In the centre of Cairo’s Gezira Island, a lotus-shaped tower, for many years the tallest on the African continent, stands as a relic of a bygone era. According to popular narrative, the tower was constructed under President Gamal Abdel Nasser using funds given to him as a personal gift from the United States. The funds, intended to secure an end to Nasser’s support for the Algerian struggle against French colonialism, were instead used to build the tower, visible from the US Embassy just across the Nile, as a taunting symbol of Arab resistance and pride. Perhaps more intriguing than this story or the grandness of the tower itself is a mural found in the building’s circular lobby. The mosaic tiles form spectacular images of landmarks – Giza’s Pyramids, Cairo’s Salah al-Din Citadel, Damascus’ Umayyad mosque and Hama’s water mills – from a single nation, the United Arab Republic.
Today, February 22, marks the 55th anniversary of the establishment of the UAR, a short-lived union between Egypt and Syria that represents the pinnacle of pan-Arab success. The moment was testament to Arab triumph over colonialism; the Arab people had taken a bold step towards overcoming decades of divisive, disempowering schemes in a declaration of freedom. Pan-Arab ideals did not simply entail bureaucratic unity, but sought social and economic justice through universal education, employment guarantees, minimum wages and semi-socialist land reform policies. The union was greeted popularly as crowds flooded the streets of the new Republic’s cities. Even after a coup by a Syrian separatist movement ended with the dissolving of the union in 1961, Nasser continued to mark the day as a testament to the power of Arab will. Since the death of Nasser in 1970, the anniversary has passed with little fanfare. But it is perhaps now, more than ever, that this experience bears relevance to the people of Egypt and Syria.
While the Nasser government was certainly not flawless, it remains among the most celebrated of modern Arab times. Historian Albert Hourani aptly describes it as a government “for the people, but not by the people”. Personal freedoms were sacrificed for the sake of collective social and economic justice domestically and national freedom and autonomy on an international scale. Opposition was silenced by force. The Muslim Brotherhood and its notably capitalist leanings were not tolerated by pan-Arab governments in both Egypt and Syria; stories of arbitrary detention and torture emerged from the prisons of Nasser’s Egypt.
While there were personal costs to the realisation of pan-Arab goals, the collective good was consistently presented as the government’s greatest interest, even if the popular good did not result in national Arab unity. In his lengthy speech announcing the Syrian secession from the UAR, Nasser explained his belief that the separatist movement was unrepresentative of the Syrian people, praising the popular protests that had erupted in the streets of Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Deir el-Zour on the first days of the coup. Nonetheless, Nasser turned away from pursuing his initial plan of military intervention on behalf of continued unity, emphasising that the potential bloodshed among the Syrian people was not in the interests of true Arabism.
On a larger scale, the pan-Arabist government served the interests of its population and committed to ideals of freedom and justice. It is the inclusive character of the ideology, one that celebrated the Arab citizen regardless of socio-economic or religious background that allowed for the rise of the Alawis – a once marginalised and fiercely tribal mountain people who adhered to a divergent brand of Islam – through Syria’s Baath party and into power.
The abandonment of the populist element of the Egyptian and Syrian governments in the 1970s – after the 1967 war had dealt a blow to pan-Arabism and all of the ideals of freedom and justice which were intrinsic to the ideology – has led to the more recent Egyptian and Syrian authoritarian regimes that seem to serve no interest but their own; governments neither for the people nor by the people. In both countries, regime survival became the priority. Dictators abandoned goals of social and economic justice, and embarked on a balancing act between various forces. Policies limiting personal freedom continued, and in the Syrian case were exacerbated under the regimes of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad. Hosni Mubarak and the Assads turned their backs on an ideology that allowed them to originally attain power and strove to maintain their rule by appeasing some powerful groups, and silencing others.
In the case of Syria, the Baath party became increasingly selective in the constituency of the ruling apparatus. Throughout the later 1960s, the Alawi-led Baath embarked on a series of purges (and in some cases assassinations) of urbanites and majoritarian Sunnis from the military and of the urban, intellectual elite, including Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, to who the origins of modern pan-Arab ideology can be attributed, from the party. These purges were coupled with the recruitment of rural, minority and especially Alawi actors to the military and party, and the reservation of key government posts to members of minority sects. Contrary to the inclusive Arab nationalist ideology on which the Baath was originally founded, the party became a divisive force as it used sectarianism as a tool to entrench its power. In criticism directed to the Baath party, Nasser stated that “Baath party actions have divided Syria into Baathist and Syrian; the Baathist has everything and the Syrian has nothing”. The downward spiral in socio-economic justice and national autonomy compounded with a lack of personal freedoms resulted in the popular uprisings we have seen grip the Arab world.
“This republic – your republic – must remain forever a bolsterer of Arab freedom, a supporter of Arab development towards self-sufficiency and justice.”
– Gamal Abdel Nasser
The state of the people of Egypt and Syria is dismal. Over the past two years, at least 60,000 people have been killed in Syria, more are now refugees or internally displaced, and the Golan Heights enters its 36th year under occupation. The brutality experienced within Syria as tens of thousands have been massacred and tortured and entire cities bombarded is relatively eased but not erased in refugee camps with little resources and exposed to harsh climatic conditions. In Egypt, victory seems to have been declared all too soon; since the downfall of Mubarak, governments headed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi have only exacerbated the social and economic injustices which caused the popular uprisings that made a change in leadership possible. There is much to lament on the conditions of these countries today.
However, it is impossible to ignore the extent of the Syrian and Egyptian peoples’ resilience over the past two years. Nasser expressed awe when he referred to the Syrians’ fearlessness in facing military tanks to protest the separatist coup; over 50 years later, this fearlessness has reached new heights as thousands give their lives for a better Syria. In the face of regime brutality and pressure for silence in the interest of stability, Egyptian revolutionaries refuse to settle for a government untrue to their causes of freedom and social and economic justice.
In his announcement of the Syrian secession, Nasser expressed confidence and pride in the people of the UAR: “This republic must remain forever the stronghold of Arab nationalism. This republic – your republic – must remain forever a bolsterer of Arab freedom, a supporter of Arab development towards self-sufficiency and justice.” To Nasser, the actions of governments unrepresentative of the popular will were not true measures of the state of the Arab world. Rather, the people were the true representatives of the republic, and it is their determination which will define the future of the Arab world. At a time when the region seems engulfed by oppressive brutality, Nasser’s words are assurance that the popular spirit remains the true calibre of the state of the Arab world.
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. She is currently a graduate student at the Center of Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.