Michel Pablo

XXIst Plenum of the International Executive Committee

The Arab Revolution

(November 1958)

From Fourth International (Amsterdam), No. 5, Winter 1959, pp. 46–53.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This is by not meant to be a really complete and exhaustive report on the Arab revolution. It is rather an introduction to the question and a preliminary discussion concerned more especially with the Arab revolution in the Middle East as well as with the Algerian revolution.

The Arab revolution is part of the colonial revolution of this post-war period and at times it becomes the dominant feature thereof. It embraces all the countries of Moslem religion, of Moslem civilization, and of the Arabic language in Africa and the Middle East, and in particular Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lybia, Egypt, the Sudan, and the countries of the Arabian peninsula, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. To a certain extent Iran must also be included in spite of its pre-Islamic language; in all, some 60 million Arabs and “Arabized” peoples, or about one-sixth of the total Moslem population of the world.

It is a question of a national unit, historically developed as such, whose various elements, despite their different backgrounds on a purely racial basis [1], are conscious above all of being Arabs and belonging above all to the Arab nation.

This Arab or rather “Arabized” national community is, however, widely dispersed geographically from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Persia and the Caspian Sea and is riddled with many national minorities: Kurds, Assyrians, Jews, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Persians, Berbers, and Arabized Negroes of many different African races, etc.

From the point of view of religion likewise, there is a diversity of sects and beliefs: Mohammedans: Sunnites, Shiites, Alaouites, Druses, Ismailis, etc. Christians: Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Gregorians, Jacobites, Maronites, Nestorians, etc. This religious mosaic is especially striking in for example Lybia and Syria.

While the Maghreb, having lived in isolation for a long time, has managed to remain outside the Mohammedan theological quarrels, in the rest of the Moslem world sects abound (Mohammed foresaw 72!) and though they completely agree on the strict observance of the Koran, there are many different interpretations of the importance of traditions and even more of the sense of destiny of the Prophet and of his successors.

Thus on a national foundation which is indubitably Arab or Arabized, a diversity of real ethnic and cultural structures is built up, resulting, among other things, from the extraordinarily turbulent past of these countries, most of which had suffered successive occupation by the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Arabs, the Mongols, and the Turks, before being subjected to that of the European imperialists in the XIXth and XXth centuries.

As capitalism made only a late and slight penetration in these countries, the centuries-old economic, as well as social, cultural, and ethnic structures, though upset and even in places overthrown, have nevertheless not been eliminated, and at the present moment are being interwoven in the reconstruction taking place in the Arab countries.

From the Marxist point of view the basic argument in favor of the existence of an Arab nation despite these factors is the existence of such a common national consciousness in the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of these countries, developed through the history of these peoples, a history which is marked by a common language, a common geographical location, and a common social and cultural system.

A brief historic survey of this question will best show how well-founded this argument is.

Historic Formation of Arab National Consciousness

Arab national consciousness appeared early, as early as the XIXth century, that is, at the very time when the modern capitalist nations in Europe were being formed, following the decline of the feudal empires of the West and the Ottoman East.

It was the fall of the Ottoman Empire as well as the imperialist aims and undertakings of the great capitalist countries of the Europe of that period (England, France, Germany) which awoke Arab nationalism at the end of the last century.

In the Arab commercial and cultural centres of the period – Beirut, Aleppo, Damascus, Bagdad, Alexandria, Cairo, as well as in Constantinople and the Persian cities, sometimes in Kabul or even in Delhi – the intellectual forerunners, tainted by European liberalism of the time, hoped to see the West helping to liberate the Arabs from the yoke of Turkish despotism and oppression.

But the attitude of the West soon brought disappointment and the liberalism of these forerunners was converted into a more resolute Arab nationalism, like that of the main promoters of the Salafi movement (appealing to the Ancients), a reform movement and the cradle of Moslem and Arab aspirations in the 1890s.

For a time the “Young Turks” reform movement put an end to the specifically Arab awakening by absorbing it into the more general framework of an “Ottoman liberalism” claiming equality for all the oppressed nations of the Turkish Empire.

