How Nasser shaped the Arab Spring

Similar tactics of oppression have been used by the leadership of Egypt and Syria to weaken the will of their people.

United Arab Republic
The revolutions in Egypt and Syria were shaped in part by Nasser-era policies and institutions [GALLO/GETTY]

Cairo, Egypt – Today marks the 54th anniversary of the foundation of the United Arab Republic (UAR), a unity between Egypt and Syria that was the height of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s power and the pinnacle of the pan-Arab philosophy that he epitomised.

At that moment in 1958, the Arab world took a decisive step towards declaring its ultimate independence from foreign influence and reclaiming a unity that both Eastern and Western powers had worked to destroy since the Middle East’s golden age. Nasser emotionally described the jubilant scenes he witnessed on the day of the UAR’s founding, and later called it a victory for the Arabs as a free people, despite the eventual dissolution of the Republic.

A closer look at this time, one hailed as a revolutionary moment in modern Arab history, offers great insight into the region’s current struggles. Nasser’s philosophies resonated closely with people not only in Egypt, but throughout the Arab world and beyond, making him overwhelmingly popular. However, both the Syrian and Egyptian systems today are rooted in institutions that the Nasser regime either directly or indirectly created. It is these institutions that have pushed the people of both countries to rise, and that have allowed the Assad regime of Syria and Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt to continue to exert control over their countries.

Nasser’s insistence on complete Arab sovereignty and unity, as well as a focus on the plight of the poor, made him a central figure in a region rising out of British and French imperialism. Nasser’s frustration at the failure of Arab armies in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, due to foreign control and Arab disunity, would later be cited as the key impetus for his role in the 1952 military coup that rid Egypt of British rule. Nasser’s humble background and disdain for the aristocratic hierarchy of the time further inspired him to champion the cause of the poor, the farmers and the workers through semi-socialist policies implemented during his presidency.

His steadfast beliefs and daring policies, including Egyptian-Syrian unity, the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, land redistribution, and free education for all, made Nasser the most celebrated leader of modern Arab history. To this day, photos of Nasser hang throughout the region’s cities and towns and his sayings are readily echoed. Among the most famous ones: “Raise your head brother, the age of imperialism is over”.

It was also Nasser’s regime, however, that created the institutions that have left Egypt and Syria dealing with the same problems of over-centralised power and underdeveloped institutions of social justice that pushed the youth of these countries to rise in revolution.

While Nasser often espoused democratic ideals, especially in his earlier writings, for him the populist ends he desired ultimately justified the undemocratic means by which he sought to obtain them. Political participation, fair electoral processes, impartial jurisprudence, independent media and civil liberties were stifled by the Nasser regime, which merged all powerful institutions into one conglomerate. Any voice that was suspected to contradict Nasserist causes and any threat to the singularity of national authority was intolerable.

Just rule of law?

When Nasser became president of Egypt in 1954, it was only after a struggle with then President Mohamed Naguib, who had been advocating for a transfer of power to civilian rule and a return of the military to its proper position of protecting – not leading – the country. Naguib and Nasser shared many of the same ideals, but clashed when it came to the means of implementation. Pressure from Nasser and the Free Officers, the group responsible for the 1952 coup, mounted and Naguib’s role became largely ceremonial until he himself stepped down and was subsequently forced into isolation.

Since the beginning of the 1952 coup, the judicial system had been used to achieve the regime’s goals. The Revolutionary Command Council, the ruling body, set up courts to supersede the system and try dissidents. One vocal advocate for constitutional governance was Abdel Raziq al-Sanhouri, a legal scholar and the author of Egypt’s Civil Code. In 1954, Nasser’s first year of presidency, a mob violently beat Sanhouri and he was forced to resign. The incident came to symbolise an end to the just rule of law in modern Egyptian history; in addition to the transcendence of the judiciary, the regime carried out purges to ensure complete loyalty within the system.

To the Nasser regime, influential institutions were a tool to achieve the revolution’s goals. Nasser recognised the importance of media very early in his career. In 1952, the Free Officers announced their military coup by taking over the national radio. Nasser silenced opposing media voices in his early presidency through imprisonment and torture, and in 1960 media was nationalised. Some top editors resigned in protest as they saw media become a mouthpiece for the government and journalists, unskilled government employees.

The Nasser regime vehemently attacked political parties on the belief that they would weaken the goals of his Revolution by giving platforms to opposing groups. The Wafd Party, the strongest political group under the British-controlled Egyptian monarchy, was effectively destroyed by Nasser. The Muslim Brotherhood was declared illegal, and anyone suspected of belonging was detained.

Plurality in political opinion was considered a threat, and civil liberties were repressed. Through the recruiting and planting of informers, particularly on college campuses, and the torture or detention of any opposition, the regime successfully created a tangible fear throughout society. Whether it needed to or not, the Nasser regime used its power to exercise electoral fraud to further guarantee absolute control. In referenda, Nasser frequently secured “99.9 per cent” affirmations, and forgery was further used in parliamentary and local elections to ensure regime loyalty on all levels.

When Egypt and Syria united in 1958, it was at the invitation of Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatly and the leading Baath Party. The Baath Party was based originally on the pan-Arab, socialist ideals formulated by Syrian thinker Michel Aflaq and espoused by Nasser. In 1958, Syria had been in its early years of democracy and the elected Baath Party was facing a growingly strong Communist Party with leaders in key positions, as well as internal conflicts. In a move to strengthen its position, the Baath proposed unification to Nasser, a largely popular move.

