The United Arab Republic: A look at Egypt and Syria's shortlived union

On this day, 66 years ago, Egypt and Syria united to form the UAR under Gamal Abdel Nasser's leadership. Three years later, the union dissolved.

Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli and his Egyptian counterpart Gamal Abdel Nasser sign the union agreement between their countries in Damascus on 22 February 1958. The union lasted until 1961.
Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli and his Egyptian counterpart Gamal Abdel Nasser sign the union agreement between their countries in Damascus on 22 February 1958. The union lasted until 1961.

The United Arab Republic: A look at Egypt and Syria's shortlived union

On 11 January 1958, 14 Syrian officers drove to the airport, boarding a charter flight headed for Cairo. Carrying no passports and dressed in full military uniform, they snuck off without informing the Syrian leadership of their plans to unite their country with Egypt.

Given their total hypnotism with Egypt’s young and charismatic president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, it seemed like the right thing to do. Abdel Nasser was an Arab nationalist, and they reasoned he would make a good president for Syria.

He had successfully positioned himself as a champion of anti-imperialism in the Arab world, winning hearts and minds after staging a bloodless coup against King Farouk in July 1952 and managing to outlive a tripartite war waged against his country by Great Britain, France, and Israel.

The Syrians believed that he was capable of righting all the wrongs done to the Arabs since the 1948 occupation of Palestine. He promised to liberate the region from European tutelage, demolish the state of Israel, and unite Arabs into one country.

Army Chief-of-Staff Afif al-Bizreh and the Egyptian military attaché Abdul Mohsen Abu al-Nour headed the Syrian delegation to Cairo.

The Syrian officers were young, all in their mid-30s. General Bizreh was the eldest among the group, at 44. All of them were veterans of the Palestine War and had participated in the coups and countercoups that rocked Syria since 1949.

When one showed hesitance at travelling without government approval, Bizreh snapped: “We cannot turn back now. There are two roads ahead of you. One leads to Cairo. The other leads to Mezzeh.”

Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli and his Egyptian counterpart Gamal Abdel Nasser after signing the union agreement between their countries in Damascus on 22 February 1958. The union lasted until 1961.

Bizreh was referring to an infamous prison perched on a hill overlooking the Syrian capital, used to jail dissidents and failed coup engineers. They knew Mezzeh only too well, having taken turns jailing their opponents at the notorious prison.

Before making the journey, Abu al-Nour cabled authorities in Cairo to prevent them from attacking the unidentified aircraft. The plane flew with no headlights to avoid being tracked by the Israelis, taking a long route that lasted for six hours (although the usual journey from Damascus to Cairo took only two).

They reached Almaza Air Force Base, northeast of the capital, at 6:00 am and were immediately informed that Abdel Nasser was busy hosting Indonesian President Ahmed Sukarno. They waited three days before finally being given an audience on the night of January 14-15, 1958.

General al-Bizreh spoke first, proposing a complete merger with Egypt, with one president, one army, and one capital.

After listening attentively, Abdel Nasser asked: “Do you have the approval of your president?”

The unexpected question took the officers aback. Bizreh broke the silence, saying: “We represent public opinion.”

Abdel Nasser briskly waved his arm; “I am sorry. I cannot accept this. You have an elected government that decides for Syria.”

On 11 January 1958, 14 Syrian officers snuck out of Syria without informing their leadership of their plans to unite their country with Egypt.

No conditions

To give legitimacy to the officers, President Shukri al-Quwatli sent Foreign Minister Salah al-Din al-Bitar to negotiate with Abdel Nasser. He was an ardent Arab nationalist at heart who had spent his entire career seeking Arab unity since World War I.

When the Egyptian president asked for Syria's conditions for union, al-Bitar replied: "We have no conditions."

Abdel Nasser, however, had plenty. He wanted to do away with political parties and discharge politicised officers from the Syrian army. He also said the capital would be Cairo rather than Damascus. 

Al-Quwatli first met Abdel Nasser in Cairo early into the Egyptian Revolution, introduced through Saud King Saud Ibn Abdul-Aziz. He saw him as a breath of fresh air in the Arab world, and Abdel Nasser developed an immediate affection for al-Quwatli, who was 17 years his senior.

When an agreement was finalised, the Syrian president resigned his post, making Abdel Nasser president of the United Arab Republic.

The new country, if ranked in today's world, would have been the 25th largest nation in the world — twice the size of France.

The Syrian Parliament met and voted unanimously in favour of the union, and on 30 January 1958, President al-Quwatli got on a plane with the entire Syrian government and flew off to Cairo, where massive crowds were awaiting them.