But as early as 1910 “Ottomanism” and “Ottoman-Arab fraternity” came to an end, since the “Young Turk” ideologists of the then rising Turkish bourgeoisie could not and would not genuinely break down the feudal system and the national oppression which the Ottoman Empire had created. From then onwards, the Arabs strove to organize themselves independently, first on a cultural level and then politically, but always under the main inspiration of the intellectuals, especially the Syro-Lebanese: the Literary Club (al Muntada al-Arabi) in Constantinople (1909), a discussion centre of which several members, Al-Khali, a Lebanese Moslem, Haidar, a Baalbeck Moslem, and Sallum, a Christian from Homs, were hanged as traitors by the Turks during the First World War; the Qahtan Society (those of Qahtan, the legendary ancestor of the race), a secret society more or less affiliated to the Literary Club, which aspired to the creation of a dual Turkish-Arab state on the Austro-Hungarian model; Al Faat, the Young Arab Society founded in 1913–1914 in Paris, with branches in Beirut and Damascus; the “Decentralization Party,” founded in Cairo by the Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians in 1912, with committees in Syria and Iraq and appearing as the spokesmen for Arab aspirations; and the Young Algerian Party, also formed in 1912.

On the eve of the 1914 war, the Arab national movement became a mass movement in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt. The war accelerated the evolution, since the English realized that Arab nationalist support was essential in the fight against the Turks and their German allies. In the Spring of 1915, the members of Al-Fatat and of Al-Ahd, the former springing from the feudal and intellectual élite in the Syrian countries and the latter mainly representing the Mesopotamian officers in the Turkish army, drew up the “Damascus Protocol” which provided for the independence of the Arab countries situated between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. They were soon to be decimated by the brutal repression of the Turkish Pasha Jemal.

This repression, however, was to whip up nationalist fervor and to produce decision to take action by the principal chiefs in Arabia, such as Emir Feisal, son of Hussein, afterwards the founder of the Hachemite dynasty, the Emir of Mecca, who learning at Damascus on 6 May 1916 of the latest executions of Arab patriots, gave the signal for the armed revolt against the Turks with the cry of “Death has become sweet, o Arabs!” And it was the same Feisal who, having believed the lavish promises showered on him by the English and French during the 1914–1918 war, submitted “the Arab problem and its solution” to the Peace Conference in the following terms:

As the representative of my father who, at the request of Great Britain and France, led the Arab revolt against the Turks, I have come here to ask you that the Arabic-speaking peoples of Asia, from the Alexandretta-Diarbuakr line to the Indian Ocean in the South, be recognized by the League of Nations as independent and sovereign peoples. [...] I base my request on the principles enunciated by President Wilson and I am confident that the powers will attach more importance to the bodies and souls of the Arabic-speaking peoples than to their own material interests. [29th January 1919]

But as might have been expected, it was the latter that prevailed and divided up the Middle East in accordance with the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement (May 1916) into two spheres of influence, one English and the other French, and set up the infamous system of “mandates.”

For the Arabs 1920 was the year of catastrophe – Amal Nakba.

For all Arab nationalists [wrote one contemporary reactionary writer [2]] the decisions of the League of Nations in San Remo seemed to be an abominable iniquity. The creation of the states of Syria, Lebanon, Transjordania, Palestine, and Iraq appeared to them as an absurdity contrary to all historical, cultural, and religious traditions. Thus the Arab states of the Middle East were created “as by virtue of a jigsaw puzzle,” a colonialist attempt par excellence at “Balkanization.”

Under the shock of this disappointment, Arab revolutionary fever abated here and there, but elsewhere the national awakening burst out with greater force, as in Egypt and Iraq in the ’20s, and later in Morocco. [3] The gradual evolution of Turkey under “Kemalism” and of Iran under Raza, the founder of the Pahlevi dynasty, stimulated Arab nationalism. In Egypt, the “Wafd,” the Independence Party, was created, and wore itself out in a struggle against the king installed by the English in 1922, the latter wishing to maintain their de facto tutelage of the country. The same struggle was going on in Iraq, where the British persisted in maintaining an artifical administrative structure in order to hold in check the forces working for the real independence of the country.

They granted most of the political power to the Sunnites forming the feudal and commercial aristocracy, held out hopes of autonomy to the Kurds and Assyrians, and allocated some districts to Shii’te chiefs. As for the nature of the parliamentary system which masked this regime, Nuri-es-Sa’id, “the Englishman,” defined it most aptly in these words:

The selection of candidates at the elections is arranged to include all former prime ministers, all ministers who have held posts more than twice, members of the Bureau of the Assembly, retired high officials, heads of communities, tribal chiefs, etc. They represent nearly 60% of the Chamber; the rest depend largely on the power of the government.

This fake system bred fierce struggles, like those of the anti-imperialist revolts of 1921 and the internal convulsions which endangered the cohesion of the Iraq state.


In the Lebanon, in Syria, and in Palestine, the struggle against the “Mandates” between the two wars also stimulated Arab nationalism and brought the hour of formal independence nearer.

