In his famous Self-Criticism after the Defeat, the Syrian philosopher Sādiq al-‘Azm outlines a merciless diagnosis of the ills that have ordained the failure of the progressive Arab regimes, thereby condemning the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East to a profound and still unresolved crisis

This article was published in Oasis 31. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:04:56

Read the introduction to this classic How a Revolution Fails


In his celebrated Self-Criticism after the Defeat, published after the Six-Day War, Syrian philosopher Sadik al-Azm expounds, without mincing his words, the reasons that led to the failure of the Arab progressive regimes and plunged the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East into a profound and still unresolved crisis.


[On Conspiracy Theories]


Of the terrible errors that the Arabs have fallen into as far as their cause is concerned, the first is the extreme underestimation of the capacity of the enemy. The second […] is the exaggeration of its power and influence, to the extent of ascribing it overwhelming mythical powers that make it the mistress of capitalism, socialism, and the course of history at the same time. Naturally, exaggerating the power, strength, and influence of the enemy in this fantastic manner is one of the ways to rationalize our failure and shift responsibility for the defeat on factors outside of our power, especially since these factors belong to forces that we want to believe are of such greatness and magnitude that they render impotent even the courage of the most courageous. […]


The diffusion of this kind of thinking among the Arabs to explain their defeat by Zionism and its colonialist allies indicates that the Arab mind (or better, the Arab imagination) still leans strongly towards the adopting of the simplest and most naïve explanations for the course of historical events. The simplest way to understand a complicated phenomenon like the foreign policy of a country like the United States is to ascribe it to some individuals or a group of individuals (the Elders of Zion, for example) whom we can hold entirely responsible and on whom we can heap blame, inferring that if they disappeared from existence, then the course of events would alter entirely. In other words, we always search for an explanation for events that returns in the end to a “willpower” behind them or to projected “intentions and goals” of individuals who organize the course of events according to their whims and in complete secrecy. According to this logic, the course of history for the period of a century, for example, tracks exactly the goals, intentions, and will of, for instance, the Elders of Zion, secluded in secret. The Arab mind is not yet familiar with the explanation of events according to modern scientific methods that do not rely on final causes and do not seek the source of events in concealed wills and personalized powers, but rely instead on objective economic considerations, for example, or social forces either in an automatic manner or interacting among themselves in a dialectical way, among others. […]


[The Clever Personality]


After the examination and analysis of the specific examples of the tendency to shift responsibility away from oneself and to project it on others that appeared so clearly after the defeat of the 5th of June, I want to insist that this tendency is bound with basic factors that belong to the structure of traditional Arab society and are inseparable from characteristics of the social personality that the inherited Arab milieu instilled and developed in each of us. While it is not within my ability to expand on this aspect of the subject, I want to tie the appearance of the Arab logic of exoneration that we worked through with a pattern of particular social behavior that the well-known Arab social scientist Dr. Hammed ‘Ammar[1] studied and gave the name “the clever personality [al-shakhsiyya al-fahlawiyya].” The clever personality is nothing but an abstraction and pattern, and does not exist in living reality except in the shape of characteristics, patterns of behavior, reactions, and sensibilities that describe individuals in a specific social environment and to different degrees, sometimes increasing, sometimes decreasing, from one individual to another according to circumstances and conditions.


One of the properties of the clever personality that Dr. ‘Ammar enumerates is the constant search for the shortest and fastest route to realize particular goals and aims while avoiding the toil and the effort usually required in overcoming impediments to reach this goal, and avoiding using the natural means to attain it, because the concern of the clever personality is not the accomplishment of the work in the most complete way, but mere success in achieving the goal lest he be called incapable or incompetent. For what matters to him most is that he perform the task in a way that maintains his personal façade. The clever student in our milieus is the one who always succeeds without exerting himself in the toil of constant serious studying, bragging about that and disparaging the miserable secluded colleague who spends night and day going over his class lessons. He reproaches him with various affronts like “the rote learner,” “he who memorizes but does not understand what he is reading,” or “a brute of studying and learning.” The clever student concerns himself, first and last, with apparent success and the external appearance that comes with this success, and thus we see him seeking refuge in every trick and illicit method to obtain success, including flattering the teacher (and sometimes bribing him), cheating in examinations, and breaking his head speculating as to which questions he will be required to answer in the examination. His eternal dream is that a copy of the exam questions falls into his hands before the exam. We all are familiar with the rest of the story since we were students or our children today are students. […]


As for the calamity, that is when this clever student advances from behind the school desk and becomes an officer in the army or an important official in the state administration, bringing along with him the pattern of his clever behavior, applying it automatically and innocently to his present work. What happens to us when this clever officer tries to find the shortest route, whatever it is, so that it is said that he is a successful officer and thus spares himself what he considers disgraceful and shameful, that he acknowledges failure and tries to overcome it? What happens to the nation when this officer does well in his military tours and rises from rank to rank with ways and means that resemble those he practiced to ascend through school and obtain a secondary school or university diploma, for example? What happens to the nation when this clever officer flatters his superiors in the most important matters and explains to them that he has mastered information and studies that he, in truth, knows little of, exactly as he flattered his professors in the university and pretended to have mastered the details of his studies while he, in truth, copied from his colleagues or from a paper he sneaked into the examination hall? The traditional tendency of the clever personality towards hiding defects and maintaining an appearance in front of others that is at odds with the reality of our situation (behaving according to the Sunna, “If you are afflicted with sins, hide”) is what lends special importance to what President Abdel Nasser said in the speech he gave on one of the military bases: “[…] If we conceal our failings today, how will we remedy them?”[2]