A ballot paper used by Syrian and Egyptian voters to approve the union of their countries into a single Arab republic and "plebiscite" Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser on February 22, 1958.

At the magnificent Qasr el-Qubba, the two presidents signed the union charter in Cairo on 22 February 1958. As al-Quwatli's signature graced the union document, elsewhere, Syrian politicians were signing off the official dissolution of their political parties at Abdel Nasser's request.

Abdel Nasser in Damascus

The next step was bringing the Egyptian leader to Syria.

Hundreds of thousands swarmed his car through the streets of Damascus. His photos were plastered on every wall across the city, songs were sung in his praise, and soldiers danced in the streets.

Everybody who was somebody in Syria came out to greet him at Qasr al-Diyafa, a two-floor villa at the tip of Abu Rummaneh Street in central Damascus. Crowds camped outside the premises for three days non-stop, waiting for Abdel Nasser to address the nation.

Loudspeakers were placed on the balcony of Qasr al-Diyafa to blast Abdel Nasser's voice throughout the Syrian capital.

When the Egyptian president asked for Syria's conditions for union, al-Bitar replied: "We have no conditions." However, Abdel Nasser had plenty.

Early problems

Abdel Nasser won the presidential election with 99.25% in Syria and 99.8% in Egypt.

However, problems emerged very quickly as Syrians found themselves being slowly squeezed out of positions of influence to be replaced by Egyptians.

To increase the number of workers and farmers in the UAR, Egypt made mandatory schooling to age 12 only and reduced acceptance at Syrian schools by 50%. Syrian schoolteachers were paid 125 monthly, while Egyptian teachers stationed in Syria received 600 SP.

In the armed forces, Syrians resented being treated as subordinate by their Egyptian peers. The UAR government cancelled celebrations on Syria's Independence Day (17 April), saying that the UAR had two national holidays only.

One was 23 July, the date of the Free Officers Revolution, and the second was the anniversary of the UAR in February.

Additionally, Syrian banks were banned from opening branches in Egypt, and so was Syrian Arab Airways. Syrian goods headed to Egypt had to pay a tax of 7%, but no such tax was levied on Egyptian products headed to Syria.

The biggest blow to Syria, no doubt, was Abdel Nasser's massive socialist measures, which began in September 1958.

Agricultural reforms

Six months after the UAR creation, Abdel Nasser issued his Agricultural Reform Law, targeting Syria's old money, triggering their collective demise as a social class.

It was signed on 27 September 1958 and applied to the very same politicians who had voted for him the previous February. By law, Syrian citizens were prohibited from owning more than 800 dunums of irrigated lands (80 hectares) and 800 dunums of dryland (3,000 dunums).

Picture dated 1960 shows Syrians celebrating the 2nd anniversary of the short-lived union with Egypt in Damascus.

Vice-President Akram al-Hawrani, a ranking socialist, played a pivotal role in convincing Abdel Nasser to pass the law, claiming that these landowners were treating the peasants as slaves and that they owned far more land than what they deserved or needed.

Many of their plantations, he said, had been acquired either through thuggery or as gifts from the Ottoman sultan.

Agriculture accounted for 50% of Syria's GDP, and 75% of the population lived off agricultural activity.

A handful of prominent families owned much of the irrigated land, estimated at 750,000 hectares in 1938 and rose to 1.3 million in 1958.

Hawrani suggested that Abdel Nasser use these rich plantations to resettle thousands of Egyptian farmers, helping reduce Egypt's population boom.

He said Syria's territory was vast, more than enough for its three million residents. In her memoirs, Hawrani's wife, Naziha al-Homsi, wrote that when the Agricultural Reform Law passed, she walked up to her husband and said: "This is your day, Akram."

The state seized 49,000 hectares of land owned by 3,247 Syrian citizens. The lion's share was in al-Hassakeh in the Syrian northeast, where 1062 plots of land were confiscated.

In contrast, in the countryside of Damascus, the new law only applied to 145 individuals who owned land in al-Ghouta.

Around 33% of the confiscated land was distributed to farmers, while 23% was eventually sold by the government, which kept 20% of the land for itself, using it to build schools, hospitals, and airports.

Problems in the union emerged very quickly, as Syrians found themselves being slowly squeezed out of positions of influence and replaced by Egyptians.

Nationalisation Law of 1961

Then came presidential decree number 117 on 23 July 1961, calling for nationalising all banks and factories in Syria.  Twenty-three Syrian institutions were confiscated on that day, either partially or entirely, worth a total of 200mn SP ($90.9mn).

