Egyptian-Syrian union, part 2: The hasty union

Arabic, 17 March 1998

Early ideas of Arab nationalism and unity developed quickly in the Sham region, encompassing both Damascus and Greater Syria—an area covering Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan.

In 1940, Kichel Aflag and Salah Bitar founded the Baath, a renaissance party. The basic aim of the Baath Party was Arab unity, asserting the existence of one Arab nation with an eternal message, and claimed that all those who speak Arabic and live in Arab countries were united by ties stronger than local or sectarian differences.

But Gamal Abdul Nasser disapproved of those Baath leaders who were reactionary, conservative, anti-revolutionary and pro-Western. Some Arab countries felt threatened by Nasser's growing popularity and others had pro-Western rulers, but not Syria. As a result, Cairo and Damascus found themselves thrown together.

At that time, Syria had a broad national front as its government in which the Baath party leaders did not have supreme power. The communists were gaining influence in the army and in the government.

The Syrian president, Shukri Al-Kuwathy, inexperienced in the national party, shared with Baath leaders a fear of the growing communist influence. So, Baath leaders and their state's president considered Nasser an Arab leader with whom an alliance could be established.

Events moved quickly, and in January 1958 leaders of various Syrian groups went to Cairo urging Nasser and his government to consider a union between Syria and Egypt.

The Syrian leaders stressed that the union between the two countries would save their country—Syria—from outside (i.e. communist) interference, but Nasser saw the union as the beginning of his long-held dream of Arab unity and greater power.

Nasser stipulated that political parties including the Baath should be abolished and also that the army should be excluded from politics. The Syrians agreed and signed the agreements which established the basis of the United Arab Republic.

Analysts said the union between Syria and Egypt was a hasty almost foolhardy union with no previous preparations and lacking good planning, a result of both political convenience and ideological conviction. It was a perfect example of marrying in haste and repenting after.

A committee from the two countries had drawn up a new constitution and Nasser was elected president of the UAR with 99% of the votes cast. Egypt and Syria were metamorphosed into the northern and southern regions and there was one cabinet with a vice-president from each state.

Damascus received Nasser with an overwhelming welcome during his first visit to Syria after the unification, and Arabism was at its zenith. The Syrian people were proud and the Egyptian government was preparing to impose on them a police and an army. That was Nasser's solution to the difficulties the unity was facing.

It was difficult to merge the two countries' political systems. Syria had an unstable, fragmented system, but Egypt had one party and a supreme leader.

However, Nasser's attempt to impose his own ideas on the Syrians, did not consider their sensitivities and attitudes. He believed his own popular leadership was a guarantee of success.

But the union and its leader's growing popularity caused great fear in other Arab states. The Hashemite rulers of Jordan and Iraq saw the unity as a dangerous threat to their regimes and fabricated a new federation which had no impact, save opposing new union and its leader, Nasser.

Next we will discuss the reactions of the other Arab leaders.