The case of Palestine, the most Arab country of the whole “Fertile Crescent,” deserves special mention. The Balfour Declaration in 1918 recognized the right of the Jews to found a “National Home” in this Arab country under mandate. As the Jewish community grew in size – 190,000 in 1929 – a political Zionism was created against which the Arabs, starting from that date, have reacted violently. For they saw in it an ever more serious obstacle to their own political development, a danger to their own economic independence, and a policy of territorial expansion by the Jews to their own detriment.

It must be noted, however, that even at that time the Arabs would have agreed to negotiate with the Jews as citizens of the state of Palestine, to sanction their holding of land, to respect their cultural autonomy and perhaps even their local self-administration, in brief would have granted them a national minority status; but they intended to stop further immigration and the purchase of new lands, activities feverishly pursued by the Zionist Agency.

The anti-Jewish movement (soon to become anti-British by the very force of circumstances) of the Palestinian Arabs dates from the ’30s and grew in strength, reaching its climax on the outbreak of the Second World War. Zionism, an instrument of the imperialists, thus became a powerful reagent in creating Arab nationalism. In the ’30s Palestine became the main centre from which the ideas of the unity of the Arab world radiated again with new force. A Palestinian newspaper, Al-Arabi, issued this catechism in 1932 under the spiritual direction of Shakib Asian and Abd er Rahman Azzam:

The Arabs occupy in their own right half of the Mediterranean circle. They look on the Atlantic Ocean on the one side and on the Indian Ocean on the other. Everywhere, common customs, identical culture. Arab unity is therefore a present reality and a historical reality.

With a view to strengthening cultural unity, plans were made to set up an Arab university in Jerusalem as well as an Arab Academy – the latter was established in Egypt late in 1933.

In the Autumn of 1932, the Executive Committee of the Arab Congress, which met in Jerusalem in 1931, prepared for a new congress to study the discontinuance of customs offices and the unification of the monetary system and the postal services in the Arab countries.

The period from 1930 to 1933 (during which King Feisal of Iraq died) was characterized by various other endeavors to effect Arab unification, but all were sabotaged by imperialism and its native agents. On the outbreak of the Second World War imperialist domination in the Arab countries was already tottering but was still far from being abolished. In Palestine, however, a veritable war against the British had been raging since 1936 while the French had great difficulty in maintaining their position in Syria.

The new war crowned the process towards formal political independence of the Middle East states who profited from the inter-imperialist war, from the decline in the power of England and France, and from the dissensions between them.

The most outstanding events in this period were: the Iraq revolution against the English in May 1941; the evacuation of Lebanon and Syria by the French in November 1943; the Conference of Alexandria in September 1944, which laid the foundations for the League of Arab States (Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordania, Saudi Arabia, Yemen). But the interested patronage of London and the antagonism between the royal families of Saudis and the Hachemites were also present at the birth of the Arab League.

And that is why the aspiration towards Arab unity retreated before the “respect of the independence and the sovereignty of the Arab State” simply “wishing to affirm and consolidate these ties,” as the Charter of the League proclaimed.

Since 1945 the Arab states of the Near East have become formally independent and have become members of the United Nations. [4]

On the other hand, the Arab countries of North Africa still had to wait for their hour of independence. Lybia became independent in 1952, followed by the Sudan and then Morocco and Tunisia (1956). In Africa there are only Algeria and the Sahara regions attached to France, and the Spanish Sahara, which have not yet been liberated.

A new phase of the Arab revolution began after the end of the war, aimed at obtaining real independence from imperialism; it raises fundamental economic and social problems arising from the very widening of the Arab revolution.

The Economic and Social Structures of the Arab Countries

Arab society is that of the arid countries of a good half of the Mediterranean circle, the peasant population of which, whether sedentary, nomad, or intermediate, clings to the lands bordering the sea, or to those on the banks of the great rivers, in the high mountains, in the oases, or to the grazing “steppes” with which the extensive deserts of the interior are dotted; where the system of land-holding has in general been shaped by Islamic law and Turkish feudalism, with urban centres populated by a mercantile and money-lending bourgeoisie living parasitically on trading profits and rents; a society which has long remained compartmented, closed off, and turned in on itself, and – whether in the Middle East or in the Maghreb – with relationships of family and tribal hierarchy and subordination, with the imprint of slavery sometimes still fresh upon it, a society not yet overthrown by imperialist penetration as such, except in small islets and in the peripheral fringes of the countries.

This is, roughly, the customary picture that we had of the Arab countries and which substantially corresponds to present reality. But in this general sketch, the concrete individual structures are necessarily blurred, and so are the essential lines of the evolution in progress. Hence the need for a more profound analysis.

