Egypt and the Arab World
Temple of Hathor, Dendera (Dandarah), Ptolemaic period, 305-30 B.C.
Courtesy Boris Boguslavsky
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.
Data as of December 1990