It lasted only three years and just as it was one of the highest expressions that Pan-Arabism reached, its fleeting history also meant a harsh failure for this ideology that promotes the political and cultural unity of the Arab world.
It was called the United Arab Republic and it was the union between Egypt and Syria between 1958 and 1961. This union, in the middle of the Cold War, cannot be understood without a fundamental figure: Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian president and the most important Arab leader of the moment.
As you remember in your book “The shipwreck of civilizations” the French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, in 1951 the Egyptians unilaterally asked the United Kingdom to withdraw the troops that had been stationed in the country after independence in 1936.
Winston Churchill – who had been re-elected as British Prime Minister at age 77, not only refused but reinforced the troop presence in the Suez Canal. It began a series of boycotts and attacks on British facilities in Egypt that culminated in an assault by the English on a police base and subsequent riots by the Egyptian population against British and Western interests, Maalouf notes in his book.
President Nahhas Pachas had to resign and the figure of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged from the subsequent political struggle, who initiated a series of nationalization measures that culminated in 1956 with the nationalization of the Suez Canal, which was under the control of the United Kingdom and France. .
At a time when the countries of the region had recently freed themselves – or were still doing so – from colonial rule, Nasser spread the message not only of the pan-Arabism, but also of a region that had to regain self-esteem and identify more with the non-aligned bloc than with the West.
“When Nasser came to power in 1952, he began to talk about the idea that the Arab world had been artificially split by colonialism and that we must return to Arab unity,” Ignacio Gutiérrez de Terán tells BBC Mundo, Director of the Department of Arab and Islamic Studies and Oriental Studies of the Autonomous University of Madrid.
“So, for Nasser, the United Arab Republic represents the realization of the great plan of Arab unity.”
But how did this union come about and why did it fail so soon?
In the framework of the Cold War
In the first place, the new State of the United Arab Republic must be understood in the bloc struggle that prevailed in the logic of the Cold War.
From a Western perspective, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and the United Kingdom signed in 1955 the Baghdad Pact, a military alliance for regional defense and to prevent the infiltration of the Soviet Union in the Middle East. Although the US did not participate directly, it did promise economic and military aid.
The Egypt of the anti-imperialist Nasser, one of the founders of the movement of the non-aligned countries, and the Syria then ruled by Shukri El-Kuwatly -follower of Nasser’s ideas-, not only were not part of it, but their alliance was “a response to American plans established in the Baghdad Pact “, explains the expert from the Autonomous University of Madrid.
However, although Egypt and Syria shared the pan-Arab and neutral vision of both blocs, the two countries came to this union from different positions and what led to the creation of the new state was also what led to its rapid dissolution.
In Syria, the El-Kuwatly government was cornered inside and outside its borders. Lived a period of internal political crisis, and leftist movements (including the Syrian Communist Party) were gaining more and more prominence.
“In Syria there was a great political crisis, there was a confrontation between parties such as the Baath or the Communist Party, or the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Gutiérrez de Terán.
Outside, the Syrian government received pressure from its neighboring countries – supported by the United States – who feared that Syria would fall into communism.
For Syria there was only one way out: seek union with his ally Nasser.
“For Nasser, the creation of the United Arab Republic has great geostrategic and ideological importance, it meant the realization of Arab unity. But above all it was a kind of counterpart to that American proposal in which Arab countries of the specific weight of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan, “adds Gutiérrez de Terán.
But “for Syria it was a kind of leap forward to avoid confrontations and confrontations between all the actors.”
The talks for the union of both countries begin in 1957.
Although at first Nasser was reluctant to join, he eventually agreed.
This is how, the February 1, 1958, the United Arab Republic was proclaimed, which was ratified in a plebiscite that same month.
In his book, Amin Maalouf recalls that this event was greeted with rapture by the Arab population “from Iraq to Yemen, from Sudan to Morocco. In Beirut, as in many other Lebanese cities, massive demonstrations were organized to demand that the country unite without lateness to the RAU “.
