|Between 1952 and 1970 there was one man at the heart of the drive for Arab unity|
The years between 1952 and 1970 saw the drive for Arab unity at its strongest. It was an age of solidarity and the pursuit of unity through mass political movements. And it was an era dominated by a leader the likes of whom the Arabs had not seen in a long time.
Part five of Al Jazeera’s nine-part series, A Question of Arab Unity, examines the achievements of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second president of the Arab Republic of Egypt, and asks if one person could really close the gap between the dream and reality of Arab unity.
Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is the Arab World’s largest city. Home to over 18 million people, it is often called the heart of the Arab World.
It is also considered by many to be the cradle of modern Arab nationalism for it was in Cairo that the idea of a unified Arab nation found its greatest expression.
Egypt: Country profile
At the end of World War Two, colonialism still dominated large parts of the Arab World. Egypt was a monarchy under British rule and the base of Britain’s presence in the Middle East.
Egyptian discontent at still being a colony was rising and Egyptians felt angry and humiliated after their poorly-armed military lost the 1948 war against Israel.
On July 23, 1952, a group of Egyptian army officers, calling themselves the Free Officers Movement, took power in a bloodless coup.
At the forefront of the uprising was a charismatic young army officer called Gamal Abdel Nasser.
This was the first military coup to happen in the Arab World and it set a precedent for many to follow.
After assuming power, Nasser and the Free Officers formed the Revolutionary Command Council, which constituted the real power in Egypt. General Muhammad Naguib became Egypt’s first president.
However, it soon became clear that the revolution was driven by the charisma of Nasser, and his strong ideological notions. Conflict with Naguib over strategies soon resulted in his removal, and in October, 1954 Nasser was appointed president of Egypt. He was the first native Egyptian to rule Egypt in over 2500 years.
Dia’ El Din Mohammad Daoud, the secretary-general of the Nasserite movement, says: “Nasser was an ordinary man of the people, not a man of the upper classes, he came from the working classes, the father was a simple employee, his allegiance was always to the people, that’s where he came from, that was his image.”
Nasser set about changing Egypt. He had his own vision for both a new nation and the Arab World. Politically, he transformed Egypt into a republic, introducing centralised parliamentary rule, but he is better known for his domestic social programmes.
|Nasser and Naguib became bitter enemies
after the coup
Nasser’s aim was to improve the conditions of the peasant majority – establishing land reforms, free educational programmes for boys and girls and developing the country’s medical infrastructure.
Egypt was captivated, and the Arab World watched closely as Nasser expanded on his brand of socialism. He believed that if the people had real equality they would feel more united and act as one entity.
Saadedine Ibrahim, an Egyptian political activist, says: “One of the very early phrases that Nasser coined was addressing the common man: ‘Raise your head fellow brother, the end of colonialism has come.’ And that is the kind of language, message that echoed very deeply with the average man, because it was a simple language and people who were downtrodden, people who were beaten, mistreated, felt worthless, began to gain that kind of confidence, spirit that they didn’t have before.”
Never before had an Arab leader achieved such popularity outside his own capital.
Rarely had the population of an underdeveloped Arab World felt that they could participate in the future of their own nations.
Winning Arab hearts
|Articles in this episode|
Opinion: Nasser, the torch bearer
Revolution bred by defeat
The 1956 Suez War
Losing the Jews of Arabia
Daoud says: “For the first time an Egyptian leader from the people and not from the upper classes, was able to win the hearts of the Arab people, there was now contact with various Arab forces and dialogue, there was a common language, one with which all Arabs could identify, this paved the way for a common Arab strategy.”
Nasser’s modern take on nationalism inspired Arabs, in a way which the Nahda, the Arab renaissance of the 19th century, had not.
Nasserism had taken Arabism a step further. He believed Arabs would be stronger if united, that they shared a common struggle against colonial powers and that the liberation of Palestine should be an Arab duty.
