Egyptian-Syrian union , part 1: Nasser was the lion chained

Arabic, 16 March 1998

Editors' note: This is part one of three, of a look back at the failed union between Egypt and Syria during a unique era in the Arab world.

People here and there still disagree over how to assess the revolution of July 23, 1952. Some think it was a populist, progressive, anti-colonial revolution, a quantum leap forward for Egyptian society. But others describe it as a fascist-style coup, the cause of Egypt's humiliation and a defeat at the hands of foreign powers.

Any assessment of the revolution, truthfully, must take into account such irrefutable victories as the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the construction of Aswan Dam and the enhancement of Egypt's status as leader of the Arab Third world.

In fact, Gamal Abdul Nasser and his revolution was entering a period of great popularity, a hero of the Arab world, yet in his friend Mohammed Hassnien Haykal's words he was the lion chained by his ambitions of the leadership of Egypt and the Arab world, which locked him into unending inter-Arab problems and projects.

It's very important to state that Nasser's assumption of the leadership of the wider Arab world arose from his faith in the importance of Arab unity to realize the interests of the Arab people.

Nasser couldn't concentrate solely on Egyptian affairs. He determined his aims in the Arab world: to affect the course of events, to sustain the Arab leaders favorable to his revolutionary policies and make feverish efforts to oust those who were not, to eliminate all traces of colonialism, to work towards Arab unity and to prepare Arabs for the struggle against Israel.

These aims involved Nasser in continuous efforts to establish unions and break them, undertake military involvement, broadcast propaganda, woo the US for economic assistance, court the Soviet Union for military aid.

But the Arab countries in Nasser's revolution year -- 1956 -- were at different stages in their political development. Their rival governments, theologies and colonial rule formed an obstacle to the road of unity.

In Africa, Egypt's strategic neighbor, Sudan, had become fully independent on the first day of 1956 and opted out of its union with Egypt. Morocco had just gained independence, with its King Muhammad, from France. The Algerians were involved in their struggle against France. Al-Habib Bourguiba led his country, Tunisia, to independence in 1956.

Libya was a poor country under a religious leader, King Idris.

In Asia, Jordan began to shake off British guardianship in 1956, ruled by is hereditary monarch, Hussein, a member of the Hashemite dynasty which had originated in Arabia. Hussein's father, Abdullah, who had given him the throne of Trans Jordan had been killed by a Palestinian in 1951. Iraq was ruled by King Faisal, Hussein's cousin, and by an experienced politician, Nuri Said.

In Saudi Arabia the supreme power was held by the religious Saudi royal family. The head of the family was coping with the changes brought about by large oil wealth in his society. Yemeni religious leader Imam Ahmed held his country as medieval closed society. But Aden and southern Yemen were a British colony, although there were some troubles which were exploited by Egypt because the British government wanted it to serve as a military base to replace the Suez Canal.

The independent states of the gulf were all closely tied to Britain. Oman was in a troubled state facing civil war, with the British supporting the Sultan and Egypt his opposition.

But the unique country in the Arab states was Lebanon, with its population balanced between a Christian president and Muslim prime minister it was a prosperous country, but tempting to outsiders.

Syria, must not be omitted from the above Arab states as it was to become of immediate concern to Egypt and its leader Nasser, and had importance along the road to Arab unity. Its capital, Damascus, had played a significant role in Arab politics.

Syria's role will be discussed next.