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The Rise of Nasserism (Part 1) - The Rise of Nasserism (Part 2)

Nasser as Leader

Nasser, who certainly in terms of heavy workload and lack of material reward seemed to want little for himself, would have been hard put to resist the adulation for his leadership of Arab nationalism after 1956. But just as important for him were the prudential reasons for an active policy in the "Arab circle". The West may have been divided and humiliated in 1956, but the Middle East was far too important politically and economically for it not to have sought to recover its position. No more could there be dreams of bringing Nasser down, such as those that had inspired Eden, but any growth of Nasser's influence, especially now that he was associated with the Soviet Union, had to be contained if not actively countered by Western policies not only towards Egypt but the Arab world as a whole. Thus the stage was set for a new round of rivalry as Nasser saw it, between Arab nationalism under his leadership and the Western powers as they sought to manipulate and encourage their allies in the Middle East.

The weapons in this struggle were ideological and material. Ideologically Nasser's charismatic appeal as leader of Arab nationalism won hands down among the masses, but Arab states were not democracies and among ruling elites Nasser secretly evoked much fear, whatever the recognition given the conquering hero publicly. Nasser's appeal to the Arab masses, and unbridled critical comment on the character and policies of other Arab rulers became the staple diet of Voice of the Arabs. More sinisterly, but with a similar purpose of capitalizing on this new-found popularity, Nasser's own special service agents, the mukhabarat, were active in many parts of the Arab world.

Eisenhower Doctrine

His perceived major adversaries, the Western powers, could hardly reply ideologically, for their main weapon, liberal democracy, had little appeal to many of their Arab allies, while they themselves were dubious of its applicability in such a volatile region. Their main weapon was in materials, both economic and military, which it was believed could help stabilize shaky elites: at the same time Western countries too could be active conspirators utilising the rivalry and factionalism to be found in so many countries. The major Western initiative, in the wake of the setback to Britain and France, lay with the US pronouncement early in 1957 of the “Eisenhower doctrine”. Significant though Eisenhower's attitude had been to the outcome of the Suez war, it was in no way an indication that America was enamoured with Nasser: rather it believed that the European powers were overstretched and using inappropriate policies. In particular Nasser was disliked in Washington for his reaching out to Moscow, in spite of his efforts to obtain Western arms and support for the High Dam. The Eisenhower doctrine in consequence offered military and economic aid to Middle Eastern countries seeking help in resisting communist pressure, whether from without or within, and Nasserist Arab nationalism, now with Soviet backing, fell broadly into this category. But like the Baghdad Pact, to which it was obviously intended to be the successor, the Eisenhower Doctrine also posed the danger to would-be takers that they would be swiftly branded as collaborators with imperialism and targeted by Nasser and his charismatic appeal to the masses.


The target in the struggle for the Middle East lay primarily in the Fertile Crescent: that collection of new, arbitrarily defined and heterogeneously populated countries at the head of the Arabian peninsula and its deserts, which by dint of political geography, oil and the birth of Israel, had become a hotbed of pressures of all kinds. The opposite pole to Egypt lay in Iraq, and for all the artificiality of that country from its creation as a British mandate at the end of the First World War, Baghdad had always been one of the great cities and centres of the Middle East. Iraq had had one branch of the Hashemite monarchies (the other was Jordan) created by Britain, but the survival of the monarchy had several times been threatened. In the post-war period it had survived largely under the guidance of Nuri Said. Nuri had been an Ottoman army officer when he defected to the British-backed Arab revolt of 1916; later as a long-serving politician he always made friendship with Britain, still the dominant power in Iraq, the cornerstone of his policy. Nuri had been Eden's main ally in constructing the Baghdad Pact, and though Nasser's “Czech” arms deal with the Soviet Union had aborted that effort, he remained a staunch ally and manoeuvre in regional politics, being suspected in particular of seeking Iraqi dominance of the Fertile Crescent.

The second of the Hashemite kingdoms, Jordan, was more ambiguously pro-British, especially once young King Hussein had come to the throne in 1951 and sought to walk a tight rope both internally and externally. Internally the creation of Israel from the division of Palestine had left Jordan a harbourer of internal pressures from Palestinians, which were largely countered by the support for the monarchy from the desert Bedouin. The latter were particularly strong in the Arab Legion built up and commanded by a British general, Glubb Pasha (and in receipt of a British government subsidy). Externally there had been enormous pressure on Hussein both for and against joining the Baghdad Pact, which he had resolved by rejecting the pact, suddenly ousting Glubb, but at the same time seeking to resist Egyptian pressure in his foreign policy to fall in behind that of Cairo. Throughout the first half of 1957 there was a bitter war of words between Nasser and Hussein, until eventually the former called it off, not least because he had other matters to attend to, and of a very different character.