Nasser’s vision extended far beyond Egypt. He believed that the lessons of the revolution should be applied in other Arab countries.
His charisma and influence were so great that he inspired Arabs elsewhere to dream of a unified Arab nation. His defiant attitude towards Egypt’s former colonial masters made him even more popular. Nasserism swept the region.
Suez Canal crisis
One of Nasser’s main concerns was foreign occupation of Arab lands and it was events surrounding this issue which lead to a dramatic turn towards Arab unity.
As early as 1954, he supported Algeria’s struggle for independence from the French, by providing arms and military training to Algeria’s independence movement. But liberating his own nation from occupation proved to be one of the milestones of his career.
The British, who had originally agreed to remove their troops from the Suez Canal by 1954, still occupied it.
At the same time Egypt desperately needed electricity and the Americans had promised Nasser over $200m to build a hydroelectric power station in Aswan – known as the High Dam. But the US was a strong ally of Israel who – by 1954 – occupied large parts of Palestine.
Nasser’s opposition to Israel and what he saw as US and European colonialism as well as his growing relationship with the communist block angered Western powers. The US refused to finance the dam.
In response Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956 and turned to the Soviets for financial aid.
The British and French no longer controlled this vital seaway. The old colonial powers were humiliated.
Ibrahim says: “It was fantastic, we went down to the streets, it was late at night, it was summer… streets were full of demonstrations, joy, people cheering… it was like a festival, it was like a feast, a moment of victory again.”
What followed was military conflict between Egypt and a coalition of French, British and Israeli forces.
The operation to take the canal was a military success but a political disaster for the coalition – the US fearing Soviet intervention imposed an end to the crisis but allowed Israel to occupy the Sinai.
A Question of Arab Unity Web special coverage
1948: A Cause for Arab Unity?
Nasser’s Age of Revolution
Despite the military defeat, Nasser had forced the West into submission. The Arab World had a new hero.
The Arab World now felt it could rally behind a strong leader. The effects of his revolution in Egypt soon spread to other Arab nations.
In 1958, the Iraqi Free Officers’ Movement, modelled around Nasser’s revolution, toppled the monarchy.
In Lebanon, events in 1958 led to a minor civil war between the existing regime and more revolutionary currents, influenced by Nasser’s ideas. The US was asked to intervene. US forces landed on Beirut’s shores in support of the local government but in the end it was Nasser who brokered a political agreement among the warring factions.
But the most notable spread of Nasserism in 1958 came in Syria.
A power struggle erupted within the military between Baathist and Nasserist currents. Fearing their country might be divided and that this could derail the drive towards Arab unity, a group of Syrian army officers asked Nasser to join Egypt with Syria.
Nasser was reluctant as the two countries had different political systems and experiences; he preferred a federation of two states. But with increasing pressure to find a rapid solution to Syria’s situation, Nasser finally agreed, stressing that the two nations would be ruled on his terms.
The United Arab Republic (UAR) was born.
|Nasser was a charismatic leader who came
from humble beginnings
At the peak of his rule in the late 1950s, Nasser was the most important leader in the Arab World. He had succeeded in uniting at least one Arab nation with another, and ruled over both.
He had outmanoeuvred the old colonial powers and hastened their decline, restoring to the Arabs long lost feelings of pride, self confidence and above all, he managed to set the stage for the creation of an aspirational dream – a unified Arab World.
The dream of Arab unity had taken a huge leap.
But there were problems in the new Middle East. Jewish peoples had either been forced or persuaded to leave their ancestral homes in Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco and Syria and emigrate to Israel.
The newly formed UAR was begin to tear apart under the dissent borne of suspicions and rivalries between the Egyptians and Syrians.
The Arab World had a hero, but it had still not been able to win back Palestine. And while Nasser had won many political battles, he had yet to score a battlefield victory against the Israelis who had delivered a punishing defeat to the Arabs in 1948.
Nearly 20 years later, the Arabs new-found sense of pride would come face to face with the harsh realities of yet another defeat.