1980: 3)
. This theme is also
forcefully present in Ayatollah Khomeini’s emphasis on the unity of Islamic Umma
(community) and Qadhafi’s and Ben Bella’s emphasis on unity of ‘the people’.
All four of our case studies of populist revolutions are characterized by the
emergence of charismatic leaders who implemented popular-nationalist policies to
expand and consolidate their bases of support. All four regimes took steps to
diminish foreign control of their economic and political systems. To carry out their
policies and to intimidate their opponents, though to varying degrees, they relied on
extensive mass mobilization and utilization of religious and national symbolism.
None of the four leaders, however, was a democrat. If in Latin American populism
there was a democratic streak, conspicuously absent in MENA populism is any
democratic tradition. Instead, clientelism was used by these authoritarian leaders to
forge a new base of support and to maintain them in line through dispensation of
carrot and stick as warranted. All four leaders implemented social and economic
reforms on behalf of the lower classes and in turn relied on their political muscle to
maintain power. While the base of support for the four regimes came from
heterogeneous class backgrounds, the lower classes constituted the main bulk of this
These revolutions were also movements intended to create a new political
culture, thus forging a new ideological foundation for national identity and political
loyalty. To different degrees, they all rejected Western cultural hegemony and
revived and revitalized domestic traditions. This bestowed upon them an aura of
authenticity, thus widening their nationalist appeal. In all four revolutions, social
justice and the creation of a more egalitarian society played a major role in
propaganda and the program of its leaders. All four implemented egalitarian policies
that benefited their respective political constituencies. They were also inspired by a
utopian vision of a just order that would prevail at the end of the revolutionary path.
Yet, foremost, these were revolutions of nationalist self-assertion.
Whereas in Egypt the guiding ideology was secular nationalism, Arab socialism
and pan-Arabism, insofar as Arab identity for the overwhelming majority is
inseparable from Islam, Islam also played a significant role in the process of mass
mobilization. In Algeria, Libya and Iran, the role of Islam as the banner of cultural
authenticity was more distinct in mass mobilization against colonial powers and
their proxy regimes. Whereas the first two opted for secular regimes, Iran
established a theocracy. As modernizing leaders formally bowing before the sanctity
of Islam, Nasser, Ben Bella, Bomediene and Qadhafi were primarily inspired by
secular nationalism while drawing on Islamic symbolism to elicit popular
legitimacy. Their program of social reform was also based on gradual secularization
of their respective society. They attempted to curb the power of clergy and relegate
their activity to the realm of the sacred (Dekmejian Opcit: 132–133, Hopewood
Opcit: 95–97). Khomeini, however, labeled the very idea of separation of state and
mosque a ploy of imperialists to dominate Muslims. He maintained that religion and
politics were not separate during the rule of Prophet Mohammad and they should
not be separate now
Our case studies also demonstrate that once in power, these populist governments
suppressed ethnic, political and religious dissent and emphasized integration,
solidarity and cooperation to achieve the corporatist ideal of national unity and the
creation of a ‘holistic’ society. Revolutionary rhetoric not withstanding, these new
leaders could not elevate themselves above the patrimonial culture in which they
were socialized. Their rule remained personal and authoritarian, and they displayed
little tolerance for their political opponents. Hence, their personal charisma played
an instrumental role in mass mobilization as well as the institutionalization of their
power. To the extent that the new institutions were built around the charisma of the
leaders, however, they remained unstable and their endurance beyond the death of
the leaders was precarious. Although the political legacy of Nasser in Egypt and
Khomeini in Iran made it difficult to reorganize the revolutionary institutions on a
new basis in the post-revolutionary era, political expediency did not prevent either
Sadat or Rafsanjani from doing so.
In all four case studies, the state played a large role in regulating the social and
economic realms of life. This tight regulatory control usually relaxed when the state
achieved a degree of stability, continuity and self-confidence. In all four cases, the
populist state maintained relative autonomy from its base of support. For example,
Nasser repressed trade unions during 1952–1954, and the Islamic Republic banned
them altogether after 1982. Both Qadhafi and Bomediene used repression and
cooptation to maintain a tight control over labor, all four leaders banned the
opposition political parties, guaranteeing their monopoly on power.
Ideologically, all the leaders maintained universal, international or regional
ambitions in terms of the applicability of their ideas and export of their revolution.
Whereas Khomeini and Qadhafi’s political ideologies laid claim on the universal
truth, the ideological ambitions of Nasser and Ben Bella and his successors were
more regional in scope. Ayatollah Khomeini purported that his brand of Shi’ite
Islam was the only authentic Islam true to the message of its founder. Qadhafi’s
Third Universal Theory is presented as an ideological alternative to capitalism and
communism to all humanity. According to Qadhafi, it contains guidance for both the
social and private realms of life. Nasser’s, Ben Bella’s and Bomediane’s Arab
socialism and pan-Arabism had more limited ideological ambitions, primarily
confined to the Arab world: the restoration of Arab dignity and pride in the
postcolonial era and creation of a more egalitarian social system.
Our study of the impact of populist metamorphosis of the region and its impact on
the modes of governance, agenda setting and policy choices reveals that MENA is
not outside of the global system, neither is it immune to the dynamics of social
forces that mold its economic, social and political developments in which the role of
global trends and external powers loom large. While the broad syndromes that
inform these developments are universal, they assume different political forms
under different cultural and historical traditions. The challenge is to separate the
universal from the particular, explain why they assume the particular forms that they
do in their MENA context and shed light on the ideological impact of populist and
corporatist strategies on the modes of governance found in the region.