Syria, like the other Arab states, had its own peculiar characteristics. One of them was its marked political heterogeneity involving different ethnic factions: marked regional differences around major towns; and extremes of wealth among large landowners and businessmen and poverty among peasants on its harsh marginal lands. In addition parties of the Left and Right had emerged, as well as the Ba'ath Party, founded by the young radical nationalists Michel Aflaq and Salah Bitar, which through a vague romantic-sounding ideology espoused Arab unity and socialism. Since France had been forced out of Syria in 1946 the country had experienced both civilian and military regimes without achieving any long-term stability. Another of its features was that Damascus had from the late nineteenth century been a centre of unambiguous Arab nationalism, and of a more profound and organic character than Nasser envisaged. Partly in recognition of an evolving common outlook, Syria and Egypt signed a military pact in October 1955. Nasser's Suez triumph soon brought a reaction in Syria when leftist pro-Nasser elements were coming to the fore, leading late in 1956 to the breaking of relations with the West and an arms deal with the Soviet Union. The move though served only to deepen division in Syria, where it was feared in particular that the right might turn to the West, which through the CIA had been discovered trying to engineer a coup, and that Syria might become aligned with Iraq, pulling Jordan too into the net.

Union with Syria

In the growing chaos in Syria a group of leftist officers began overtures towards Egypt seeking a union of the two major Arab nationalist powers; and after much complex manoeuvring a direct approach to Nasser was finally made. Nasser was initially somewhat uncertain. He had never been to Syria and showed a lack of confidence in understanding its bewildering politics. He seemed to feel that union would present all kinds of unforeseen problems. But while showing his customary suspicion, Nasser felt that he was faced with an option that really left him with little choice. If he missed the opportunity it might never be repeated, and he was now the widely recognised leader of pan-Arabism. Furthermore a failure to accept the union could see Syria swing into the arms of Nuri and the West reinforcing those against whom Nasser believed it was his destiny to act.

For a while it seemed that union might be limited to some kind of federal basis, with the major emphasis on defence and foreign policy, which was probably Nasser's main concern. But this had potential faults: it would have meant coming to terms with Syria's political parties and these were not institutions for which Nasser had any more respect in a Syrian context than he had had in Egypt. Moreover, Nasser was not experienced in working within an institutional framework or sharing power - both necessities if there was to be a federal union. He thus insisted that if there was to be a union, as the Syrian government was requesting, then it should be a full union and of course he, Nasser, the leader of the much larger and stronger Egyptian state, would be at its head. In February 1958 Nasser and Syria's President Quwaitly stood together in Cairo and proclaimed the foundation of the United Arab Republic (UAR). It appeared a major extension of Nasser's power in the Middle East, and inevitably led to both acclaim and fear among friends and foes. The most immediate consequences were in the two neighbouring countries of Syria that stood to be most directly affected: Lebanon and Iraq. Syria had long regarded Lebanon and its wealthy market of Beirut as being properly a part of Syria, divided from it by the French in 1920 who had then departed in 1946 leaving a new state shared between its two major confessional groups, the Maronite Christians and the Muslims. Under the leadership of the Christian President, Chamoun, Lebanon, fearful of Arab domination, had been the one state in the Middle East keen to take up the Eisenhower Doctrine. The appeal of the UAR at the same time found a response amongst the Muslims of Lebanon, just as Nasser and his busy agents there intended it should. Fed by arms from Syria it looked in 1958 as if Lebanon might be heading for civil war. Then, dramatically, the situation worsened on 14 July 1958, when it was announced from Baghdad that the Western-backed monarchy run by Nuri had been overthrown. An unknown army officer, Brigadier Abdel Karim Kassem, had staged a coup that had been swiftly followed by the killing of the royal family and Nuri himself. Fearing an immediate worsening of the crisis in Lebanon, Chamoun called on the Americans to send in the marines. Shortly afterwards, and worried too by developments in Iraq, where the king (his cousin) had been killed, Hussein asked Britain to follow America's lead and send troops to Jordan.

Near Disaster, Averted

The events in Iraq appeared scarcely less significant than the proclamation of the UAR or developments in Lebanon. Not only had Iraq been a bulwark of the West, but with the proclamation of the UAR, a counter Arab Union had been announced between Iraq and Jordan, widely seen as a British and Hashemite plot. The unexpected coup in Iraq brought an immediate end to the newly proclaimed union. It was also widely assumed that events in the Middle East since Suez had contributed directly to the coup, and that in all probability it was Nasserist in inclination and quite possibly had been masterminded by Nasser himself. As if to underline this view, Nasser met secretly with Kassem's deputy, and a friendship pact was signed which suggested the possibility of Iraq joining the UAR.

