Pan-Arab Unity in the Age of Nasser

Gamal Abdel Nasser

By 1952, Egypt and the wider Arab world were fed up with Western imperialism.

The British and French had dominated the middle east during the mandate era and Egypt for almost a century.  Income inequality, domestic unrest, the overthrow of Mossadegh, Black Saturday, the Free Officers, and the 1948 War of Independence all led to the emergence of Gamal Abdel Nasser and a united Pan-Arab movement.

Though it ultimately failed, Nasser made significant progress in projecting a united Arab front free of Western influence.

The 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty gave Britain control over many aspects of Egypt and therefore limited their sovereignty.  The people were fed up with the ruling order of the past few decades, now headed by King Faruq, who was humiliated in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and had done little to spare them of British influence.

Income inequality grew: “By 1952 about 0.4% of Egyptian landowners possessed 35% of the country’s cultivatable land.  At the other end of the scale, 94% of land owners possessed a mere 35% of the cultivable land.”  Wafd officials benefited disproportionately from this and did absolutely nothing to alleviate the growing resent amongst both small landowners and landless peasants alike.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood had grown to over 500,000 members by 1950, appealing to both Islamic and Nationalist sentiments within Egypt.  Domestic instability came to a head on January 26th, 1952 or “Black Saturday”.  In response to British tanks destroying Egyptian police barracks, riots broke out in Cairo setting the city ablaze. The Free Officers, led by Mohammed Naguib, carried out a coup and sent King Farouk packing.

The Free Officer’s movement, led on paper by Muhammad Naguib but in reality by Gamel Abdel Nasser, proposed a six-point plan:

  1. Destruction of British Colonialism and the removal of it’s Egyptian collaborators
  2. Elimination of Feudalism
  3. End of the political control of the state by foreign capital
  4. Establishment of Social Justice
  5. Formation of a strong national army
  6. Creation of a healthy democratic life

Naguib and Nasser consolidated their power into the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) and abolished the monarchy, making Egypt a republic.  The RCC installed the Agrarian Reform Law of 1952, placing a cap on the amount of land an individual could hold and redistributing the excess to small landowners.  This was undoubtedly a popular move.  The RCC announced four sweeping reforms:

  1. 1923 Constitution was abolished
  2. Parliament was dissolved
  3. All political parties were banned
  4. Anyone who held political office from 1946-1952 could not do so again

The RCC was rivaled by the Muslim Brotherhood, who tried to assassinate Nasser in 1954.  In response the RCC harshly repressed the Muslim Brotherhood, the Communist Party and other leftist groups by means of executions of leaders, imprisonment and military force.

All along, Naguib and Nasser were competing for power within the RCC, and in 1954 Naguib was accused of conspiracy and put on house arrest for the next thirty years of his life.  Nasser was now in charge of Egypt.

In 1956, Nasser released a new constitution aiming to eliminate feudalism and imperialism, while establishing a strong army, true social justice, democracy, ending discrimination and building an elected 350-member national assembly.  Regardless, all political parties were banned except for the one led by Nasser, now called the National Union.

In 1957 Nasser was elected president, receiving 99.9% of the ‘votes’.  He wanted universal education and employment, however this led to unemployment and hyperinflation.

Nasser strove to keep Egypt non-aligned, refusing to join the Baghdad Pact and convincing other Arab governments (such as Jordan and Syria) to abstain.

However, Nasser still sought arms from the United States, was declined, and signed a two-hundred million dollar weapons deal with Czechoslovakia, really the Soviet Union.  This was well-received by the Arab world, as Nasser had circumvented the all too familiar Western military grip.

Nasser still sought US help financing the production of the Aswan Dam, until in 1956 the United States withdrew it’s loan offer.  Nasser responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal, further increasing his allure among Egyptians and the Arab world.  Britain, France and Israel subsequently invaded Egypt, however the United States condemned this attack in fear of arousing tensions with USSR, prompting a swift withdrawal and further enriching Nasser’s image amounts his Arab constituents.

Gamel had stood up to the imperial powers that had subjugated Egypt and the Arab world for so long, and successfully defied them.

Nasser was now the unparalleled leader of the Arab world.  In Egypt, he refaced the country away from it’s distant Greek and pharaonic past towards it’s Arab and Egyptian heritage.

Outside of Egypt, a blow to Arab unity came when the Egyptians sent in 70,000 troops to fight on the side of the Yemeni rebels in their civil war.  The Arab world was disillusioned by this infighting, preferring to project a united front against the West.  However, Nasser was able to use Radio Cairo and other media outlets to his advantage and maintained a united front.

Though based in Egypt, the tide of Arab nationalism was far reaching.  The Ba’ath party in Syria, under Michel Aflaq’s jurisdiction, believed in a single Arab nation. The Ba’ath party was fearful of a rising communist party, and therefore approached Nasser for a union in 1958, which was called the United Arab Republic (UAR).  Egypt dominated the union and virtually controlled Syria, pushing the Syrians to end the union in 1961.

The Baghdad Pact of 1955, given it’s name, was signed by Iraq in 1955, revealing their Western orientation.  “In 1958,  Iraqi military officers, inspired by Gamel Abdel Nasser’s nationalist revolt in 1952 against the British-backed monarchy in Egypt, had seized power and taken the country in a Soviet leaning direction.”

General Abdel-Karim Kassem led the coup, instigated land reform based on Egypt’s 1952 Agrarian reforms, left CENTO, and legalized the Communist Party.  His successor Abd al-Salam Arif talked regularly with Nasser and nationalized many private industries to make union with Egypt possible.  However, he faced much opposition from the communist party and other domestic groups such as the Kurds that a full union remained elusive.  Iraq was filled with a variety of different ethnic and religious groups that made it impossible to coalesce behind one shared vision.

Husayn Abdallah was made king of Jordan in 1953, a time when two-thirds of the countries population was Palestinian.  As a result of domestic pressures, Abdallah rejected the Bagdhad Pact in 1955 and was now reliant on subsidies from Egypt, Syria and Saudia Arabia.  However, the Palestinian constituency revolted for a greater share of political power, forcing Abdallah to turn to America for assistance, which was given in the form of an immediate ten million dollar grant.  Thus Jordan’s role in the pan-Arab movement was short lived.

Lebanon, for it’s part, was the bridge between the West and the Middle East composed of Maronite Christians favorable of a Western orientation and Sunni Muslims preferring Nasserism.  The Maronite president Camille Chamoun juggled these two orientations until a full-scale Muslim revolt took place due to Lebanon’s refusal to break ties with Britain and France after the Suez Crisis.  This prompted him to invite the US marines to Lebanon to restore order.  Lebanon remained torn between capitalism and socialism, the West and the Arab world, however they never succumbed to Nasserism.

Pan-Arab unity under Nasser climaxed during the June War, in which Israel quelled Egypt, Jordan and Syria in six days.  This marked the end of the Nasser era, as the Iraqi regime was overthrown in 1968 and the Syrian regime in 1970.  Nasser remained in power until he died of  heart attack on September 28th, 1970.

As you can see, the Arab world was fed up with Western imperial control and attempted to promote pan-Arab unity as an elixir.  The movement’s leader was Gamal Abdal Nasser, who brought about reforms at home that quickly spread all across the Arab world.  He defied the West, instituted agrarian reforms, and convinced countries such as Iraq, Jordan and Syria to join in on the effort.  Although he ultimately failed, Nasser will always remain a hero within the hearts and minds of those who seek a free, strong Arab and international community free from the chains of imperial subjugation.

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