While the explanation for the particular form of MENA populism is rooted in its
culture and history, populism molds the political culture in profound ways and
defines the language of political discourse and tools of legitimation. It also often
redefines history, historical memory, culture and national mythologies in light of the
new ideological orthodoxy it presents. Thus, it sets the political agenda, defines the
rules of the game and sanctions the means and ends of politics, in an attempt to
recast and recreate national identity. Through a combination of moral regeneration
and social engineering, populists ultimately aim to recreate the society in their own
The attempt to create a populist-corporatist state was a by-product of two
interrelated and interacting phenomena. First, it was a response to social decay and
fragmentation and the ensuing sense of moral malaise that engulfed the MENA
societies in the post-colonial and post-modern era. Second, its authoritarian
character was the manifestation of the region’s history of patrimonialism and
political absolutism, buttressed by a lack of Islamic reformation. Whereas the first
factor rendered populism salient as a political and moral project, thus explaining its
popularity, the second one exposed its limitations to make ‘‘the rule of the people’’
truly democratic. Whereas some Latin American populist regimes had a democratic
streak, in the MENA region, as our case studies reveal, populist regimes are
Its authoritarian bent not withstanding, populist ideology enhanced the task of
mass mobilization, allowing the fragile new revolutionary regimes to protect
themselves against colonial intrusion and pressure with a thick layer of mass
support. Hence, the corporatist structure of the state assimilated the newly energized
social forces into the political system and facilitated its consolidation of power. The
nationalist thrust of these populist revolutions enhanced the corporatist task of
molding national unity in face of internal and external threats. With its emphasis on
the sanctity of the unity of the Umma (Muslim community), overtly or covertly,
Islamic ideology was employed by the secular and the religious leaders alike, in the
elusive pursuit of the corporatist ideal: the creation of an ‘organic’ and ‘holistic’
society. Corporatism and populism also provided an alternative to the ideological
challenge of liberal democracy and communism, thus legitimizing the new elites’
claim on authenticity.
The early phase of MENA populism was characterized by the popularity of
secular nationalism, Arab socialism and pan-Arabism, most notably personified by
the charismatic rule of Nasser in Egypt. Its latter phase was intertwined with the
resurgence of Islam, of which the most dramatic expression was the Iranian
Revolution of 1979 and the vibrant political impact of Khomeini’s populist
rendition of Shi’ite Islam. While the two stages are distinct in their ideological
colorations, conceptually it is a mistake to separate the two. Not only are there some
common social policies, social bases of support, methods of wielding power and
leadership styles, but the essence of populist politics is remarkably persistent
crossnationally in our four case studies.
While Nasser and Khomeini represent distinct eras of secular nationalism and
Islamic revival, Qadhafi, Ben Bella and Bomediene span the two eras of ascendancy
of Arab socialism and the rise of Islamic revivalism. Their attempts to reconcile
these two ideological trends stem as much from the genealogy of revolutions that
brought them to power as from the forceful presence of new realities. The
confluence of Islam and socialism in the ideology of the leaders of Libya and
Algeria is based on reinvigorating Arab traditional identity in the post-colonial era
and cultural imperialism, and hence the modernization and politicization of this
identity in the age of ideology.
Our case studies reveal that populist regimes are intensely nationalist. They
oppose foreign political and cultural domination and espouse to revive a perceived
‘golden age’ of culture and history as the new source of political socialization, thus
forging a new national identity. Their defiant nationalist political posture seems to
provide a remedy for the aggrieved nationalism of the masses and their
psychological need for the restoration of national pride in the wake of lingering
memories of the colonial era and the realities of their subordinate position in the
global power structure in the post-colonial era. No longer willing to play the role of
a subordinate client state, populist regimes are often at odds with global hegemonic
powers. Furthermore, populist regimes’ attempt to assert national autonomy and
their raw egalitarianism and redistributive policies often fall at odds with the
neoliberal laissez-faire policies espoused by the USA and its allies. Hence, their
attribution of the social malaise to the ascendancy of the ‘‘alien and imposed’’
Western post-modern culture often imbues populism with a nativist and reactive
ideological character. Populists display elements of a progressive as well as a
reactionary ideology in their outlook. While their ideals of economic redistribution
of resources and the provision of a social safety network renders them progressive,
their backward-looking vision on culture, anti-intellectual political posture and
political authoritarianism and intolerance render them reactionary.
Insofar as populism responds to dislocations caused by industrialization,
urbanization and capitalist growth and expansion and emerges in the time of crisis,
it is a transitional ideology. Once the crisis that rendered it salient has dissipated or
the populist regimes’ constituency becomes disillusioned, they tend to become
vulnerable to mass uprising and discontent and would often pave the way for the
ascendance of regimes to their right or left. As such, populism is episodic. We
cannot have permanent populism. While the allure of populist symbolism continues
in the region, from the standpoint of social policy, there cannot be a permanent
populism. MENA populism is no exception to this norm.
As our case studies clearly demonstrate, all four countries have now left behind
the populist phase of their revolutions and have opted for policies and programs that
characterize ‘late populism’
(Hertog 2016: 12–19)
and post-populist states. Hence,
as the examples of ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings of 2010–2013 and Donald Trump’s
presidential victory in the USA have demonstrated, with the rise of social media the
central role of charismatic leaders in the success of these movements has
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