1) The Problem of the Land

In general, and in spite of undoubted progress made in industrialization which has made great strides, especially during the last war, the Arab countries are still characterized by the overwhelming preponderance of an agricultural economy dominated by relationships which are substantially feudal in the Middle East, and capitalist in the colonialist-owned big estates of the Maghreb countries.

The parasitic and usurious bourgeoisie of the towns has a direct interest in maintaining the present conditions in the country since it is these conditions which enable it often to own lands – which it sub-lets at a profit – and to manage, as it were, the finances of the fellahin who are constantly short of money and overwhelmed with debts. There are only nuclei in formation – but growing steadily despite everything – of an industrial bourgeoisie properly so called, whose interest it is to curb the power of the feudalists and the usurious bourgeois, to carry out certain reforms, and to raise the standard of living of the peasants, thus creating the home market which is indispensable for its own development.

It is these nuclei of the industrial bourgeoisie, as well as the intellectual or even military circles – linked ideologically to the industrial bourgeoisie – who, in countries such as Egypt, Tunis, Morocco, Syria, and Iraq, have really led the Arab revolution in the postwar period. (This is apart from the special case of the Algerian revolution which we shall study later.)

Let us make clearer, by means of some essential data, the present economic and social structure in the rural districts of the Arab countries:

From 5 to 45% of the land area is suitable for cultivation and an even smaller percentage has been cultivated, between 2 and 33%, but in general less than 10%. The primary problem of water and irrigation weighs heavily on the exploitation of the land. In the six following countries – Lebanon, Syria, (Turkey), Transjordan, Iraq, and Iran – less than 1/8 of the cultivated lands is irrigated. In Iraq, 2,620 square miles are irrigated out of 19,100 square miles that could be, and in Syria, 1,250,000 acres out of 8,750,000 acres.

The limited area of cultivated land, aggravated by irrigation difficulties, occupied by an agricultural population forming the overwhelming majority of an ever increasing total population, lowers the average available land per capita to a level comparable with that of India, namely 1.48 acres.

This extremely low proportion of cultivated land, as well as the very low yields of crops, are due to outmoded social relations rather than to insurmountable natural obstacles.

Islam forbids tenant farming at fixed rents; it has stipulated share-cropping and has allowed the most drastic rates. Furthermore, the inheritance laws laid down by the Koran have favored the splitting up of estates to an extreme degree, each male child inheriting two parts and each female child one part.

In addition, the principle of state control under the Ottoman Empire bore heavily on the land for a long time. It first allowed the creation of fiefs burdened with a rent and this favored absenteeism of the vested “lords,” bad cultivation, stagnation, and consequently extremely diversified systems of tenure.

The rights of the Moslem cultivator of the land (sharecropper or owner) are in general – whether in the Maghreb or in the Middle East – confirmed by custom, tradition, and the arbitrariness of the heads of the family or of the tribes, who fix the rents and periodically redistribute the lands inside the land collective of the family or tribe (mouchaa system).

This keeps the cultivator in a state of uncertainty regarding his rights and the future of his plot. This uncertainty is in its turn reflected in poor routine cultivation of the soil.

By a certain simplification, it is possible to distinguish, in the Middle East, side-by-side with “mulk” lands, corresponding to the individual peasant holdings in European countries, the fief and the tenure which predominate. Originally property of the state, or rather of the sovereign, the “miri” lands have passed to the feudal lords, for services rendered, in the form of “mulk,” or else in the form of more or less long-term leases, and, in either case, sub-let by the feudal lords to the peasants. The “matruki” are lands reserved for public use and the “waqf” represent property in mortmain, religious or charitable donations.

The “miri” are characteristic of Iraq, the “matruki” of Iran; and for a long period the “waqf” represented one-tenth of the cultivated lands in Egypt.

In the Maghreb, the large agricultural estates, established on the best land, are generally in the hands of capitalist settlers and of a few native big landowners. They are cultivated according to modern methods, thanks to the use of an abundant and cheap native labor force, the landless peasants. As for the lands left for the native population, they are divided into “mulk” lands, the indivisible family lands – characteristic of the mountainous regions (each household of the agnatic family having the right to the yield in proportion to the area) – cultivated by the members of the family or by share-croppers on a 1/5 basis (khammes) in the case of land belonging to semi-nomads of the Sahara oases, of collective lands of peasant communities or of pastoral tribes; and of public or private “habous” lands equivalent to the Egyptian “waqf.” The latter category is still particularly important today in Tunisia.

