Even Abdel Rahman Kawakibi, widely considered the first exponent of the pan-Arab concept, was not above tailoring his argument to the needs of his paymaster, the Egyptian ruler Abbas Hilmi (1892-1914), who toyed with the idea of wresting the caliphate from the Ottoman sultan. For a handsome monthly allowance of fifty Egyptian pounds, Kawakibi became Abbas's propagandist, praising the Egyptian ruling family and deriding their Ottoman suzerain. He even went on a six-month mission to the Arabian Peninsula and the Muslim parts of India and East Africa to promote Abbas's claim to the caliphate. (Gerard Lowther/Istanbul to Grey/London, July 28, 1910, FO 371/1007, doe. 433, see also Elie Kedourie, Arabic Political Memoirs and Other Studies, 1974, pp. 107-09)
In his book Umm al-Qura (The Mother of All Cities, Mecca), Kawakibi blamed the Ottoman Empire for the ills of Islam, challenged its right to hold on to the caliphate, and called for the appointment of an Arab caliph, residing in Mecca, as spiritual head of an Islamic union. The emphasis on a spiritual caliph, in contrast to the millenarian Muslim conception of this figure as the umma's spiritual and temporal leader, seems to reflect an ulterior motive. The Ottoman sultan, whose right to the caliphate Kawakibi attempted to discredit, was the head of the most powerful Islamic empire on earth. The Egyptian ruler, whose right to the caliphate Kawakibi sought to establish and whom he praised in his book for his "religious fervor and Arab zeal;' was the titular head of an Ottoman province that had been under British occupation since 1882. The restoration of an Arab caliphate in the traditional sense-as a political and territorial empire-was totally inconceivable; the attainment of Arab spiritual pre-eminence seemed a more feasible objective. (Kawakibi, Umm al-Qura, pp. 212-14.)
If a pioneering intellectual figure of Kawakibi's stature could bend his argument to political ends, it was only natural that the actual imperial aspirants should do the same. Thus we find Faisal telling the Paris Peace Conference that few nations in the world were as homogeneous as the Arabs and that "personally he was afraid of partition. His principle was Arab unity"-then making the contradictory assertion that "the various provinces of Arab Asia Syria, Irak, Jezireh, Hejaz, Nejd, Yemen-are very different economically and socially;' and that "the object of all Arab hopes and fears" was a confederation of independent states-not a unitary empire. (Secretary's Notes of a Conversation Held in M. Pichon's Room, in: "Memorandum by the Emir Feisal, Jan. 1, 1919;' FO 608/80.)
This doublespeak reflected the opportunistic nature of Faisal's imperial dream. As his father's representative at the peace conference, he had to pay the necessary lip service to Hussein's demand for a pan-Arab empire. At the same time, Faisal was acting as a free agent seeking to carve out his own Syrian empire. As he put it on one occasion, since Syria was "merchandise which has no owner," it was only natural for him to "try to appropriate it before the others:'41 The hopes and wishes of the governed, needless to say, counted for nothing, not least since there was tough opposition in the Levant to Hashemite domination in general, and to Faisal's personal rule in particular. It was the "white man's burden” Hijaz-style.(Zeine N. Zeine, The Struggle for Arab Independence, Beirut, 1960, p. 50.)
It was only in the 1930s that pan-Arab ideologues came to consider Egypt an integral and important part of the "Arab nation." Sati al-Husri even argued that, by virtue of its size, geographic location, and illustrious past, Egypt was destined to spearhead the Arab quest for unity. This theme struck a responsive chord among intellectuals and politicians within Egypt, where King Farouq (1937-52), himself of non-Arab stock, invested considerable energies in establishing himself as the leader of all Arabs, if not the caliph of all Muslims. (Yehoshua Porath, In Search of Arab Unity 1930-1945, 1986, p. 158.)
Yet it would not be until Gamal Abdel Nasser's rise to absolute power in the mid-1950s that Egypt became synonymous with the Arab imperial dream. Initially however, both Nasser's published war memoirs and Philosophy of the Revolution are conspicuously free of any anti-Israel invective.
This benign disposition disappeared overnight in 1960, when Nasser embraced the pan-Arab cause. Suddenly the Jewish national movement that had been admired by him until then for its imperialist struggle against the British, was suddenly transformed into the bridgehead of "world imperialism"-not only in the Middle East, where it allegedly sought to destroy pan-Arab unity by expanding from the Nile to the Euphrates, but also in the Third World. "It is noticeable that before the [imperial powers] quit any country in Africa," argued Nasser, "they ensure for Israel and the Israeli economy a place in that country."( Steadily inflating Israel from a puppet of world imperialism into a demonic force in its own right, and making it a regular theme in his public statements, Nasser went so far as to recommend The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a virulent anti-Semitic tract fabricated by the Russian secret police at the turn of the twentieth century, as a useful guide to the "Jewish mind." (Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites, 1986, pp. 208-09.)
