Max Leak reports from a session at Historical Materialism conference that included perspectives on right-wing politics in Lebanon (Elia el Khazen), Morocco (Miriyam Aouragh) and Egypt (Hannah Elsisi), as well as an analysis of the role of regional political actors in the Syrian civil war (Joseph Daher).
The foundation of Lebanon as a sectarian state rested upon military repression of tribal minorities, argued Elia el Khazen, the first speaker. Provocatively, Khazen suggested that sectarianism may have a similar relationship to the Lebanese state to that between the idea of multiculturalism and Western states – officially sanctioning the terms on which minorities may or may not be included within society. Documenting xenophobic violence against Syrian refugees from right-wing militias in recent years, Khazen unpacked the blend of paranoias around Western imperialism, cultural outsiders and Israeli espionage which have characterised right-wing Lebanese discourse. In reality, American funds have swollen the Lebanese military dramatically so as to help it manage and repress flows of Syrian refugees. This military expansion also spurs on further state and militia violence against more long-standing internal Others, including Palestinians and LGBT people.
Miriyam Aouragh’s presentation focused on the role in Moroccan politics of what is termed the ‘ayasha. Derived from the phrase “Long live the King!”, the ‘ayasha is an informal, state-encouraged network of gossip, rumour and day-to-day surveillance which serves to keep tabs on potential subversives within Morocco, and to defame them as foreign agents or bring them into line via social shaming and moral blackmail. Aouragh also explored the relationship of informal networks to the monarchical populism of the Moroccan state, which makes use of regal symbolism and draws on a long-standing historical repertoire of exalting imagery (the casting of the King as a “lion” or “tiger”, for instance). The talk was interwoven with discussions of the 2016-17 popular uprisings in the Rif and elsewhere, which the ‘ayasha strove to cast as exclusively Rifian and separatist, despite this being far from the case. Aouragh characterises these uprisings as both new and unique, and as the fruition of long and unfinished historical processes.
How can we explain the resilience of the Assad regime? Joseph Daher gave an account of the events of the Syrian Civil War to date, examining Assad’s instrumentalization of sectarianism, the patrimonial nature of the Syrian state, and the role of regional actors. Looking at the interventions of regional powers such as the Iran state and Hezbollah, Daher argued that it is inadequate simply to categorise regional actors as “sub-imperial powers” – the Saudi regime, for instance, clearly acts in ways that are sometimes hostile to American imperialism, even as it remains broadly aligned with the US. Historically, Syria occupied an ambivalent position between US- and Russian-aligned geopolitical blocs (for instance, the Assad regime supported the Saudi occupation of Bahrain in 2011); this only changed with the large-scale Russian intervention to support Assad in 2015. The United States, for its part, has never been seriously interested in regime change in Syria and has only ever desired a symbolic transition from Assad to another, less tainted figure who can maintain the same regime more or less intact. With the arrival of Trump, one change has occurred, however, in US policy: the US is now focused very narrowly on its aggressive agenda towards Iran. Throughout the latter stage of the war, the Assad regime’s administrative focus has been on implementing a broad and sweeping neoliberal economic agenda, which it intends to pursue throughout the reconstruction process to come.
The Syrian situation underscores the fact that imperialism is not simply an opposition between imperial states, but also a cooperative dynamic between apparent rivals, all of which work against struggles for autonomy and democracy. Ruling classes learn fast from each other’s failures and successes (another example of this being the rapid string of far-right victories around the world). Anti-imperial and left-wing struggles, too, must be conducted on a united and internationalist basis.
Hanna Elsisi’s talk looked at politics in Egypt since the military coup of 2013. Egypt’s economy has been taken over almost entirely by the military. The army now owns or manages 95% of land in the country, dominates public finances and nobbles private sector competition, and is using the construction of a new “capital city” in a remote part of Egypt as a scheme to seize large amounts of prime real estate in Cairo. Elsisi argued that neoliberalism is an inadequate label for grasping the nature of this project, as it differs from a classically neoliberal programme in several respects. Above all, the barriers the military is erecting to external competition are in some respects an impediment to international capital and its operations in Egypt – the military’s numerous tax exemptions, privileged access to state resources, and use of free conscript labour make it hard for private firms to compete. Nonetheless, the consequences of this economic agenda for the poor have been catastrophic – among other effects, pro bono medical care (the only kind available to about a fifth of the population) has ceased almost entirely due to the military’s stranglehold on the market for medical supplies.
Political repression also continues apace – a figure of 100,000 prisoners in Egypt today is likely to be an underestimate, as 19 new prison facilities have been constructed since 2012 and yet all reports indicate jails are over-crowded and unsanitary. The Egyptian left is divided and unsure of where to turn, with some resorting to appeals to international neoliberal institutions over the regime’s somewhat insular and protectionist bent in economic policy.