In a general way, there is social predominance everywhere of landlords as well as of the “notables” of the tribe or of the community and of their merchant and usurious bourgeois allies in the towns; in their hands are concentrated the economic power, the financial power, and the civil authority; on the other hand, small landowners, especially all precarious landholders who, for that very reason, do not see the necessity and the possibilities of long term cultivation.

The leasehold rent is often demanded in cash by the owners who live in the town. In order to subsist, the peasant must almost regularly resort to credit – an advance in cash or in kind – the formula varying but giving interest of 100% or more to the “merchants” or to the lending capitalist proprietors, acting as managers of their peasant “clients,” paying their taxes, taking over their extraordinary family expenses, etc.

It is only the peasants in the mountainous regions like those in Algeria or Morocco – where the system is one of indivisible family and communal property and where a great spirit of mutual help prevails – who escape from this rule relating to the condition of the Arab peasant. But on the other hand, the population in these regions is constantly increasing on a poor and limited land-area, already minutely split up, fully settled, and overpopulated. This is what has given rise to emigration on an hitherto unknown scale.

In the Maghreb the situation is as follows:


Everywhere, whether in the Middle East or in the Maghreb, there is an immense rural proletariat side-by-side with a mass of impoverished peasants and nomads [10], a surplus population without any possibility of obtaining really productive employment.

The living conditions of this population are among the most miserable in the world: an annual income per capita – and sometimes per whole family, as in Egypt – of less than 50 dollars; total illiteracy; numerous diseases due to under-nourishment or the conditions of work and the climate (tuberculosis, malaria, trachoma – which does not spare the eyes of even an Ibn Saud – bilharzia, ancylostomiasis, etc.), all of which undermine their already weakened organisms.

And while the tendency of evolution is towards concentration and modernization of the large estates, the surplus peasant population, which is not economically employed and consequently not economically viable for the cultivation of the land, increases because of the progress that is nevertheless made in hygiene, the sedentarization of the nomads, and the increased productivity of the soil, which does not expand in proportion.

Thus there is clearly sketched out the primary importance, side-by-side with the national struggle for real independence from imperialism, of the agrarian problem in these countries. This problem, furthermore, can be satisfactorily solved only by a complete agrarian reform in the framework of an overall revolutionary policy that will give the peasant sufficient land and will increase its productivity. To recover new land by various hydraulic projects, to eliminate disease and illiteracy, to increase the productivity of the soil, and, by making great strides in agriculture, to back up the indispensable parallel effort of industrialization of the Arab countries, demands more than an agrarian reform, it requires an overall state policy.

The agrarian reform in the Arab countries should aim at giving the land to those who actually work it, that is to say, to the small landowners, the share-croppers and agricultural workers, removing all the uncertainties which now weigh so heavily on the small plot, expropriating without compensation the lands of the large native and colonist owners as well as the waqf and habous lands, and enlarging the existing lands by hydraulic and other projects wherever possible and necessary.

As regards the forms to be taken by such an agrarian reform, they must take into account both the community customs which still characterize the Arab family and tribal society (although on the decline because of the penetration of capitalism) and the requirements of an irrigated cultivation, no less on a community basis.

This means that it is possible to foresee on a broad scale for these countries an agricultural reform which will right from the outset bring into being communal or tribal collectives (which will be amalgamated later into larger collectives) and convert the best of the large agricultural holdings of the native feudalists and the colonists into state undertakings, managed by collectives of the agricultural workers or share-croppers now working on them.

In fact, the standard of living of the Arab sharecropper or agricultural worker is at present so low (perhaps horrifying would be the better word) that any appreciable economic improvement, including for example in the form of wages, can inspire these masses to greater productivity on a collective farm of which they would be the managers.

Naturally, the concrete case is different for each country and sometimes even for this or that region.

2) Bourgeoisie, Proletariat, and Industrialization

Quite recently the Arab bourgeoisie was still composed essentially of the merchants and rentiers to whom the greatest part of the profits from agricultural production accrued in one form or another. These strata consumed, redistributed, or exported the produce of the earth, hoarding their gains in the form of gold, or investing them in real estate or in large estates sublet to share-croppers or cultivated by agricultural workers, along the lines of a capitalist undertaking. [11]

These strata likewise engaged in the usurious exploitation of the peasants, bound to them “by a complex system of debts, of commercial relations, or as clients.” Merchants playing an important part in trade (textiles, cereals) or in transport, were a characteristic feature also in the basic composition of the Arab bourgeoisie in the towns in the Maghreb.

