With two rival Arab blocs confronting one another in the Middle East, genuine Arab union is further off than ever, in the opinion of an experienced British commentator whose writings are internationally known.
The most powerful political dynamic in Arab history has hitherto been centrifugal—an impulse toward fragmentation and separatism. It is an impulse induced by the very geography of the Near East. The rival magnetisms of the Nile and Euphrates valleys have been subversive of Levantine unity and stability since the birth of their respective civilizations. The great Syro-Arabian desert, with its Sinai extension, widens and complicates this basic schism and adds one major and three minor latitudinal barriers to intercourse. And within each division and subdivision of the region (Egypt alone excepted) geography has fostered a unique crop of disruptive local patriotisms and particularisms—in Arabian oases as in the remoter valleys and highlands of the Levant, northern and eastern Mesopotamia, and southern Arabia.
Syria, for example, is one of the Near Eastern countries in which news travels fastest. Yet so completely were some of its inhabitants cocooned in worlds of their own, even in an age of radio and air travel, that in 1943 British political officers discovered villages to which news of the outbreak of the Second World War, four years earlier, had still not penetrated. As recently as fifteen years ago many Levantines, when asked their nationality, would reply, not “I am Syrian,” or whatever it might be, but “I am an Alawi” or a Mitwali, a Druze, a Kurd, etc., etc.; and some of these socio-religious communities are still only imperfectly integrated into Syrian and Lebanese political life. Thirty years ago Arabic had still not ousted Aramaic from the Kalamun hills just north of Damascus. According to Bertram Thomas, pre-Islamic paganism survived in some southern Arabian oases until about a century ago. Islam might have tamed geography and transformed the Near Eastern patchwork into a harmonious whole; but its propagation fell to men who, above all others, were the pawns of nature at its most capricious.
Indifferent to distances which still appall the average Westerner, contemptuous of frontiers, the Bedouin Arab seems, on first encounter, to be the very essence of which empire builders are made. His broad physical horizon has always been clouded, however, by his inability to evolve a commensurate political outlook—by his subjection to the fickle opportunism and centrifugalism inherent in Arabian tribal life. On the very day of Mohammed’s death, intertribal rivalry and clan strife within the tribes produced such wild confusion that the Prophet’s body lay neglected, and only firm action by Omar (the future second Caliph) saved the young Islamic community from disintegrating overnight. Within a few years of Omar’s death, the governor of Medina was calling for fresh campaigns against the infidel as the only means of averting internal anarchy and intertribal war. Whenever the impetus of conquest slackened, the tribes slithered off, beyond control, to carve out their own individual spheres of influence—at the expense, if no infidels were available, of their fellow Moslems. As Bertram Thomas has summed up: “The Arabs were a people without taste for discipline, without capacity for organisation, lacking stability. The marvelous expansion in the seventh and eighth centuries that carried their sway over an area as vast as the Roman Empire was followed immediately by a period of disintegration almost as rapid. . . . Political unity crumbled the moment the soldiers stopped marching: conquered territories split up, regional dynasties followed one another; and within three centuries political ascendancy had virtually passed almost everywhere to men of non-Arab blood.”1
Thirteen hundred years after Mohammed, T. E. Lawrence discovered that Arab mores were unchanged. Their “idea of nationality,” he wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “was the independence of clans and villages, and their ideal of national union was episodic combined resistance to an intruder. Constructive policies, an organised state, an extended empire, were not so much beyond their sight as hateful in it.” Arab unity? “A madman’s notion,” Lawrence told Liddell Hart.
Unifying trends have prevailed among the Arab and Arabized peoples only when assisted by external factors. The universalist aspects of Mohammed’s teaching—which made possible the incorporation of the non-Arab Levantines, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians into the Islamic community—owed much to Judeo-Christian inspiration; and the extension of Islamic rule was directly favored by the political decrepitude of the Persian and Byzantine empires, debilitated by generations of military effort. When Arab centrifugalism asserted itself, a measure of Islamic unity was eventually restored only under the leadership of the sturdy non-Arab highlanders of the north and east. Saladin and his principal lieutenants were Kurds; and the architects of the most durable system of unification the Near East has ever known were Turks.