Baath loyalists

As president of the UAR, Nasser placed loyal members of his regime in top posts in Syria and implemented the same policies he had in Egypt. The poor political structure set up by Nasser often left unfamiliar Egyptians running Syria, much to the chagrin of Syrian leaders, especially those of the Baath. Most significantly, Nasser outlawed all political parties, including the Baath Party, leaving it with unexpectedly little power. Growing unrest within the military finally led to a coup and Syrian secession from the UAR; for the following two years, the country was led by democratically elected representatives.

When a second military coup placed the Baath in power in 1963, Syria’s democratic experiments were forgotten, as well as the original ideologies of the party. Michel Aflaq and other Baath founders were exiled, and the party used divisive tactics to keep the population under control. Gamal Abdel Nasser himself criticised Hafez al-Assad, who was minister of defense before becoming president, for his use of sectarianism to divide the population and grant favours to Baath loyalists (with all of his administrative flaws, few would argue that Nasser was corrupt). The Baath was able to exert complete control on the population through the use of institutions either directly put in place by Nasser or indirectly inspired by his example.

The strength of [Egypt and Syria’s] militaries … have allowed both the Assad regime of Syria and SCAF of Egypt to continue to exert control over their countries.

Developments over the past several decades have rendered Nasser’s pan-Arab philosophies absent on a political level, yet the institutions and mechanisms of rule that he established in Egypt and Syria remain. In some case, institutions have become less severely repressive, while in others abuse of government tools is more rampant. While many tolerated this sort of repression under Nasser for the sake of greater goals, a loss of clear ideological principles on part of the governments, aside from the retention of power, has elucidated the dangers of allowing for the excessive granting of power to a single institution.

While Arab peoples have a doubtless impact on one another (the Arab Spring has proven the undeniable strength of pan-Arabism on a social level), the intertwined history of Egypt and Syria gives the relationship an added layer. Both the people and governments of these two countries have been and continue to be influenced by one another throughout the revolutions. The influence that the Egyptian and Syrian governments have had on one another, due in part to similarly rooted institutions, is less often noticed. The strength of their militaries – due to centralised power, state control over media and the systematic weakening of political parties – have allowed both the Assad regime of Syria and SCAF of Egypt to continue to exert control over their countries.

Ironically, al-Assad praised the Egyptian Revolution when it started, claiming that the case of Syria was not like Egypt; First Lady Asmaa al-Assad asserted that Syria had recognised the need for reform long ago and had already begun, that Syrians were not as “desperate” as Egyptians. As horrific scenes of military brutality emerge from cities across of Syria, the Egyptian state media looks on with horror, ignoring the undeniable resemblance between the two countries, just as the Assads had done months before. 

Unrestrained military

The complete power that the Syrian and Egyptian militaries hold has allowed them to act in an unrestrained manner. The Egyptian military, unlike that of Syria, had no modern history of direct use of force against civilians until recent months. When Mubarak stepped down in February of 2011, there was no precedent for Egypt to look towards but the Tunisian Revolution and the quick exit of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. But since SCAF has been in power, another alternative has presented itself: the Syrian case and the Assad regime’s perception that a war of attrition can be successfully waged against protesters.

The Egyptian military first directly used violence against civilians in October of 2011, when tanks literally crushed protesters in front of Maspero, the state media building. Since then, the military has continued to use force against protests using a brutality that is similar (though on a much smaller scale) to that with which the Syrian military has addressed civilians since the first signs of an uprising in March. The Syrian government seems to hold a conviction that any sign of opposition can be completely wiped out, a conviction that is perhaps rooted in its successful silencing of the rebellious Muslim Brotherhood through the massacre of tens of thousands of Hama residents in 1982. SCAF has since followed in similar naivete, mimicking the Syrian regime in acts that range from painting over graffiti to using live ammunition on protesters. The recent Port Said massacre, in which an estimated 74 soccer fans were killed in just a few hours, showed a government brutality that Egyptians had not seen under Mubarak or his predecessors.

Just like the Nasser regime had, the Egyptian and Syrian governments have both recognised the value of media control. When the revolution began in Egypt, the Maspero building was one of the first to be guarded by the military. In Syria, exiles say that protesting in front of the state media building would be suicidal.

Media of both countries have often echoed one another: isolating protesters by labelling them as thugs and foreign agents, blaming economic instability and deficits in security on protesters, and warning of an Islamist takeover as the only possible alternative are mechanisms that both regimes continue to use in uncanny similarity. Both governments have used thugs to wreak havoc and focussed disproportionate media attention on such cases as to give the people an ultimatum between chaos and dictatorship.

While the youth of both countries’ use of available tools to rally support has been remarkable, the failure of the opposition to complete their revolutions may be associated with the weakness of opposing political parties that have been banned or strictly limited since the Nasser era. The current unimpressive composition of Egypt’s parliament, in terms of both diversity and quality, is a reflection of the past 60 years under military rule. It is in consideration of such circumstances that Bashar al-Assad’s recent announcement expediting a referendum on a constitution that would allow for a multi-party system could have been significant was it not far too late for such a concession.

The UAR and its dominant political ideologies and structures have left several lessons for today’s ongoing revolutions. The dangers of allowing any power to go unchecked, however lofty its goals may seem, have been made all too clear by these countries’ recent history. In both Egypt and Syria, nascent democratic institutions were once destroyed in favour of popular ideologies, resulting in a long-term detriment to the people.  

The progress of the revolutions in both Egypt and Syria leaves much at stake. There is a burden on Egyptians to create formidable democratic institutions, not only for their own sake, but to set an example for their Arab neighbours. The burden falls on Syrians to end the bloodshed and hold those responsible accountable, again not only for the sake of all those who suffer from the Syrian military’s brutality, but also to make it clear to the Egyptian government that their aggression will not go unanswered.

Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.