This structure of the Arab bourgeoisie, essentially parasitical, still predominates at the present moment.

But the economic transformations that occurred in the Arab countries as a result of imperialist penetration, the opening up of the oil fields, and the slow but steady process of industrialization, have given rise, side by side with these strata, to nuclei of an industrial bourgeoisie properly so called and consequently to a modern proletariat.

In the Middle East, in addition to the trade bases and undertakings such as the Suez Canal, it is the oil fields which have been the greatest influence in the economic and social transformation of the countries of this region. Today there are 600 oil wells in the Middle East supplying one quarter of the total production of the Western world, while the reserves in this area are estimated at 2/3 of the total of the “Atlantic” reserves. [12] The total output of the Middle East is worth more than one thousand million dollars per annum. The income obtained from petroleum forms the major part, if not the whole, of the budget of the oil-producing Arab states. Only a very tiny part of this income, however, is now used for the benefit of the national economy.

Nevertheless, the technical needs for exploiting the petroleum and the profits arising from this exploitation have completely overthrown the traditional life on the whole of the “Persian” fringe of a country like Arabia for example, where slavery still prevailed quite recently: denomadization and proletarianization, road construction, urbanization.

Furthermore, a modern industry has been developed to varying degrees in the different countries of the Middle East, especially since the First World War and still more since the Second: extractive industries (other than that of petroleum which is entirely in the hands of the imperialists) or processing industries.

By far the main industry is the textile industry, especially in Egypt (which, in addition to cotton, processes linen, rayon, and natural silk in very large factories as well as in a multitude of artisanal workshops). Then come the Lebanon and Syria. In Iraq, the textile industry is only in its initial stages, and only cotton and rayon are processed.

Then come the foodstuff, the metal, the chemical, and the building industries, all of recent development and concentrated chiefly in Egypt with a few undertakings in the Lebanon and Syria. As a general rule, these industries, including the textile industry, do not as yet, in spite of their constant progress, even cover internal demand, and consequently it is very exceptional if there is surplus for export.

Their development is important, however, because of its social consequences, strengthening the formation of a real industrial bourgeoisie and of a modern proletariat.

The contingents of the latter are still weak numerically, but, often concentrated and holding key economic positions in these countries, they are steadily growing: a vanguard of some 200,000 oil workers in Iran, in the Persian Gulf protectorates, in Saudi Arabia, in Iraq, in Syria, and in the Sahara; workers in the textile and building industries in Cairo, Damascus, and Bagdad; workers in transport, dockers in the various ports from Alexandria to Lattaquieh.

Egypt alone – by far the most industrialized of the Arab countries – has 1,300,000 workers at the moment, but most of them (90%) are unskilled workers scattered among several thousands of small workshops; Only 65 factories employ more than 500 workers.

In the Maghreb, the economy is dominated by colonial agriculture whose aim is exportation. Nevertheless,

processing industries have been established in the towns, first with the object of satisfying the needs of the internal market, especially of the Europeans: flour mills, alimentary paste factories here and there, modern oil-processing plants, and a few canneries. But before 1945 at least, they supplied practically nothing for export. Most of the other produce of the soil and the sub-soil were also scarcely ever processed, either. [13]

Before the war not one of the countries in North Africa had

a metal industry apart from foundries and repair workshops. Not textile industries, either, although cotton fabrics were one of the most important import articles. There were just a few workshops processing wool, especially in Morocco. The chemical industry was limited on the whole to the production of sulphuric acid and superphosphates used almost exclusively by the European settlers. The building industry was unable to satisfy the needs in these countries under construction. Algeria, for example, imported two thirds of its cement, one half of its lime, and even a substantial proportion of its tiles and bricks. [14]

This situation has changed very much since the last war. Industrialization then appeared to be essential for the war effort itself. From 1943 on, in the three countries in North Africa cut off from the mother country, there was soon a shortage of the most essential manufactured goods. It was therefore necessary to improvize a whole series of new industries: foodstuffs, metallurgical, household goods, chemical and glass industries, building industries, etc.

A number of these industries, being unable to face the competition of the better equipped industries in the mother country, failed as soon as the war ended. But the impetus given to industrialization was able to be maintained nevertheless, thanks to fresh investments of capital fleeing from France or of international capital, due likewise to the strategic importance of the Maghreb countries, which favored large-scale undertakings and heavy expenditure. Industry benefited greatly from these investments (public or private).

