Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

Arab Nationalism 1956-67

Steve Muhlberger

 The Suez Crisis was a momentous event, and had various consequences.  I will mention two.  First, the exposure of Britain and France’s weakness. These two countries had been the chief colonizers of the 19th century, and their defeat seemed to mark a definitive end to colonialism, at least in the old style.  As you can imagine, for many people this was a happy day.

The second result was to elevate Nasir to an extraordinary place in Arab politics in particular.    He was a symbol of the anti-colonial movement and particularly of the possibilities of the renewed Arab nation.  In particular, among the radically-minded, he was seen as the person who might actually unify the now-divided Arab nation.  Nasir took these ideas seriously.  From 1956, he was as involved in international intrigues intended to turn his influence into power, as he was in the practical work of ruling and building up Egypt.

As you might expect, the one goal tended to get in the way of the other.   Certainly, the effort of Nasir to assert his leadership of the Arab world led him to the great disaster of his career, the war of 1967, generally known as the Six Day War.

All the Arab countries of Middle East were politically unstable in the 1950s.  At independence, all had adopted parliamentary forms of government, but in all cases, political power was dominated by small groups of landowners and merchants.  Governments were not based on active popular support, and governments did not effectively deal with the economic problems of the general population.

Extreme solutions were increasingly appealing.

Arab socialists saw communism as too harsh in its call for class warfare, and  too extreme in its devotion to complete expropriation of all private property and to central planning, which had killed all initiative in communist countries.  It was too athiestic.   It also ran the danger of being subservient to Soviet interests. For Arab socialists, socialism must serve the national interests of the Arabs.  These were generally defined as the unification of Arab lands and the expulsion of colonial interests (especially in Algeria and Palestine), and the use of Arab resources for the common good of the Arab nation.  Their eyes were on oil wealth.

Those who favored either communism, Arab national socialism, or Islamic states, had no faith in ordinary politics, or constitutional means, to implement them.  There was constant plotting.

Before 1956, Nasir had had only a limited interest in either Arab nationalism, or socialism.  Egyptian nationalism came before pan-Arabism, while initial efforts of the military government towards development were through native entrepreneurs.  However, after 1956, Nasir, feeling the gaze of millions of adoring eyes on him, began to work hard at Arab unification; and involvement in this project increased the appeal of socialism.

Starting in 1957, there was a series of upheavals in the Arab world, as nationalist movements of various sorts overthrew, or tried to overthrow,  unsatisfactory governments.   The same events began a much increased involvement of the new superpowers in the Middle East. These Arab nationalist movements were usually opposed by the US and supported by the USSR.   The Eisenhower doctrine—to support any Middle Eastern country threatened by communist aggression—proclaimed in March 1957,  was actually used by President Eisenhower to shore up American influence in the Middle East against any movement which the US disapproved of.

The main uphevals were:

Events in 1958 looked like a shocking setback for the Western alliance, and a gain for both Nasir and Soviet influence.  But it turned out not to be so cut-and-dried.

Iraq's Kaseem had no desire to put himself under the thumb of the Egyptian Nasir; it was already apparent that Syria was very much the junior partner in the new United Arab Republic.  Instead he turned to the Soviet Union for support.  This had the effect of lessening Nasir’s influence on the USSR.

Before the Iraqi coup, Egypt had been the SU’s only client in the Middle East. To show that it was an important power in the Middle East, the SU had been forced to support him and comply with his demands for weapons, whether it wanted to or not.  With two hostile clients in the area, the Soviet Union had greater freedom of action, and Nasir had to work harder to get its support.

Nevertheless, the events of 1958 had increased Nasir’s stature, and made the idea of Arab re-unification seem much more realistic.  The union of Egypt and Syria brought the ruling group in Egypt into contact with a strong socialist tradition, and pretty soon its influence was felt.  Nasir’s regime began to make small steps to state domination of the economy:  nationalizing large banks and utilities, taking control of newspaper and book publishers, and licensing new industrial companies and restricting directors to serving on the board of only one company.

Then, in July of 1961, Nasir went much further, and nationalized almost all the important resources in the country.  He also redistributed income by enacting a maximum annual salary and a high progressive income tax, and redistributed land by restricting the maximum amount of land one individual could own by 50% (there had been earlier moves in this direction).