This policy shift reflected a deliberate and opportunistic calculation rather than a genuine change of heart. Given Nasser's scornful view of his fellow Arabs on the one hand, and of inter-Arab collaboration during the 1948 war on the other, it was only natural for him to be deeply suspicious of anything that smacked of pan-Arabism. He viewed the Arab League as a fraudulent imperialist creation and had its veteran secretary-general Abdel Rahman Azzam removed from office. (Peter Mansfield, Nasser's Egypt, 1965, p. 54.)
Yet being the inveterate political animal that he was, Nasser quickly recognized the immense potential of pan-Arabism and its most celebrated cause, the "Palestine Question;' for his domestic and international standing. "Formerly I believed neither in the Arabs nor in Arabism. Each time that you or someone else spoke to me of the Arabs, I laughed at what you said;' he confided to a close friend at the end of 1953. "But then I realized all the potential possessed by the Arab states! That is what made me change my mind." (Jean Lacouture, Nasser: A Biography, 1973, pp. 183-84.)
What was this vast potential that captured Nasser's imagination? Strategic pre-eminence for one. By his own account, Nasser was an avid student of strategy who had long recognized the importance of "Greater Syria" for Egypt's geopolitical standing. In thinking along these lines Nasser was taking his cue from the two great nineteenth-century imperial aspirantsMuhammad Ali and his illustrious son Ibrahim-who sought to establish Egypt at the pinnacle of a new regional empire. But while the latter were hardened men of the sword who fought their way to an empire, occupying the Levant and marching on Istanbul, Nasser preferred to achieve his goal through less risky means, such as virulent propaganda, political manipulation, and subversion of rival Arab regimes. "Those who delude themselves into believing that [Arab] unity can be achieved with honeyed words alone should open their eyes and see the Egyptian army of today;' he told the Egyptian general staff in March 1957. "But the army is not the only means .... There is this irregular war which costs us little, but which costs our enemies much." (Keith Wheelock, Nasser's Egypt: A Critical Analysis, 1960, pp. 251-52; Robert St. John, The Boss: The Story of Gamal Abdel Nasser, 1960, p. 275.)
Aside from its strategic gains, pan-Arab ism held great economic promise.As the most populous Arab country by a wide margin, Egypt's demographic prowess had long been matched by its economic weakness, first and foremost its lack of natural resources and an adequate labor base to service its burgeoning population. It was therefore evident to Nasser that if Egypt were to play an international role commensurate with its size it had to tap the economic resources of the wealthier Arab states, especially the oil producers among them. "Oil [is] a sinew of material civilization without which all its machines would cease to function;' he argued in The Philosophy of the Revolution, adding that "half the proved reserves of oil in the world lie beneath Arab soil." This, in his view, placed the Arabs in a unique position to influence world affairs: So we are strong. Strong not in the loudness of our voices when we wail or shout for help, but rather when we remain silent and measure the extent of our ability to act; when we really understand the strength resulting from the ties binding us together, making our land a single region from which no part can withdraw, and of which no part, like an isolated island, can be defended without defense of the whole. (Nasser, The Philosophy, pp. 106, 108-09.)