Egypt had naturally had its agents at work in Iraq, including those among the factions of the Iraqi army, but the coup was Kassem's own effort and owed much to a moment of opportunism which accounted for its unexpectedness. Kassem and his men were supposed to be on their way to strengthen the Jordanian end of the new union (and some suggested to threaten Syria) when he saw a chance to effect a coup he had been plotting for some time. It was not only the immediate circumstances, but the parallel with events in Egypt on a July night six years earlier, which led the world to assume though that it was in all probability Nasser's handiwork, or at least that it would proclaim itself for Nasserism and the new UAR.

Nasser’s Successes

The combination of Kassem's success in Iraq, and the need for the “reactionary” governments in Lebanon and Jordan to scuttle for help to their Western friends all added to the picture of Nasserism rampant in the Middle East. Throughout the region, from Morocco in the west to Iraq and the Gulf in the east, the waves of his charisma could be felt, not only in pan-Arab states but as a popular movement among those whose rulers were still resisting his call. And with the UAR established as a first step in pan-Arabism, it seemed that a new movement embodied in the personality of and faith in one man, Nasser, had indeed established itself in the Arab world.

It was undoubtedly in the field of foreign affairs that Nasser had achieved his greatest success, and it was seen as very much a personal achievement. Suez had of course been the great glory, indeed the crowning glory, of his rise to power in Egypt, after which he was to remain unchallenged until his death. Though militarily inconclusive Suez was seen as a great political victory, both in confirming that the British had not only left, but could never again return, and in establishing Nasser as the leader of a wave of Arab nationalism reaching out to all corners of the Middle East. As he once remarked, “I have an exact knowledge of the frontiers of the Arab nation. I do not place it in the future for I think and I act as though it already existed. These frontiers end where my propaganda no longer rouses an echo. Beyond this point, something else begins.” By the end of the decade in which he came to power that appeal had been translated into the formation of the United Arab Republic. Egypt, the most powerful Arab state, was united with Syria, home of Arab nationalist thinking, and whose capital, Damascus, had once been the centre of the greatest moments of Arab history. As his close confidant, Mohamed Heikal, the editor of the leading daily paper, al- Ahram (The Pyramid) once remarked, “In Egypt Nasserism was hukm (rule), but elsewhere in the Arab world it was hulm (a dream).”

This international stature accounted for much of the success of the revolution in Egypt, but there were other reasons too. The revolution of 1952 had had its path eased by the lack of roots of the regime it overthrew. The manner in which it focused on the foreign elements, from King Farouk and his courtiers, to the foreign companies sequestrated after Suez, meant that it had few internal enemies of substance. Nasser was Egypt's first indigenous ruler for 2,000 years and his manner and style of speech bore this out, making it hard for Egyptians to have serious grounds for objection. Nor had he trod on the toes of many Egyptians in the changes wrought by the revolution. Within the army the old senior officers had soon gone, but the army was well looked after, and military men used in other areas, thus ensuring very little factional struggling within the armed forces. True, different branches were rivals, but within Nasser's hierarchical system rather than seeking to overturn it in the way, for instance, factional military struggles had been a feature of Syrian political instability since 1949. The bureaucracy had swollen, helped by the sequestration as well as expanded social policies, but this too was hierarchical and loyal, if not very efficient. The Egyptian business community faced growing state control, but also new opportunities with the departure of the foreigners; and it was in any case not a group to mount its own political challenge, preferring to manoeuvre within the context of the Egyptian state rather than to challenge the new system that Nasser topped. In the countryside the land reform had hit the major landholders, but they were few in number, and often of foreign derivation. In the villages the larger peasants were untouched, and continued to serve as the middle-men between the state and the rural masses. The revolution had brought superficial change, but for the vast majority rural relations of all kinds remained relatively untouched. The economy showed some signs of improvement and there was clear evidence that social programmes were being expanded, so that there was certainly no more call for complaint than usual - and thus in much of the country Nasser's achievements were not unrecognised.

As one writer put it: “These really important men of personality and power, who defy the foreigner with impunity and yet speak a language the peasant can understand, these are good men”, and Nasser was their undoubted leader.


Naguib, M. Egypt's Destiny. Doubleday, 1955.

Nutting, A. Nasser. Constable, 1967.

Nasser, G. Philosophy of the Revolution. 1972.

Dessouki, A.H. “Nasser and the Struggle for Independence”, in Suez 1956: The Crisis and its Consequences. Louis W.R. and Owen R. (eds). Clarendon Press, 1989.

Mansfield, P. Nasser's Egypt. Penguin, 1969.

Seale, P. The Struggle for Syria. Oxford University Press, 1965.

Ajami, F. The Arab Predicament. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

The Rise of Nasserism (Part 1) - The Rise of Nasserism (Part 2)

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