The banks seized were worth a total capital of $27.2mn, including Credit Lyonnais, which had been operating in Syria since the 1930s, and Banco Di Roma.

The state explained the logic behind its action, saying that these banks ought to be public property, arguing that their money should be used to finance industrial and agricultural development rather than the business activities of private individuals.

In his memoirs many years later, Abdel Nasser's former ambassador to Syria, Mahmud Riad, commented: "The nationalist laws rocked Syrian society. Even those not affected by them were worried about how far socialism would spread in their country."

Abdel Nasser feared that, like in Egypt, many big commercial establishments were owned by foreigners — mainly from France and Britain.

Economy Minister Husni Sawwaf explained that apart from the two foreign banks, all the other institutions were 100% Syrian. He added that Syrian capital in the diaspora was estimated at 500mn SP ($227mn) and that: "It will be impossible to convince expatriates to return to Syria if we carry out the nationalisation programme."

Repercussions of socialism

Fearing the worst, Syrian businessmen swiftly withdrew their money from local banks and smuggled it to Lebanon, where the banking sector was safer and more stable.

Raw materials disappeared from the market, causing the remaining factories to shut down. Unable to produce or sell, the state fell into a crippling debt that reached $123mn in 1961.

The purchasing power of the Syrian lira dropped, and letters of credit for import were suspended at private banks. Syrian exports fell from $77mn in 1957 to $43mn in 1961.

Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli (R) welcomes Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Damascus 18 July 1958.

Trade with Iraq, Syria's largest trading partner, dropped from $11.3mn to $4mnonly. The price of shares in unnationalised companies fell by 40%, and bank deposits crashed by 70%.

According to most Syrian historians, even those vehemently pro-Nasser, the nationalisation laws of 1961 helped hasten the collapse of the UAR, which occurred just eight weeks later in late September.

Shukri al-Quwatli objected to the seizure of factories, calling on his Egyptian friend to say: "I fear for this union that you and I created, Mr. President. These nationalisation laws are wrong and will backfire, possibly bringing down the republic."

Abdel Nasser smiled and said the UAR government would last 100 years. Upset, al-Quwatli walked out in disappointment and never met Abdel Nasser again.

Three of Abdel Nasser's prime victims were the Debs and Khumasiyya factories in Damascus and Sami Sa'em al-Dahr's factory in Aleppo. All were specialised in spinning and weaving and were prime taxpayers to the Syrian treasury.

Al-Khumasiyya was the biggest, most famous, and by far the most profitable of all the Syrian companies seized by the Union Republic.

It was set up by five businessmen back in January 1946. It was valued at $4.5mn, and within two years this rose to $6.8mn.

Al-Khumasiya started with a cotton and silk weaving factory and, by the late 1950s, was producing clothes, silk, vegetable oils, soap, sugar, and glass, in addition to establishing cotton gins in the Syrian northwest.

Over 4,700 people were on the monthly payroll of al-Khumasiya, and it had become a source of national pride, visited by guests of the Syrian government like King Hussein of Jordan and King Saud.

The Debs factory had been established by a family of Syrian expatriates who had made their fortunes in Japan and was valued at $4.5mn.

Following Abdel Nasser's nationalisation decree, Syrian businessmen swiftly withdrew their money from local banks.

Construction work was still underway when Abdel Nasser issued his Agricultural Reform Law in 1958, prompting one of the founders to ask the president: "Shall we continue our work? Or are there other socialist laws forthcoming?"

Abdel Nasser encouraged them to move along with their project and personally attended the factory's opening on 23 March 1958.

Two years later, the Debs Factory was seized by the state.  

The secession coup of 1961

On 28 September 1961, a group of Syrian officers staged a coup in Damascus, officially dissolving the United Arab Republic. The coup was headed by a 35-year-old colonel named Abdul Karim al-Nehlawi, commanding a group of officers from the Damascus middle-class.

Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran were the first to recognise the post-UAR order, followed by the USSR and the US on October 7-8, 1961.

Within a week, Syria regained its seats at the United Nations in Geneva and the Arab League offices in Cairo. To support the new government, Bank of America approved a $5mn loan to Syria while Saudi Arabia agreed to restructure a debt of $6mn, granted shortly before the UAR was created in 1958.

Two weeks later, al-Quwatli spoke from Switzerland via the newly established Syrian television. In his address, aired on 23 October 1961, he said: "My disappointment is great and my amazement greater."

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