This was not exactly Soviet communism, but massive changes. The July Laws destroyed the power of large landowners and the Egyptian bourgeosie, the only important groups independent of the regime.  The power of the government bureaucracy (always great in Egypt) much increased.

An equally important consequence of this “great leap forward” into socialism was the secession of Syria from the UAR.  This may seem surprising, given that the socialist tactics adopted by Nasir were to some extent Syrian inspired.  But as one historian [Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr.] put it, “Syria not only had more doctrinaire socialists than Egypt but also more recalcitrant capitalists, who were alienated by the July Laws.”

Arab nationalism, which seemed like the wave of the future in 1958, had stopped in that year.   In particular, oil-rich countries had not joined, which meant there had been no redistribution of the common wealth of the Arab nation in favor of poorer countries like Syria.  Thus no prosperity had followed the formation of the UAR.

Syria’s succession left Nasir feeling somewhat isolated, but undeterred from taking further adventures.  In 1962, he got himself involved in a civil war in Yemen, a rather backward kingdom at the south end of the Arabian peninsula.  At the bright dawn of the UAR, its king (the imam of Yemen) had federated with the UAR.  After Syria had withdrawn, he did too.  Soon after he died, his son was overthrown by the army, which was pro-Nasir.  It turned out that their control of the country was uncertain, and Nasir and Saudi  Arabia found themselves supporting opposite sides and indirectly at war with each other.

This war eventually became a terrible burden on Nasir and Egypt.  The only reason he was able to maintain his commitment at all was Soviet support.  The pro-Soviet regime in Iraq fell in 1963.  Once again, Nasir was their only Middle Eastern client, and he was in a position to make demands.

After 1963, with his commitment to the war in Yemen and, of course, the continuing rivalry with Israel, Nasir began a major military buildup.  Egyptian re-armament led to a heating up of the Arab-Israeli rivalry.

Several other factors were involved.

In 1967, fighting between Israel and its eastern neighbors began.  Syria objected ot  Israel’s water diversion schemes, supported  al-Fatah raids (also supported by Jordan, and shelled Galilee from the Golan Heights.   The Soviet Union had encouraged Egypt to make a pact with Syria in 1967.  When  Syria started calling for war,  Egypt could not back down.  Nasir had the UN forces in Sinai withdraw, and cut off Israel's southern searoute.

A major international crisis soon blew up.  US in particular wanted to cool things off, while the Israeli government was clearly not anxious for war.   On the other hand, the USSR was backing its clients and warning the US against intervening, and the Arab countries were competing with each other in making threats.  Nasir eas  the key figure.  Confrontation had started out as an Israeli-Syrian one, but  Nasir had taken the initiative.  Indeed, at the end of May, Jordan and Iraq put their militaries under Egyptian command.

What did Nasir want?  Historians disagree.  Some think he wanted the US to force Israel to make concessions to avoid war, which would have boosted his prestige.  Others say he wanted a limited war, with Israel the aggressor.  In such a case, the US and other countries might feel obliged to make Israel give concessions.

However, Nasir miscalculated badly.  His threats had convinced Israel that the Arab forces must be hit and hit hard.   On June 5, 1967, the Israeli airforce wiped out 80% of the airforces of Egypt, Syria and Iraq.  Domination of the sky allowed Israel over the next six days to occupy the rest of Palestine, the Sinai peninsula, and Syria’s Golan Heights.   Loss of Jerusalem. (Syria, feuding with Jordan, had done little to help until too late.)

Nasir managed to deflect the blame for this temendous  loss by resigning dramatically, and then resuming office in the face of large demonstrations in his favor.  The army had to take the rap.

Nevertheless, he now faced a huge crisis.  Even before the war, Egypt had been on the ropes financially.  The gains of socialism, if any, had been more than counterbalanced by arms purchases, which had drained Egypt of hard currency.  Factories lacked essential spare parts and so did Egyptian airliners.  In the course of the war, most of those expensive weapons had been destroyed—still not fully paid for.  Also the occupation of the Sinai peninsula and the continued fighting across the Suez canal had damaged the economically most advanced parts of the country.  Nasir had also in anger cut diplomatic ties with the US, and was now very dependent on the Soviet Union—which despite its big talk had done nothing tangible to help during the war.  The proud UAR had been brought to its knees.

The entire Arab world was stunned.  Nothing had been done to correct the problems of Palestine; indeed everything was worse.  The illusion of Arab nationalism, of Arab resurrection, of Arab power, had been shattered.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.