On the absence of Arab intellectuals: the colonial connection

by Maged Mandour, July 15, 2016

British troop train in Egypt, 1882. Wikicommons/ Illustrated London News. Some rights reserved.

The colonial
experience of the Arab world did not only stunt its social development, it also inhibited the
development of class-consciousness.
The absence of
Arab intellectuals in the age of almost unprecedented Arab social and political
upheaval is a topic that has occupied me for some time. After years of revolts,
mass protests, and civil war, the Arab elites have failed to produce prominent revolutionary
as well as the counter-revolutionary intellectuals. Intellectuals who could
have articulated the ideological platform of these movements, which is a
necessary building block for societal order based on consent, rather than

In lieu of
this, they have been relying on pre-packaged slogans of the current regime’s
corruption, respect for human rights, or stability and the war on terror. A
message of social change and the shape future society should take is almost
wholly missing.

Even the
Islamists, who had been in opposition for decades with a powerful native, moral
message, did not present a viable alternative. Once they won elections,
Islamist order was not substantially different from the old order; it simply
had Islamist packaging.

This weakness
in Arab intellectual development can be attributed to a number of reasons;
however, the colonial history of the Arab world and its impact on Arab capitalist
development and class struggle is what is of interest here.

Capitalism in
the Arab world developed on the periphery of the capitalist world order.
did not develop as an indigenous system of production; it developed
within the colonial epoch, as an externally imposed system of wealth
accumulation. This,
however, does not mean that there was no form of capitalist development
the advent of the colonial age, but rather that capitalism in the Arab
was primitive, far from the dominant method of production and

With the advent
of colonialism, capitalism in the Arab world developed in a manner that served
the metropolis, while the development of an indigenous capitalist class capable
of competing with the mother country was inhibited, keeping the Arab bourgeoisie
weak and dependent.

This is vivid
in the case of Egypt, which came under British occupation in 1882. The British
started to reconfigure the Egyptian economy as an appendage to the British
economy. Egypt was the supplier of raw materials, especially cotton, to the
British Empire. At the start of British occupation, the dominant form of
production was artisanal. Modern capitalist firms were non-existent in Egypt. As
the Egyptian economy was reconfigured along capitalist lines, naturally, a
local capitalist class emerged. However, it was dependent on the metropolis.

During colonial
rule, foreign capital played a dominant role in Egypt’s economy, promoting the
local bourgeois to establish Bank Masr, the first Egyptian bank with the
explicit aim of combating the hegemony of foreign capital. Thus, the Egyptian
bourgeois, similar to their counterparts in the Arab world, did not develop organically,
they developed as a byproduct of the imposition of capitalism by the colonial

This had
significant impact on the intellectual development of the elites in the Arab
world. Unlike the bourgeoisie of Europe, they did not have to struggle against
the domestic class to wrest control of the state.

The Arab
bourgeoisie did not have to justify their quest for hegemony against a despotic
ruler, nor did they have to develop a broad coalition with the lower classes in
order to depose kings. Rather, they had to struggle against colonial foreign
powers, which means that nationalist rather than class-based ideology started
to appear.

From this
struggle, a nationalist, socially conservative movement emerged,
which demanded an end to colonial rule. However, it did not attempt to tackle
social questions and did not offer a drastically different vision of society.
Preservation of the status quo was key.

The prominence
of the nationalist struggle against colonial power tempered the class-consciousness
and class struggle of the emerging working class and peasantry, as the nationalist
card trumped the social card. Thus, even though the nationalist parties were dominated
by the elites, the working class and the peasantry flocked to them as the representatives
of the nation, especially since foreign capital played a large role in their
misery and exploitation.

As such, the
lower classes also did not develop their own intellectuals who could oppose the
native elites or raise social issues. The struggle against the colonial power
was paramount. This meant that a culture of paternalism prevailed between the
local elites and the lower classes, which persists to this day.

After the end
of the colonial period, the struggle against imperialism and Zionism
still took
center stage. The advent of Arab nationalism still placed the struggle
against the
“outsider” as its main task. Some might
argue that the military regimes that took power after the end of the
period did initiate a program of substantial reform. This is indeed
however, a more nuanced view is that these programs of social reform,
having been initiated from the top down, rather than bottom up, were
designed to ‘buy
off’ the loyalty of the lower classes, keeping class consciousness and
to a minimum.

The local
elites attempted to counter the development of class-consciousness along with
intellectual development by propagating the struggle against imperialism as the
number one priority.

The development
of class-consciousness, as such, was stunted in the Arab world due to its colonial
or semi-colonial position. Moreover, the weakness of the Arab bourgeoisie also
meant that there was weakness in their intellectual development, since they
only saw the struggle against the colonial power rather than the local king.
This position continues to have impact to the present day.

In Egypt today,
the elites under President Sisi have relied on conspiracy theories, focusing on
foreign enemies, mostly imagined, whose goal is to take over the country.
Within this context, the need to protect the motherland trumps any social
issues. As Sisi stated in a speech celebrating the anniversary of the coup “We
are all Egyptians and there is no reason for disagreement”.

If we look at
Syria, Assad has also invoked images of a foreign conspiracy that is fueling
the revolt against him. Once again, the struggle against imperialism takes
center stage.

In both cases,
the elites did not present an ideological platform that could act as a tool to
re-build the social order.

revolutionary forces who have failed to present an alternative vision of
society, also repeat this weakness. Besides slogans of political change, human
rights, and the need to combat corruption, there has been very little social
content. In some way, the paternalistic relationship between the elites and lower
classes still prevails.

In conclusion,
the weak struggle against local elites has hindered the intellectual
development of the Arab world, resulting in the masses being in a weak position

The lack of strong class-consciousness as well as a tradition of class
based struggle makes the development of revolutionary intellectuals an arduous

The colonial
experience of the Arab world did not only stunt its social development,
inhibiting the development of an independent bourgeoisie, it also inhibited the
development of class-consciousness and the intellectual development that would
accompany it. The colonial wounds of the Arab world have yet to heal. 

SOURCE: Open democracy