The so-called “Arab revolt” of 1917-18 was primarily the achievement of a small group of British officers, liberally supplied with gold. The 1943-45 negotiations which led to the formation of the Arab League were coaxed to fruition by Mr. Anthony Eden—and further assisted by Egyptian fears that Britain’s main purpose was to weld Iraq, Syria, and Transjordan into a Hashemite-governed federation with which to isolate and outweigh Egypt. The British and Egyption foreign offices both had hopes of “using” the Arab League—the former against rival Western influences, the latter against Britain—and both were to some extent satisfied. The Arab League tackled with gusto whatever negative tasks were set it, but failed to take a single significant positive step. Nevertheless, it served as a focus for the Pan-Arab emotion that had been welling up in Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad since the collapse of Ottoman rule—partly as a reaction against Anglo-French domination and Zionism, partly in consequence of the spread of literacy. First the students of the region, then the newspaper-reading and radio-listening urban middle classes, rediscovered the heritage of medieval Islam and concluded that the prerequisite of a revival of past glories was political reunification. The more militant nationalists saw in unification a means of acquiring the necessary strength to crush Israel, to humiliate Britain and France, and to win a seat in the councils of the great.
By 1950 every major politician in the Arabic-speaking states was paying lip service to the Pan-Arab ideal. Old-gang politicos whose careers and fortunes had been built on the post-1920 partition of the region would recall with tears in their eyes that before the British and French moved in one could travel from Mecca to Istanbul without so much as an identity card. (All one needed was a bodyguard and a bag of gold.) No one on the fringes of power took Pan-Arabism seriously—the status quo offered too many pickings—but it made a handy political gimmick, an alternative to the “Let’s-throw-the-Jews-into-the-sea” ploy, a red herring to draw across embarrassing discussions or lines of thought. The Iraqi Premier (as he then was) Abdel-Wahab Mirjan gave a textbook demonstration of its use on the eve of the recent Baghdad Pact conference in Ankara. Alarmed by the opposition to the Pact that had sprung up even in Baghdad’s more or less hand-picked parliament, he assured deputies that his government’s chief aim was to “exploit” this Western tie to the utmost to further “Arab causes.” When this failed to satisfy, he declared that he personally had no intention of attending the Ankara conference: he was preparing, instead, a tour of Arab capitals in order to campaign for Arab unity. The house applauded and passed on to other business.
Thus when it became known in the latter half of January that Syrian and Egyptian representatives were negotiating some kind of federation or union of their two countries, the initial reaction of Levantine opinion was to shrug the news off as a propaganda stunt—and a Communist stunt at that. On January 20 the joint leadership of the Syrian and Lebanese Communist parties had issued a call for the establishment of a Syrian-Egyptian federation in order to create an Arab power capable of resisting the intrigues of Israel, “American imperialism,” and “the U.S. oil cartels”; and it was the pro-Communist General Afif Bizri, chief of staff of the Syrian army, who had opened the negotiations on Syria’s behalf. Bizri was apparently convinced that the assembled Baghdad Pact ministers and John Foster Dulles were hatch a plot to unseat the “left-nationalist” Syn regime, but the most he wanted of Colonel I asser was agreement to a federation of Syria and Egypt which would leave both states’ internal regimes intact. The Syrian cabinet, however, mistrusted Bizri almost as much as Dulles, and secretly informed Nasser that it would prefer outright union and the placing of Bizri under an Egyptian commander-in-chief.
Thus, like the Arab League, the United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria was the product of external stimuli and internal mistrust. Its emergence, in turn, panicked the Hashemite rulers into proclaiming their politically looser, but economically stronger, Federal Union of Jordan and Iraq. Effective Arab union—realization of the Pan-Arab dream—was as far away as ever.
Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine is the Sort of electoral percentage Stalin favored. It is above all a proclamation of political immaturity. Yet even if one deducts 10 or 15 per cent to allow for the enthusiasts who voted more than once and for the subtle intimidation exerted by the lack of enclosed polling booths, the result of the Syrian-Egyptian plebiscite in favor of union under Nasser is still an impressive measure of the hopes the Syrian and Egyptian masses have placed in the Cairo dictator. For Nasser it must also be a rather intimidating result. Nine years ago the Syrians gave their first military dictator, Colonel Husni ez-Zaim, a similar vote of confidence, crediting him as they now credit Nasser with the ability to resolve all their problems and usher in a golden age; but a few months later they were cheering his murderer.
In voting for Nasser the Syrians were also voting, no less decisively, against continuance of an experiment in self-government which had begun with Shukri el-Kuwatli presiding over upper-class nepotism, which had lurched through a series of military coups, and which had come full-circle to a restoration of Kuwatli presiding, this time, over army-licensed middle-class nepotism. Rather more hands had gotten into the barrel, but that was all. The political atmosphere in Damascus a few weeks before the Anschluss was uncannily French. One encountered the same contempt for the politicians, the same loss of faith in national institutions, that one had left behind 2,000 miles to the west. There was the same harsh amalgam of cynicism, chauvinism, and despair; and educated Syrians, like educated Frenchmen, were simultaneously hoping for and apprehending the advent of a political messiah—who, they conceded, would in all probability leave things worse than before. “It’s a matter of fate,” said a Syrian diplomat recently returned from London. “The Syrians and the French are fated to have appalling governments, just as the English are fated to eat their appalling food, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”
And then, suddenly, the Syrians were blazing off rifles, thumping drums, and dancing the dubké in celebration of their Leader; and he, in between balcony appearances, was bogging himself down in Syrian politics. An executive council and provincial administrators had to be appointed for Syria and one hundred Syrian deputies selected for the “national assembly” of the United Arab Republic. Confidence had to be established in Syria’s economic prospects within the U.A.R.—and rapidly, since capital was fleeing the country.2 The welcome Nasser received in Damascus can have left him in no doubt that his Syrian subjects expected him to know all the answers; but Syrian “socialist” leaders were quick to pass along the private grapevine (which is all that remains of their party organization) their impression that he knew very few—that he had no clear-cut political or economic philosophy.
The “socialist” leader Akram Hourani, a personal friend of Colonel Shishakli, had helped supply that dictator’s doctrinal deficiency for much of his career, breaking with him sufficiently early to avoid sharing his débâcle. By mid-March Syrian cynics were guessing that Hourani, now one of the U.A.R.’s four vice-presidents, had allotted himself a similar role in Nasser’s service. General Afif Bizri, whose pebble had helped start the avalanche, was meanwhile opening doors for the U.A.R.’s Egyptian c-in-c, Defense Minister and senior vice-president, Marshal Hakim Amr, and hiding whatever chagrin he felt behind a barrage of wisecracks. While Bizri’s stock was falling, his deputy, Colonel Amin Nafouri, had been appointed Minister of Communications for the Syrian “province.” Syria’s new Minister of the Interior was Abdel-Hamid Serraj, generally agreed to be the Syrian officer most completely in Nasser’s confidence—as he had been in Shishakli’s. The fellow-traveling exbanker Khaled el-Azm, Minister of Defense in the outgoing Syrian cabinet, was for the time being unemployed, but this was a consequence mainly of former President Shukri el-Kuwatli’s personal hostility. El-Azm’s Russophile sympathies, like his onetime pro-French leanings, were in any case never more than an expression of his fundamental opportunism. Afif Bizri’s brother Salah, on the other hand, was still in control of the paar-military People’s Resistance Movement. Some observers believed that the Commupara-military People’s Resistance Movement, since the Anschluss—would be able to maintain their basic organization intact inside the P.R.M. set-up. The Communist leader Khalid Begdash and his family had tactfully left for Moscow so as to ease the integration of rank and file Communists into the U.A.R., but few Syrians imagined that they had seen the last of him.