In addition to some local capital invested in the foodstuff and textile undertakings,

large concerns in metropolitan France established branches, such as Pont a Mousson, Air Liquide, Solvay, Pechiney, Saint-Gobain, Lafargue, Nieder-willer, Boussac, Amieux, etc, and some Anglo-American undertakings (Nord-Africaine de Plomb in Zellidja, Gulf Oil and Shell in Tunisia). [15]

Thus various factories sprang up: metallurgical, textile, chemical, etc. Some of these factories (foodstuff industries) are at the place of production, but most of them have been erected near the ports and have given rise to vast industrial quarters (the famous “bidonvilles” being among them).

Neither in the Middle East nor in the Maghreb has the industrialization process now taking place brought about as yet any qualitative transformation of the traditional economic structure of these under-developed countries dominated by agriculture and trade.

Technically, the large-scale development of industry is handicapped by the absence of a heavy industry which could efficiently and cheaply equip the light industries and consequently reduce the exorbitant cost price of the goods made by the home industries which, in order to survive, have to be protected by no less exorbitant tariffs.

Economically, the feudal structure in the rural regions and the usurious role of the merchant bourgeoisie of the cities are impeding the creation of a vast internal market capable of spurring the development of industry. Financially, the development of industry is impeded by the lack of sufficient resources for primary accumulation of capital, native capital preferring the rapid and substantial profits to be obtained from mercantile and money-lending operations and foreign capital being willing to invest only cautiously, likewise with the hope of quick profits, while the state, in the hands of the native feudo-capitalists or of imperialism, in its turn favors this speculative activity and itself absorbs, by the phenomenon, well known in these countries, of an officialdom as plethoric as it incompetent and parasitical, a high proportion of the resources which would otherwise be available for the development of the national economy. [16]

Furthermore, because of their very nature as underdeveloped countries, an immense productive force, represented by the working potential of their population, remains for the most part without any possible productive employment: two thirds of the 18 million fellahin in Egypt, 7 persons out of 9 of the Algerian native population, etc.

Thus the social and economic conditions of the feudo-capitalist regime in these countries, still economically dominated – with very rare exceptions – by imperialism, constitute a major obstacle to the industrialization of these countries and renders absolutely unattainable any prospect of catching up with the industrial countries in the foreseeable future.

And yet natural conditions are nowise unfavorable to a rapid industrialization of the Arab countries.

Even though the problem of hydraulic power or power based on coal is generally difficult for any of these countries to solve, on the other hand most of them can benefit, apart from the solar power of tomorrow, from the extraordinary abundance of petroleum, resources which, combined in an inter-Arab pool, would be fully sufficient for all the needs of their industrialization.

Mineral resources, although poorly prospected and ill known, seem to be abundant:

To these mineral resources of the Middle East and North Africa must be added the raw materials from vegetable and animal sources: cotton, cane and beet sugar, various oils, wool, etc.

With regard to the financial conditions for the industrialization of the Arab countries, they are fully satisfied by the existence of the petroleum resources combined with a vast and currently idle surplus labor power of the population of these countries. Theoretically, the colossal profits from the production of petroleum [18] should be sufficient to finance the industrialization of a united Federated Arab Republic. But the greater part of these profits returns to the foreign imperialist companies and to the ruling oligarchies (governments, kings, sheikhs). [19]

The fabulous incomes of the Sheikh of Kuwait and of the royal treasury of Saudi Arabia are well known: more than $500 million and $300 million respectively per annum! The Sheikh of Kuwait uses about one third for his family (70 people) and another third is invested in “international shares of the first order by an investment committee” set up by the Sheikh in London, the famous Kuwait Investment Board! Only one third is used for the so-called “general good.”

As regards the petroleum income of Saudi Arabia, $50 million are used in maintaining the 300 members of the royal family and the 24 “1001 Nights” palaces (against only $13 million for agriculture between 1952 and 1954, $10 million for social works, and $80 million for the army in 1955).

In Iraq, on the other hand, 70% of the revenue from petroleum was used by a “Development Board” to improve the national economy, especially agriculture, thanks mainly to works controlling the floods of the Tigris and the Euphrates for irrigation purposes.

The imperialist grip on petroleum also impedes home consumption, partly because of the difficulties it sets up to the refining of any quantity of crude petroleum on the spot, but mainly because of the imposition of a price much higher than the production price in the Middle East since it is calculated on the basis of the price of American oil.

In conclusion, expropriation without compensation to the imperialists and feudalists is a primary condition if the very vast Arab petroleum resources are to make an effective contribution to the rapid development of the national economy of these countries.

