Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Egypt and Syria signed a union pact to form the United Arab Republic, hoping to initiate pan-Arab unity. The union did not last, however, as Syria withdrew from the republic in September, 1961.

Summary of Event

Following a defense agreement of October 22, 1955, between Egypt and Syria, a group of Syrian army officers concerned about state security, along with Syrian Baՙth Party Ba{ayn}th Party[Bath Party] leaders worried about the party’s failing strength, became key players in engineering the merger when Syrian foreign minister Salah al-Din al-Bitar visited Cairo in July, 1957. The Syrian national assembly thereafter passed a resolution in favor of union with Egypt in November. After Syrian government officials and army officers made representations about the matter to the Cairo government, the two countries’ presidents, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Syria’s Shukri al-Kuwatli, signed a union pact on February 1, 1958. Endorsed by referendum on February 22, Syria became the Northern Region and Egypt became the Southern Region of the United Arab Republic (U.A.R.). The hope was that other countries would join the republic, but only Yemen became loosely federated with the U.A.R. under the designation of United Arab States from 1958 to 1961. United Arab Republic Nationalism;Arabs Syrian-Egyptian relations[Syrian Egyptian relations] Egyptian-Syrian relations[Egyptian Syrian relations] [kw]Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic (Feb. 1, 1958) [kw]Egypt Form the United Arab Republic, Syria and (Feb. 1, 1958) [kw]United Arab Republic, Syria and Egypt Form the (Feb. 1, 1958) [kw]Arab Republic, Syria and Egypt Form the United (Feb. 1, 1958) United Arab Republic Nationalism;Arabs Syrian-Egyptian relations[Syrian Egyptian relations] Egyptian-Syrian relations[Egyptian Syrian relations] [g]Middle East;Feb. 1, 1958: Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic[05800] [g]Syria;Feb. 1, 1958: Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic[05800] [g]Egypt;Feb. 1, 1958: Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic[05800] [g]United Arab Republic;Feb. 1, 1958: Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic[05800] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Feb. 1, 1958: Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic[05800] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 1, 1958: Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic[05800] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Feb. 1, 1958: Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic[05800] Aflaq, Michel Amer, Abdel Hakim Bakdash, Khalid Bitar, Salah al-Din al- Hawrani, Akram al- Kuwatli, Shukri al- Nasser, GamalAbdel [p]Nasser, Gamal Abdel;United Arab Republic

Politically, part of the initiative for the merger had been triggered by Western pressure on each of the two U.A.R. partners to join the Cold-War era, U.S.-inspired, anticommunist Baghdad Pact Baghdad Pact Cold War;Middle East . However, nonaligned Arab states like Egypt and Syria were not receptive. Another reason for the merger was the fear of Baՙth Party leaders Michel Aflaq and Akram al-Hawrani that the Syrian Communist Party, Communist Party, Syrian under its longtime leader Khalid Bakdash, would attempt to seize power in coup-inclined Syria and would do so aided and abetted by the Soviet Union.

Militarily, both countries not only had experienced wars but also continuing clashes with their neighbor Israel. Syria also felt real and imagined threats on its northern border from Turkey, for which reason Egypt had sent a contingent of forces there in 1957. Conversely, because of the tripartite Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt’s Suez Canal Zone in the fall of 1956 and intermittent Israeli attacks in the Egyptian-administered Gaza Strip, Cairo, like Damascus, must have figured that a united front was more credible. Ideologically, the Baՙth Party and its followers in parliament and in the Syrian army had been dedicated to pan-Arab nationalism, a movement whose inspiration President Nasser had now become, since the Baՙth Party’s inception in the 1940’s. Thus, it looked as if it made sense for the Baՙth Party to hitch its fortunes to Nasser’s charismatic persona and leadership.

Finally, Radio Cairo’s Radio Cairo propaganda Propaganda;Egypt , whipping up pan-Arab fervor in the face of a generally hostile world, swept Nasser into agreeing to the merger faster than he would have liked, despite some presumed advantages such as a more telling joint foreign policy and the benefits of stronger economic ties. Accordingly, within days, Nasser was presenting to a cheering crowd in Damascus his seventeen-point program for the new unified state. Its most important feature was that Nasser wanted a complete union, not a looser federation, of the two regions—effectively, his absolute control of the U.A.R.

