Egypt and the Arab World

Egypt Table of Contents

For a variety of conflicting reasons, the political leaders of Syria in January 1958 asked Nasser for a union between their two countries. Nasser was skeptical at first and then insisted on strict conditions for union, including a complete union rather than a federal state and the abolition of the Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party, then in power, and all other Syrian political parties. Because the Syrians believed that Nasser's ideas represented their own goals and that they would play a large role in the union, they agreed to the conditions. A plebiscite was held in both countries in 1958, and Nasser was elected president. Cairo was designated the capital of the United Arab Republic. Nasser then visited Damascus, where he received a tumultuous welcome. Arabs everywhere felt a new sense of pride.

Several Arab governments viewed Nasser with less enthusiasm, however. The conservative monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Jordan saw his ideas as a potential threat to their own power. Nasser regarded these monarchs as reactionaries and as obstacles to Arab unity. The United States moved to strengthen these regimes as well as the government of Lebanon in an effort to offset the influence of Egypt.

The hastily conceived union of Syria and Egypt did not last long. There were too many problems to overcome: the two countries were not contiguous, their economies and populations were different, and the Syrian elite deeply resented being made subservient to Egyptian dictates. The deciding factor for the Syrian upper and middle classes came in July 1961 when Nasser issued the so-called "socialist decrees" that called for widespread nationalizations. This was followed by the elimination of local autonomy and a plan for the unification of Egyptian and Syrian currencies, a move that would deal the final blow to Syrian economic independence.

There was also resentment in the army that paralleled the resentment in civilian circles. On September 28, a group of army officers called the High Arab Revolutionary Command staged a successful coup and proclaimed the separation of Syria from Egypt. Nasser decided not to resist and ordered his troops to surrender. He blamed Syria's defection on "reactionaries" and "agents of imperialism."

During the same period, Egypt attempted a separate union with Yemen. This federation, called the United Arab States, fared no better than the Syrian one. In December 1961, Nasser formally ended it. In 1962 a military coup overthrew the royalist government in Yemen. Nasser intervened to support the new republican government against the Saudi-backed royalists, who were attempting to regain control. This undertaking proved to be a great drain on Egypt's financial and military resources. At the height of its involvement, Egypt had 75,000 troops in Yemen. Egypt's intervention also increased inter-Arab tensions, especially between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Egypt's defeat at the hands of Israel in the June 1967 War obliged it to withdraw its forces from Yemen and to seek peace. A settlement was achieved at a conference in Khartoum in 1967.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress