The refusal of the British and of the French to leave their colonies in a timely fashion badly discredited the liberal political parties that had promised their departure. People lost patience with those parties and with the notions of parliamentary democracy and republicanism that were associated with them and with Western models. After all, they reasoned, those ideas certainly did not make the Western nations treat them any better. They had made a conscientious effort to adopt such ideas, while the West persisted in its haughty disdain.
However, there was a new ideology on the horizon, one that claimed to be anti-imperialist, opposed to colonialism. It was embodied in a vast country of seemingly immense power, a country that had promised to use that power to oppose colonialism. Furthermore, this new ideology claimed to know the magical formula that would eliminate the gap between the haves and the have-nots. This was Marxism, and its appeal to the Arab world would only be heightened when the West emerged as the chief backer of Israel, which the Arabs saw as just another colonial state, yet another Crusader kingdom occupying their land. Not, of course, that atheistic Marxism could ever fully appeal to the vast majority of Muslims. But it had an appeal for many, and it was a handy ally in the view of many others.
Marxism, or some form or other of what was often called “Arab socialism,” became the newly fashionable ideology. The 1952 revolt of the Egyptian Free Officers soon put Gamal Abdel Nasser in power, and he inaugurated a period of Egyptian socialism that, not unpredictably, virtually destroyed the Egyptian economy. He probably meant well, more or less. He was fascinated by Lenin-style Five Year Plans and the glories of central economic planning by the government. He really seems to have believed Soviet propaganda concerning Marxist economic triumphs. So Egypt in the wake of his rule became littered with unneeded industrial plants operating at a fraction of their capacity and cursed with an agricultural economy, once the breadbasket of the Roman empire, that could not feed even its own citizens.
I once lived across the street from the large American school that is located in a southern suburb of Cairo. During one period, a new building was under construction. What was noteworthy and very irritating about this was that deliveries of sand and gravel to the construction site seemed always to occur between the hours of two and four in the morning. We were constantly being awakened by the sound of dump trucks unloading gravel and sand at the most awful hours of the night. Finally, I found someone who could explain this. The government, he told me, had rigid controls on building materials, and these were black-market deliveries. A higher price was paid in order to avoid the multiyear wait for materials that could sometimes delay construction of a building. Marvelous! I thought. Astonishing! Only socialist economic planning could create a shortage of sand and gravel in Egypt. We should perhaps be gentle on Arab socialists, though. Many of them genuinely sought the welfare of their people. They simply chose the wrong instrument. It is only in the last few years that the entire world, apparently including the former Soviet Union, has been obliged to admit what many have known for decades—namely, that Marxist economic planning has been an unmixed disaster.
What is more, the notion that communism is anti-imperialistic has now been shown to be a delusion. Indeed, the Soviet Union may have been the last of the great multiethnic empires. (A Sovietologist friend of mine—what, by the way, do we call Sovietologists nowadays?—once asked in mock puzzlement why people were making fun of Ronald Reagan for calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” “It’s indisputably evil,” he pointed out, “and it’s undeniably an empire. So why not call it what it is?”) Russians, Ukrainians, Uighur Turks, Georgians, and Armenians struggled mightily to get out from under the thumb of a government for which, it is now clear, they never felt much affection. Residents of the Near East—and especially pious Muslims—could hardly be expected to love the Soviet regime more than its own people did. As Nasser invited the Soviets into Egypt, they grew more and more demanding, and less and less respectful of the local population. They were an imperial power, and they, at least, knew it. So they acted accordingly. (I was told of this by many a Cairo taxi driver and shopkeeper, people who remember those days with some bitterness.)