Nasser's emphasis on the indivisibility of the "Arab region" is not difficult to understand. Had he promoted a vision of the Middle East where, as in other parts of the world, states pursue their distinct national interests and are the sole beneficiaries of their natural resources, there would have been no way for Egypt to access Arab oil and its attendant economic and political gains. But if the Arabic-speaking countries constituted "a single region from which no part can withdraw;' then Egypt would not only have the legitimate right to share their fabulous wealth but would also be able to become the region's leader. "With the inclusion of Iraq in an Egyptian-Syrian union, the unified state would secure the oil wells and pipelines east of Suez;' Nasser enthused to the Syrian and Iraqi negotiators during the ill-fated talks on a trilateral union in 1963. "Its possibilities would be greater than France, commanding a population of fifty million.” (Taha Riyad, ed., Mahadir Mubahathat al-Wahda, Cairo, 1963, p. 244. )
More immediately, pan-Arabism proved an invaluable weapon in Nasser's effort to overthrow Naguib. The elderly general had not participated in the 1952 putsch but was installed by the junta as head of state owing to his popular appeal, only to disappoint his benefactors by refusing to content himself with the titular figurehead role assigned to him. Nasser's attempt to remove Naguib from the presidency (in February-March 1954) unleashed a tidal wave of public resentment, and the ambitious colonel was forced to bide his time in anticipation of the right moment. By raising the pan-Arab banner, which harped simultaneously on the dominant political and intellectual ideology in the Arab world and the age-old Egyptian ambition for regional mastery, Nasser not only gave his personal standing vis-a-vis Naguib a major boost but also carved out for himself the political role he had been searching for since the 1952 coup. This laid the groundwork for his future rise as the foremost Arab leader, if not the embodiment of the Arab imperial dream. Pan-Arabism was also instrumental in curbing the power and influence of the militant religious organization the Muslim Brothers, the main opponent of Nasser's personal rule during the 1950s and the early 1960s, by fusing panArab and Islamic motives and creating pan-Islamic institutions to promote the regime's agenda. Foremost among these was the Islamic Congress, established in August 1954 in collaboration with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and headed by Anwar Sadat, one of Nasser's closest friends since his cadet days and his successor as Egyptian president. Officially designed to promote Islamic values and education, the congress quickly became a tool of Egyptian policy, mainly in Black Africa. A "Voice of Islam" radio station was established to broadcast Egyptian propaganda, and Egyptian teachers and experts were sent to spread Nasser's word across the Islamic world. (Hans E. Tutsch, Facets of Arab Nationalism, 1965, p.59.)
On the Arab front, pan-Arabism proved useful in discrediting Nasser's rivals as "enemies of the Arab nation", and in enhancing Egypt's position in the struggle for regional leadership, especially vis-a-vis its main hegemonic rival, Iraq. The two countries had been contenders for regional mastery since antiquity, and their rivalry was resumed in earnest following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as Egypt sought to contain repeated attempts by the Hashemites, in control of Iraq and Transjordan, to unify the Fertile Crescent, or most of it, under their rule. Even the Egyptian participation in the 1948 war was motivated by the desire to prevent Transjordan's King Abdallah from making Palestine part of the "Greater Syrian" empire he had been striving to create throughout his political career.
Now that Prime Minister Nuri Said was moving toward a regional defense pact with Turkey and Pakistan under Anglo-American auspices that could enhance Iraq's regional standing, Nasser quickly cried foul in the name of pan-Arab solidarity. "Every Arab now realizes the glaring fact that the West wants to settle in our land forever so that it may colonize, enslave and exploit it;' lamented Cairo's Voice of the Arabs, while Nasser himself spelled out the alternative to the crystallizing regional pact. "The weight of the defense of the Arab states falls first and foremost on the Arabs and they are worthy of undertaking it," he stated. "The aim of the Revolution Government is for the Arabs to become one Nation with all its sons collaborating for the common welfare." (BBC, Survey of World Broadcasts (hereafter SWB), June 4 and July 21, 1954.)
This claim failed to prevent Iraq from forming an alliance with Turkey in February 1955, acceded to shortly afterward by Britain, Iran, and Pakistan in what came to be known as the Baghdad Pact. But it did goad two of Iraq's neighbors-Syria and Saudi Arabia-into forming a tripartite alliance with Egypt in March 1955 as a counterweight to the pact. His fiery rhetoric notwithstanding, Nasser was hardly a deep thinker. His ideas were derivative, amounting to little more than a rendition of the standard pan-Arab narrative about past glory and the alleged disruption of Arab unity by Western imperialism in the wake of World War I. His speeches were highly repetitive, comprising the same elements and the same arguments often presented in the same order. These would normally start with a blistering attack on "imperialism" and its alleged desire to subjugate the "Arab nation;' before proceeding to applaud Egypt's heroic struggle for self liberation, deride Nasser's Arab rivals as "imperialist stooges," castigate Israel as an imperialist creation designed to destroy pan-Arabism, and promise Egyptians and Arabs years of hard struggle.