There is another very important resource in these countries which by itself could at least partly solve the difficult problem of primary accumulation of the capital required for a rapid and large-scale commencement of industrialization; this resource is the productive mobilization of the labor power of millions of men and women now partially or totally unemployed. This force, engaged in irrigation works, reforestation, and various civil construction, as well as in local industry, within the framework of a state-controlled and planned economy, could very quickly make considerable productive forces available, beginning by substantially increasing agricultural production. The effective mobilization of this resource is likewise a question of the social system.

[The concluding section of this document – The Balance-Sheet of the Present Bourgeois Leadership of the Arab Revolution – will be published in the Spring issue.]


1. Even in Arabia, there is not, strictly speaking, an Arab race according to modern scientific definitions; rather there is a mixture of three main racial types: Chamite, Mediterranean, and Armenoid ( according to Bertram Thomas ). In Iraq, the basic population is “Nabatee” or “Chaldean,” and “Aramaic” or “Syriac” in Syria-Lebanon. Ethnically, Egypt is Coptic. From Lybia to Morocco the Maghreb is Berber; the Berbers themselves are not a race but an “ethnic complex.”

2. R. Furon: The Near East, Editions Payot, Paris.

3. There was also a movement of demands in Algeria in the ’20s, led by the Emir Khaled; and at Paris in 1923 there was created the Étoile Nord-Africaine.

4. Except Aden, the Pirate Coast, Bahrein, and Kuwait in Arabia, which are territories controlled or protected by Great Britain.

5. One feddan is equal to 478 square yards.

6. This property was cultivated by share-cropping. “The lots entrusted to the tenants are between 17.5 and 150 acres for dry farming, depending on the quality of the soil and the dryness of the climate, and the proportion which they keep for themselves varies in the same way from one half to four fifths. The contracts concluded for one year or for the duration of the crop rotation offer no guarantee to the tenant. He is bound to the owner only by his debts.” (The Mediterranean and the Middle East, by P. Birot and Jean Bresch. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris.)

7. Ibid.

8. A law in 1933 gave the owner the right to keep the share-cropper on the land until he had paid his debt.

9. In 45 years the miserable conditions have driven one million rural people to the towns where they form the semi-proletariat of the “bidonvilles” (shanty-towns).

10. The latter, mostly shepherds, although declining surely and inevitably, still form an appreciable component in the total Arab population, perhaps something like 10%: 300,000 in Syria, the majority of the six million inhabitants of Saudi Arabia, two million in Iran, more than half the population of the Sahara (where there are about 1.7 million inhabitants).

The conversion of the nomads to a sedentary life, now taking place both in the Middle East and in the Maghreb, is a result of the creation of the various independent states, breaking up the desert and cutting off the pasture areas, as well as of the introduction of the trade and automotive transport of the capitalist era, which make a wandering life in the desert both difficult and obsolete.

“Sedentarization is accompanied more than ever by profound economic and social changes. The tribal chiefs are being transformed into large landowners by various means: dictatorial distribution of the arable lands, sale of water, and credits,” while others become simple peasants, or even, having lost all their flocks, go to swell the number of khammes at the oases, or transform themselves into proletarians flocking to the towns or to the oil-fields as in Arabia and now in the Sahara.

11. “In Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and even in the Lebanon, except in the high mountains, a goodly section of the large estates is in the hands of the bourgeois families who bought the “mulk” lands, and acquired the usufruct of “miri” estates (made valuable in Iraq by harnessing the waters) on the basis of shares in the agricultural communities of mouchua structure. They place them under managers, parcel them out among the tenants [...] unless they expand the irrigation works, buy equipment, and introduce industrial crops for the purpose of speculation.” (The Mediterranean and the Middle East, by P. Birot and Jean Dresch.)

12. Estimated at 16,100 million tons. Saudi Arabia alone has greater petroleum reserves than the United States (thanks in particular to undersea strata).

13. The Mediterranean and the Middle East, already quoted.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Officialdom in the under-developed countries (as well as petty trading, for that matter) is a means of escaping from the poverty to which the majority of the population of these countries is condemned. In Egypt in 1951 there were 550,000 officials, 200,000 of whom had no specific task.

17. Forty thousand million tons of mineral salts; inexhaustible reserves of potash.

18. It was 150 million tons or more than 20% of world production (not counting the USSR) in 1954. Furthermore it is estimated that Middle East petroleum will have to cover at least half of world consumption, which is to be doubled in the next ten years – which will raise production in the Middle East to 800 million tons.

19. At the present moment, each ton of oil produced in the Middle East brings to the governments concerned an average share of the profits equivalent to $5.50.

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Michel Pablo
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Marxist Writers’

Updated on: 29 January 2016