If the Cairo-Damascus merger raised Syrian morale it also rescued Gamal Abdel-Nasser from a slough of political and economic despond. On both the internal and international planes his regime had lost momentum and prestige. Criticism of the junta’s inefficiency, and allegations of corruption and nepotism, were appearing in duplicated handbills and even slipping into the controlled press. The mass-circulation Rose el-Yussef, reflecting popular disillusionment, had admitted in November that “not all the leaders of our revolution were heroes and idealists—they included opportunists and racketeers, too.” The civil service had relapsed into corrupt ways in many areas, the paper said. The official Gumhouriya printed a letter complaining that deception and fraud were “stifling” Egyptians in every sector of their lives: “Fraud has become a social asset, and now our children are taught to lie.” Even the puppet national assembly revolted briefly to denounce the incompetence and corruption responsible for the regime’s “Liberation Province” fiasco. A former member of the Council of the Revolution, Major Abdel-Raouf of the air force, sought political asylum in Jordan, denouncing Nasser’s “egotism and tyranny.” The Egyptian people, he said, had fewer rights and greater hardships now than under the old regime.
The Anschluss brought Egyptians out in their thousands to cheer Nasser once more and boosted his prestige throughout the region. In Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait it also raised hopes that these states, too, would be drawn into the U.A.R. and their rulers—symbols of Western influence as well as political anachronisms—cast aside. It was awareness of their subjects’ subsiding loyalty that spurred Kings Faisal of Iraq and Hussein of Jordan to federate their territories as an earnest of their Pan-Arab sympathies and then lay the federation at the feet of their dynasty’s traditional Saudi rival.
Nasser congratulated King Faisal on the Iraq-Jordan federation, though Egyptian officials now hint that his intention was merely to embarrass the Hashemites who had omitted to congratulate him. But it was noteworthy that the Cairo press passed no comment on the Hashemite federation for two or three days, while the Syrian press and radio assailed it from the start. The Syrian “socialists” were clearly the pacemakers during the first ten days of the U.A.R.’s anti-Hashemite campaign, and the extent of their success may be gauged from Nasser’s appointment of one of their leaders, Salah Bitar, independent Syria’s last Foreign Minister, as his Minister for Inter-Arab Affairs. Bitar is the only Syrian to make Nasser’s seven-man inner cabinet, whose authority covers both Egypt and Syria. An anti-Hashemite of long standing, he urged the Arab League two years ago to “try” Iraq’s Premier Nuri es-Said, for “treason to the Arab cause.” He now favors an all-out effort to topple the Hashemites before they have time to consolidate their federation and before the effects of Iraqi oil royalties can be felt in Jordan. Already the Jordanian dinar has hardened on the Beirut free market, whereas the Syrian lira is drooping: if this trend continues and the Syrian economy slumps, it will vindicate the northern businessmen and eastern tribal chiefs who have long argued that a tie with prosperous Baghdad would be more profitable as well as more logical than one with distant Cairo.
Nasser’s ferocious balcony speech in Damascus on February 26, in which he denounced the Iraqi and Jordanian leaders as “traitors” and “tools of imperialism” who would soon be swept away, delighted the Syrian “leftists” and keynoted the propaganda offensive that is being unleashed in a frank attempt to reduce Iraq to chaos during the forthcoming electoral period. Nuri es-Said, a cordon bleu of electoral cookery, had been expected to take over the government sometime in March, but the exceptionally tough cabinet of anti-Egyptian diehards he formed on March 3 was indicative of the vigor with which he intends to respond to the U.A.R. challenge. Three members of his new government are former generals. The Minister of the Interior is a Kurd whose favorite sport is stated by a friend to be cracking the skulls of urban Arab mobs. The Foreign Minister, Fadhel el-Jamali, has publicly declared that it is with Iraq that Syria should unite and has pledged himself to frustrate Nasser’s “demagogic” efforts to erect a barrier between the two neighbors. For good measure, he has described Nasser as “a Soviet instrument.”