One of the characteristics of the clever personality that Dr. ‘Ammar mentions is its tendency to sudden enthusiasm, extreme boldness, and scoffing at difficulties at the beginning of the road, then indifference and apathy when the clever personality surmises that the matter calls for steadfastness, perseverance, and systematic action, and that the results will only emerge slowly and cumulatively. Who of us does not recognize that alert Arab youth who rushed out during the heat of battle seeking weapons and wishing that he were only able to pilot a war plane or drive an armored vehicle, although he probably had never carried anything other than a hunting rifle? However, he is ready to sacrifice himself for the cause. Let us leave the battlefront and return with this youth to the region of daily life and its routines. He is an employee in one of the state offices, working six hours a day, from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon, and after lunch he enjoys a period of napping, and then he plays cards or backgammon and talks politics in his favorite café, afterwards catching some television or relaxing in some way in the evening in order to return to the same routine on the following day. Let us attempt now to make him understand that the weekly hours of work will increase to nine hours a day because of the necessity of building the country in accordance with the new socialist plan, or that he must from now on persevere in his office past noon to complete the tasks that are piling up. Try to demand from him that he maintains more punctuality in appointments, that you expect from him a discernible increase in activity and production, or that you expect from him that he take some responsibilities for his individual activities and personal initiatives. Try to convince him to change his well-known routine of life since he fritters away most of his daylight hours, including a part of his official work hours, and try also to convince him that he busy himself during his long free hours with something useful and profitable. How will this youth react? […]


For in spite of his revolution at the political level, we keep finding that his social relationships, family ties, judgments in matters public and private, and general behavior towards his work and immediate surroundings all spring from the values, modes of behavior, and reactionary judgments of traditional society that he was supposed to have rejected since he considers himself in revolt against it. […]


I have no doubt that the characteristics of “cleverness” in despising the other, on the one hand, and self-assertion on a negative basis, on the other, were, to a great extent, the source of what I mentioned in the beginning of this account about the Arab tendency before the war (and ever after it) to scorn the prowess and capabilities of the enemy and to take him lightly, and reassure ourselves, this self that lacks deep confidence in itself, by way of resounding pretensions and an attachment to external appearances and forms. Thus we treat the possession of MIG planes like the possession of strings of blue beads that will protect us from the evil staring down at us.


The clever personality nurses real feelings of inferiority and is not able to admit them because it clings to the values of shame and fear of scandal more than it clings to realism, objectivity, and the necessity of frankly acknowledging its inferiority in order to treat and overcome it. Likewise, we see it excel in superficial appeasements and transient civility whose aim is to hide the real situation and conceal the true feelings just as in our everyday expressions, “never mind,” “it’s simple,” “everything is okay” and “we are all brothers.[3]” We all know to what extent the relations among the Arab states are usually characterized by this superficial appeasement and transient civility. […]


When the clever personality finds itself in a tight jam that will necessarily expose its weakness and deficiencies, it excels in shifting responsibility away from itself and projecting it on external forces, thus enabling it to explain away the negative results it has produced. Just as the clever Arab student does not blame himself for failing the exam but blames instead luck, the professor, the difficult questions, the government, the regime, or the divine, so the nation blames the enemy, colonialism, deception, luck, and everything that occurs to it, thus making it easy on itself, saving face, protecting appearances, sparing feelings, and raising morale instead of penetrating to the origin of the disease and extirpating it. In a similar way, we observed earlier in this study how the Arab acknowledgment of responsibility for the consequences of the 5th of June came both late and couched in a careful, wary, reluctant language that did not surpass the level of generalities that do not puncture or disturb traditional proprieties. It is also apparent that the clever personality is strongly committed to the concepts of chivalry, masculinity, nobility, honor, boldness, and courage that I mentioned earlier. […]


[The Female Condition]


We all know that the peoples and developing states that adopted scientific socialism as a way to advance and develop quickly relied to the utmost on mobilizing all of the human resources available to them in the service of their national and progressive goals and in their battle against backwardness, dependency, weakness, and colonialist attacks, whatever their form. In other words, these societies and revolutionary states succeeded in converting the increasing human resources in their countries from a traditional problem and entrenched and inherited bane named “the problem of increasing population” to one of the chief natural sources of mental, physical, and technical human power in every field of achievement and development. We cannot help but mention here that the Arab revolutionary movement as it is embodied in the progressive regimes has made scant progress in these areas and has yet to make a serious attempt to convert the Arab masses to effective organized human and mental resources to confront the present cultural challenges or the burning Zionist military challenges. The greatest example of entirely wasted Arab human resources is the completely and utterly excluded half of the Arab people, and I mean by this Arab women. […]


The Proclamation of the 30th of March in the United Arab Republic[4] specifies “the constitution affirms the importance of regarding labor as the sole measure of human value.[5]” This is a great progressive principle that a socialist revolutionary regime should have employed from the beginning, not only after the defeat. When we assess the situation based on the principle mentioned, we find that women in their present condition in Arab society have no human value at all, even in the more advanced and progressive Arab societies. We will not benefit from this principle unless it is converted speedily to detailed legislation organizing the life of society in detail and becomes a part of daily practice to the point that half the Arab people gain their human value through their labor and production. Nor will we benefit from this important principle unless it is complemented with other socialist principles that continue to go unapplied in the progressive Arab countries, despite their being among the principles of socialist system everywhere. In other words, the legislation, customs, and habits existing in that part of the Arab world that has adopted socialism are a long way from viewing women through the lens of “labor as the sole measure of human value.” That is, on the basis of her economic, social, and cultural independence, regarding her as a working member of the society and as one of its active, productive powers. In reality, Arab socialists themselves still view women through romantic ideas of motherhood and the raising of future generations, and though tribal values that revolve around dignity, sexual honor, and obedience to the husband, and that “men are the protectors and maintainers of women,” and “have been preferred [by God] over them by one notch” (Q 2:228).


[Revolution and Science]


Heikal[6] concludes the following: “We face a modern and learned foe, and there is no other solution available to the Arab side at the line of total confrontation but that it be modern and learned.[7]” […] This sort of Arab acknowledgment of responsibility, in my view, has yet to leave behind levels of generality and comprehensiveness that fail to harm anyone, and has yet to detach itself from styles of allusion, ambiguity, and models of reluctant, careful, and wary formulation that fail to penetrate to the heart of the matter, that is, to the facts, details, and particulars. Read with us again Heikal’s statement: “and there is no solution available […] but that it be modern and learned.” Just as one of you will not meet an Arab who does not consider himself of the party of charity, motherhood, and “commanding the good and forbidding the bad,” so you will not find an Arab who does not consider himself a friend of science, modernity, and progress. At this level of generality and abstraction we all agree and our assent remains compulsory.


However, this sort of talk does us no good unless we pose particular definite questions about science and modernity and what kind of radical changes in ourselves, our societies, and the fabric of our lives will result from them! Are we prepared to accept these changes and transformations, and to renounce all the things that we prized previously, if it is demonstrated that they exert a clear resistance to science and modernity? For science and modernity mean, for example, secularism and the separation of church and state. Who among our responsible leaders dares openly to state this, instead of wrapping the truth inside fine-sounding generalities about science and modernity?


Saqik al-Azm, Self-Criticism After the Defeat 1967, translated from the Arabic by George Stergios. London: Saqi Books, 2011, pp. 62-63 (on conspiracy theories); 72-82 (the clever personality); 126-127 (the female condition); 43-44 (revolution and science). Original Arabic edition: Al-Naqd al-dhātī ba‘d al-hazīma. Bayrūt: Dār al-Talī‘a, 1968 (new edition with author’s preface, Dimashq: Dār Mamdūh ‘Adwān, 2007).


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


[1] Hāmid ‘Ammār, Fī binā’ al-bashar. Dirāsāt fī l-taghayyur al-hadārī wa-l-fikr al-tarbawī [On Building Human Beings: Studies in Cultural Change and Educational Thought], Markaz tanmiyat al-mujtama‘ fī l-‘ālam al-‘arabī, Sirs al-Layyān [al-Manūfiyya, Egypt] 1964, pp. 80-91.
[2] “Al-Anwār” (Beirut), April 30, 1968.
[3] In Arabic ma‘lēsh, basīta, māshī l-hāl, kullenā ikhwān [Editor’s note].
[4] This Proclamation was submitted to a referendum in Egypt on May 2, 1968 and unanimously approved (the votes against were just 798 throughout the country, with a turnout of 98%!) [Editor’s note].
[5] “Al-Anwār”, March 31, 1968.
[6] Mohamed Hassanein Heikal (1923-2016) was the editor of the most important Egyptian daily, al-Ahrām, from 1957 to 1974. An admirer of Nasser, he became one of the most influential voices of pan-Arabism. His weekly column “Speaking Frankly” was read throughout the Arab world. Appointed Minister of Information in 1970, he was arrested by Sadat because of his opposition to normalization with Israel. A vocal critic of Mubarak’s regime, after Morsi’s takeover he ended up supporting Sisi [Editor’s note].
[7] Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, “Al-Ahrām”, October 20, 1967.


To cite this article

Printed version:
Sādik al-‘Azm, “Anatomy of a Defeat”, Oasis, year 16, no. 31, pp. 122-128.

Online version:
Sādik al-‘Azm, “Anatomy of a Defeat”, Oasis [online], published on December 2020, URL: /en/anatomy-of-a-defeat