According to Maalouf, the one who prevented that from becoming a reality was the brand new Lebanese president, General Fouad Chéahb, who in a face-to-face meeting with Nasser for a “historic compromise.”
“Chéhab promised that his country would never serve as a base for Nasser’s enemies and he, in turn, promised in exchange that he would never speak of an incorporation of Lebanon into the United Arab Republic.”
An asymmetric union
But rather than seeking an egalitarian union, the conditions that Nasser imposed on Syria for the union caused Syria to actually stay. subject to the political and administrative structure of Egyptexperts say.
“Nasser, before a pan-Arab leader was an Egyptian patriot and his main interest in creating an Arab supranational entity was that it should be under the leadership of Egypt and his own person,” explains Haizam Amirah Fernández, researcher at the think tank Elcano Royal Institute.
El-Kuwatly resigned and Nasser became the president of the new Rrepublic and launched an offensive against Syrian communists and opponents of the union.
“Nasser was an autocratic leader, he thought about his unique leadership and that is what he is trying to impose in Syria,” adds Gutiérrez de Terán.
Nasser, like Western countries, was also concerned about the growing influence of the Syrian Communist Party.
Thus, one of the conditions that it imposed for the union was its prohibition.
“Nasser was involved in an Arab national claim, the idea is to show that they have a particular ideology that has nothing to do with communism.”
Some members of the pan-Arab Syrian Baath Party – promoter of the union between the two countries, held certain positions in the new state, but royal power was for the Egyptians.
Disappointed, the Syrians ended up resigning from their posts.
“It was a completely asymmetric union, because what Nasser wants is to continue to retain the leading role and above all the ability to decide the fate of the United Arab Republic. In fact, let us bear in mind that two regions are created, the south, Egypt, and the The north, Syria, and the south, reserves the right to direct directly what is the immediate future of the country, “says Gutiérrez de Terán.
Thus, in 1961, Nasser implemented economic policies that were very unpopular in Syria. The president nationalized financial institutions and private companies and introduced limits on land tenure.
“That hegemonic eagerness on the part of Egypt was not well seen in Syria and led to a change of government by the Syrian military,” explains Amirah Fernández.
The Syrian military gave a coup on September 28, 1961 and they separated from Egypt.
Despite the dissolution of the union with Syria, Egypt kept the name of the United Arab Republic until September 2, 1971, after Nasser’s death.
A “disaster” for pan-Arabism
One of the immediate consequences of the failure of the United Arab Republic was the decline of pan-Arabism.
“It was the demonstration that this ideological project in its first attempt to create a political unity between two Arab territories and populations failed shortly after being launched due to the absence of a distribution of power between the different parts that made up that unit, by the hegemonic zeal of Egypt, which was considered as the country that should assume that leadership of the Arabs “, considers Amirah Fernández.
“The way it was done led to a failure of the project and the governments or parties that advocated for unity among the Arabs never have been able to create a political union or greater integration between their countries, peoples or economies, “adds the expert, citing the concrete example of the Baath Party, whose branches in Syria and Iraq, neighboring countries, had an” extremely hostile “relationship.
In the 1960s there were proposals for similar unions in other parts of the Arab world, and also later, from Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, but the failure of the United Arab Republic left the impression that “it is impossible to achieve it because there are no leaders capable of understanding each other. and reach agreements for it, “says Gutiérrez de Terán.
“It was a disaster because what it implies is that (pan-Arabism) is still a great ideological slogan but that when it comes to carrying it out, there is no way to find a formula so that all parties feel equally represented.” .
Despite the failure of the union with Syria, and the subsequent defeat of Egypt against Israel in the Six Day War in 1967, Nasser continued to enjoy great popularity and dominated Arab politics until his death in 1970.
In Syria, after the dissolution of its union with Egypt, the Syrian Arab Republic was formed and a new coup in 1963 brought the Baath Party, which remains to this day. The country is, since 2011, immersed in a civil war.
And while divisions remain in the Arab world, particularly between Shiites and Sunnis, pan-Arabism today is fundamentally an “ideological illusion.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.