The Brief History of the United Arab Republic

Note this is not “Brief History of the United Arab Republic” because it’s not possible to do anything but a brief history of the United Arab Republic. It didn’t last very long, is my point.

jakk asked for something on “Nasserism and the UAR.” “Nasserism” is potentially a book-length topic so I think that might be a little much to bite off in this forum. But the UAR is a decidedly smaller topic, so let’s do that.

Of course you can’t talk about the UAR without talking about Gamal Abdel Nasser, since it was mostly his project. His rise to power in the 1952 Egyptian Revolution is one of the most consequential developments in the modern Middle East and beyond. It was one of the first real blows struck against the legacy of Western colonialism anywhere. The overthrow of a very decrepit monarchy transformed Egypt overnight into a dominant regional power. And there was Nasser himself and the ideology he espoused, “Nasserism.”

There’s no standard definition of “Nasserism” because the ideology was never institutionalized the way, say, Baathism was. You could define “Baathism” as “whatever the Baath Party believes” and while that’s a facile definition, it’s not wrong. You could define “Nasserism” as “whatever Nasser believes,” but then you’d be in real trouble after Nasser’s death, wouldn’t you? But we can identify the ideology’s core principles: pan-Arabism/Arab nationalism, socialism but not communism, secularism for the most part, and anti-imperialism. Nasserism influenced not only the post-colonial Middle East but the post-colonial world more broadly, particularly through the Non-Aligned Movement that Nasser helped to form during the Cold War.

Nasser’s was aided in broadcasting his ideology by contemporary media. Sympathetic newspapers spring up all over the Arab world. Radio carried Nasser’s speeches all over the Arab world. And people responded positively. Well, most people. Arab monarchs weren’t so thrilled with Nasser; for one thing, he’d overthrown one of their brethren, and for another, it was clear he’d be very happy to help overthrow each of them too.

This wasn’t a problem in Syria, since the French colonial government hadn’t allowed the formation of a pliant monarchy the way the British colonial governments in Iraq and the Transjordan had done (Egypt’s monarchy long predated Britain’s arrival). Syria was already a republic (the Syrian republic was established under French control in 1930), just not a very stable one. After the Arab-Israeli War in 1948 (whose outcome also motivated the 1952 revolution in Egypt), Syria experienced a whole mess of military coups. Depending on what rises to the level of “coup” for you, there was the one in 1949, the other one in 1949, the, uh, third one in 1949, the one in 1951, and the one in 1954. Even if you lump all the 1949 coups together into one extended coup, that’s still three coups in five years and even that doesn’t begin to describe the level of instability.

Through the instability, a couple of trends emerged: the growing influence of the Baath Party and the growing influence of Syrian communists. Enter, naturally, the United States. In 1956-1957, the president of Syria, Shukri al-Quwatli, made some moves that seemed to open up Damascus to Soviet domination. Under the Eisenhower Doctrine, the US urged its allies in the vicinity to Do Something before Syria went full-on red, and there was a genuine fear that Turkey might invade. In order to strengthen Syria’s regional position and hopefully end the chaos that was Syrian politics at the time, Quwatli entered into negotiations with Nasser about forming a union. Nasser was by this point at the height of his power, having faced down Britain, France, and Israel during the Suez Crisis and lived to tell the tale.

The same tendencies in Syrian politics that were slowing lifting the Baath Party to the center of power were the ones that made a union with Egypt appealing. There’s enough overlap between Nasserism and Baathism (which is also socialist, pan-Arab, and secular) that, at least in these pre-UAR days, if you were a Baathist or sympathetic to Baathism you were probably going to feel pretty OK about Nasser. And of course there were a lot of Syrians who just liked Nasser on his own merits, having been exposed to his ideas via the aforementioned newspapers and radio broadcasts.

Nasser had to be convinced to go with a full union rather than some kind of loose confederation, but the Syrians told him that only full union would eliminate the communist influence in Damascus, and that seemed to be enough to get Nasser (who was a socialist but definitely not a communist) on board. The United Arab Republic was established on February 22, 1958 (say, happy 60th anniversary, I guess).

Nasser and Quwatli at the signing ceremony creating the UAR

Then Nasser abolished all of Syria’s political parties, and ordered the Syrian military out of politics.

So, uh, needless to say there were a lot of people in Syria who didn’t see this coming. The assumption had been that Nasser would use the Baath Party to run Syria under his oversight. Instead he got rid of it, and forced its main conduit to power, the Syrian military, to stop meddling in civilian politics. In general, the UAR favored Egypt and Egyptian officials over Syria and Syrian officials. Egyptians held most of the top civilian positions and held the highest ranking positions in the UAR military, for example, and that was just at the start. As 1958 became 1959 and then 1960, the disparity only became more pronounced. Internally the pressure for separation was already growing.

Other forces, internal and external, also worked against the union. The Saudis, who nursed a white-hot hatred for Nasser pretty much his entire life, supported anti-union forces in Syria. They were nervous that the UAR was going to go after Jordan as soon as it could, and they got really nervous after the 1958 coup in Iraq overthrew that monarchy and left a potentially UAR-friendly republican government in control in Baghdad. The Syrian economy, meanwhile, started to struggle (Egypt’s economy did pretty well, only adding to the Syrian sense that they were being screwed) and rich Syrians looked at Nasser’s proposed land reforms and nationalization plans and freaked out.

Starting in August 1961, Nasser began to implement the final stages of his plan to strip Syria of any local authority and centralize power in Cairo. Well, technically power would be centralized in Damascus for part of the year (February-May) and in Cairo the rest of the time. But it would still be mostly run by Egyptians. On September 28, 1961, a group of Syrian military officers arrested their Egyptian counterparts/superiors and seized control of Damascus. Almost the entire Syrian military came out in support of their coup, and the UAR was dissolved.

The junta offered to renegotiate the terms of the UAR on a more equal footing, but Nasser told them to piss off and began preparing an invasion. He eventually realized that his remaining support in Syria was so low that even if his army invaded and won, he’d be occupying Syria rather than reincorporating it into the union, and so he decided not to invade. Instead he spent the next several years trying to rebuild support for the UAR within Syria by smearing Syria’s leaders as Western agents and the like. The two countries, and Iraq for that matter, occasionally flirted with union again for the rest of the 1960s, but they never really got close, and the dream finally died along with Nasser in 1970.

As an aside, Muammar Gaddafi tried to revive his idol’s plans for Arab unity, which led to the 1972-1977 Federation of Arab States between Libya, Egypt, and Syria. But that was a very loose association rather than anything that looked like a single state. The UAR itself had a similar arrangement with the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of North Yemen, called the United Arab States. This made it particularly awkward when Nasser threw significant weight behind the republican forces that eventually overthrew the Mutawakkilite Kingdom in the 1962-1970 North Yemen Civil War.

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