Attempts at integrating Egypt and Syria that turned out to be based on incompatible expectations proved difficult—and increasingly unpopular in Syria. First, integration was at best partial, occurring primarily at the central level of government under Nasser’s presidency. Then, it became increasingly obvious to several constituencies in Syria that they were slated to play a secondary role under Egyptian dominance, both in the private and the public—including the military—sectors. For instance, as early as March 13, 1958, all Syrian political parties (including the Baՙth) were dissolved by Nasser’s decree since only Egypt’s mass movement, the National Union, was now tolerated in the U.A.R. Then, there was the increasing socialization of industry, which displeased Syrian capitalists and entrepreneurs—that is, the bourgeoisie in general. Agrarian reform, which extended Egypt’s limits on landholding and earnings to the Syrian region like all the other laws of the Nasser regime, was also unpopular with the large landowners.

Coincidentally, a severe three-year drought in Syria added to its agricultural woes and a shortage of food exacerbated the masses’ plight.

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The two regions’ enhanced economic ties did not prove to be so beneficial to either nation. A new national assembly, mostly Egyptian, created in March, 1960, and meeting initially in July, had all its delegates appointed by Nasser. In August, 1961, there was further governmental restructuring, which only enhanced Egyptian power. Several resignations by high-profile Syrian officials and officers—even by those who had been enthusiastic about the merger at the outset—had already been going apace. In fact, both Hawrani and Bitar were to support the coup dissolving the union.

By the time of the Syrian officers’ secession of September 28, 1961, which took advantage of the absence in Cairo of Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, Syria’s Egyptian overlord, there was a widespread meeting of the minds in the Northern Region that the union was not working. Even though Nasser saw behind the uprising the hand of Western states and of hostile conservative Arabs, he decided to not try to suppress the revolt by force. Rather, on October 5, 1961, he recognized Syria’s withdrawal from the U.A.R., albeit reaffirming his confidence in the ultimate inevitability of unity among the people of the Arab nation.

Significance

The conscious, deliberate plan for Arab unity during the early stages of the U.A.R. had originated in Syria as Nasser was caught unprepared to implement his own advocacy. The merged U.A.R. lasted some three-and-a-half years, a long time compared to, say, the competing Arab Federation between the Hashemite kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan, which lasted from February 14 to July 14, 1958.

On the face of it, judging by Egypt’s retention of the merged title as its designation for another ten years and both countries’ retaining their U.A.R. red, white, and, black flag after the split (Syria even kept the two stars representing the component U.A.R. regions), it could be that the concept of pan-Arab unity had not been abandoned—at least in the rhetoric. The reality, however, was that subsequent attempts to give pan-Arabism effect failed, including attempts by Libya’s leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi Qaddafi, Muammar al- , who made several unsuccessful moves after Nasser’s death in 1970 to merge with his various Arab neighbors, including Egypt.

Some two dozen different Arab states would jealously guard their respective national territorial sovereignties defining their political field, even though several of their constitutions would give lip service to their membership in an Arab nation. Also, as the 1991 Gulf War following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait showed, some Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia were willing to take up arms against their Iraqi Arab brethren when their national interests diverged (or when U.S. financial inducements proved irresistible).

Perhaps one of the most glaring (if not typical) illustrations of competing interests occurred in May-June, 1967, when the Palestinians were broadly left on their own after the Six-Day War Six-Day War (1967)[Six Day War] between the Arabs and the Israelis and were refused citizenship by most Arab neighbors, where they became “tolerated” as refugees. Again, state-based particularism trumped pan-Arab solidarity. Whether another Nasser-like catalyst will surface and reverse this trend in the future is conjectural, as is the degree to which an Islamic revival will offer competition to Arab nationalism as an alternative basis for political organization. United Arab Republic Nationalism;Arabs Syrian-Egyptian relations[Syrian Egyptian relations] Egyptian-Syrian relations[Egyptian Syrian relations]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hudson, Michael C., ed. Middle East Dilemma: The Politics and Economics of Arab Integration. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Chapter 5, “The Rise and Fall of the United Arab Republic,” is especially useful. Highlights Syria’s important role in both the creation and dissolution of the merged state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jankowski, James P. Nasser’s Egypt, Arab Nationalism, and the United Arab Republic. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2001. Dwells extensively on President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s embrace of Arab nationalism and Arab unity and convincingly explains the ideological and practical considerations behind the construction and demise of the U.A.R.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kedourie, Elie. Politics in the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Focuses on the unraveling of the U.A.R. more than on its creation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Bernard. From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Masterfully presents the U.A.R. merger not only as an ideological triumph but also as a political failure.

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