Nasser’s February 26 speech was also intended, Arab observers are generally agreed, to warn King Saud and the Sheikhs of Bahrain and Kuwait against either associating with the Hashemites or launching any federal scheme of their own. Oil workers and students in the territories of all three rulers are becoming increasingly responsive to Cairo radio propaganda and neither Saud nor the Sheikhs would relish being included in Nasser’s list of “traitors” and “tools of imperialism.” Saud had already shown his respect for Nasser’s technique (and his mistrust of certain of his pro-Egyptian brothers, notably the Emir Faisal) by rejecting the young Hashemite kings’ offer to federate their territories with his, under his overlord-ship—an offer that would have made him the head of the world’s largest and richest monarchical state. On March 5 Nasser stepped up the pressure on Saud by permitting the release by Colonel Serraj’s office in Damascus of “evidence” implicating the king in two plots to overthrow him.
The Sheikhs of Bahrain and Kuwait, mean-while, are like cats on a shaky fence. They dislike and fear Saudis, Hashemites, and Syro-Egyptian Pan-Arabists more or less equally, but have been scared into consulting secretly all three. Persia, which has a long-standing claim to Bahrain, has announced that she will break off diplomatic relations with any state which concludes a federation agreement with that sheikhdom. Britain, which handles the external relations of Bahrain and Kuwait, has advised both rulers against taking any rash initiative.
London is in fact far more deeply involved in the crisis than the outside world appears to realize. Kuwait alone is a vital British interest. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (part-owned by the British government) has a 50 per cent stake in Kuwaiti oil, and Kuwait’s oil revenues are an important source of investment capital for the City of London. The Sheikhdom’s absorption by either of its neighbors—the overtly anti-British Saudis or the more friendly but unpredictable Hashemites—would be a calamity for Britain. British oil interests in Iraq, too, look precarious, with Nasser squatting on the Iraq Petroleum Company’s Mediterranean pipelines and U.A.R. propagandists urging the Iraqis to “Arabize” their country’s oil. British officials fear that during the forthcoming Iraqi elections critics of the regime, barred by Nuri’s strong-arm cabinet from advocating union with the U.A.R., will make oil nationalization—already a popular issue—their major theme.
In an attempt to head his critics off and rally Arab opinion beyond Iraq’s borders to support of the Hashemite Federal Union, Nuri’s radio voices were trying hard in mid-March to whip up anti-Israel frenzy. It was Nuri’s most overworked gambit, one that had repeatedly tied him and his allies in knots, a reminder of the moral inadequacy that has kept his long career so extraordinarily unfruitful; and it impressed no one. It strengthened the case of those Western officials who were disposed to write Nuri off as a senile nuisance, and enabled Gamal Abdel-Nasser to appear statesmanlike by comparison. In December, Cairo radio had urged Israel (in Hebrew) to “integrate” herself with the “free” Arab bloc and join in the struggle against imperialism. Such “integration,” the speaker said, would eliminate Arab-Israel strife and border-haggling. In February Cairo invited Israel (again in Hebrew) to join the U.A.R. The logical long-term solution of the Arab-Israel problem would undoubtedly be Israel’s “integration” in a general Near Eastern or Levantine federation; but everything must hinge on the meaning given the word “integration.”
For the moment Egyptian spokesmen are in no hurry to offer the sort of definition that might attract Israel. Their current line is to scoff at Israel as being “of no political significance” and beneath the attention of the lofty U.A.R. The Hashemites may impale themselves upon Israel if they wish—and Nasser would no doubt send scavengers to pick up the bits; but for the moment he has more important matters on hand.
1 Bertram Thomas, The Arabs (London, 1938).
2 As a start it was decided not to pool the Syrian and Egyptian, treasuries. Each “province” will continue to have its own Finance Minister and Minister for Economic Affairs: in Syria the latter post will continue to be held by the “socialist” Khalil Kallas.