The Philosophy of the Revolution is similarly a work of little originality. Aside from being ghostwritten by Heikal, who apparently inculcated Nasser with much of his pan-Arab ideological baggage, its themes and ideas are wholly consistent with the language and vocabulary of the Arab imperial dream, combining an admiring view of Islam's earliest epoch with the standard call for the restoration of the Arabic-speaking world's supposed unity. Even the book's celebrated vision of Egypt playing a leading role in three concentric circles-the Arab, the African, and the Islamic-breaks no new intellectual ground. With Islam constituting the linchpin of the Middle Eastern social and political order for over a millennium, its appropriation in the service of Nasser's ambitions was a natural, if not a self-evident, move. The perception of Egypt as the cornerstone of a unified Arab regional order can be traced back to Muhammad Ali's attempt to substitute his own empire for that of the Ottomans, while Nasser's African orientation dates back to Muhammad Ali's grandson Ismail Pasha, who sought to establish Egypt as a great empire in the Black Continent. On a more immediate level, Nasser's vision was influenced by Ahmad Hussein, spiritual father of the Young Egypt Society (Misr al-Fatat), a nationalist-fascist organization in which the young Nasser was schooled in the early 1930s. Hussein had advocated the transformation of Egypt into "a great empire comprising Egypt and the Sudan, allied to the Arab states, and leading the Muslim world." (P. J. Vatikiotis, Nasser and His Generation, 1978, pp. 54, 60, 73, see also the biography of Muhammad Abduh by Mark Sedgwick 2006, forthcoming.)
Nasser's impact on the Arab imperial dream, though, lay not in the theoretical refinement of the ideal but in its unprecedented inculcation among the Arabic-speaking populations of the Middle East. Day by day, from dawn to dusk, eleven powerful transmitters were broadcasting militant Egyptian propaganda to each of the Arab states, extolling the virtues of panArab unity and deriding its supposed enemies. Addressing the proverbial "Arab street" rather than the ruling elites, these broadcasts often urged their listeners to rise up against their leaders or to assassinate them. Jordan's King Hussein, Saudi Arabia's King Saud, and the Lebanese president CamilIe Chamoun, all bitter enemies of Nasser, were singled out for special vilification. So were Israel and the Western nations. Englishmen and Frenchmen were "imperialists and bloodsuckers;' Americans "pythons, white dogs, and pigs." Listeners were regularly fed the most outlandish lies and conspiracy theories, thinly disguised as "news reports:' They were informed of regular murders of Egyptians in the United States, of bombings of Arabs that had never occurred, of demonstrations and riots in Arab towns that existed on no map, and so on and so forth. (Joachim Joesten, Nasser: The Rise to Power, 1960, p. 179; St. John, The Boss, p. 285.)
While this propaganda made a deeper impression on the Arab masses than previous attempts to spread the imperial message, it was clearly driven by opportunistic self-interest rather than genuine conviction and was heightened or toned down in accordance with Nasser's shifting priorities and needs. There was nothing ideological about Nasser's imperialist ambitions. They were purely personal, and he pursued them with persistent aggressiveness, artfully substituting Egyptian interests and personal ambition for the general Arab good. "The pages of history are full of heroes who created for themselves roles of glorious valor which they played at decisive moments," Nasser wrote in The Philosophy of the Revolution:
It seems to me that within the Arab circle there is a role, wandering aimlessly in search of a hero. And I do not know why it seems to me that this role, exhausted by its wanderings, has at last settled down, tired and weary, near the borders of our country and is beckoning to us to move, to take up its lines, to put on its costume, since no one else is qualified to play it. (Nasser, The Philosophy, pp. 86-87.) "I do not think of myself as a leader of the Arab world;' he added a few years later. "But the Arab peoples feel that what we do in Egypt reflects their collective hopes and aspirations." (Look Magazine, June 14, 1957.)
This recalls Sharif Hussein's 1918 comment that although the Arabs as a whole had not asked him to be their king, he was the only one who stood sufficiently above his peers to become king of pan-Arabia. Though Nasser, unlike Hussein, did not frame his ambition in such blatantly personal terms but rather spoke about Egypt as the only entity capable of leading the Arabs, there is little doubt that he viewed himself as the personification of Egypt. Openly contemptuous of political parties and institutions, Nasser argued from the moment of his political ascent that his mandate came from the people, which made him answerable only to them. Since the "people" could hardly express its wishes in the repressive police state that he created-with its terrifying security services, . draconian legislation, outlawed political parties, and state-controlled mediaNasser quickly identified Egypt with his own persona, in speech and in thought, personalizing the national interest and nationalizing his personal interest. While presenting his anti-Western policy as a Manichean struggle over Arab destiny, Nasser did not shy away from improving Egypt's relations with Britain and the United States whenever it suited his needs. In November 1954, at the height of his campaign to forestall the creation of the Baghdad Pact, he signed a $40 million economic assistance agreement with the United States. Nasser even implied that his virulent anti-Western rhetoric was a retaliation for what he considered an Anglo-American violation of a "gentleman's agreement" to place Egypt-that is, himself-in the driver's seat of inter-Arab politics, and their preference for his nemesis, Iraq's Nuri Said, in this role. (New York Times, April 4, 1955. See also Ahmad Abul Fath, L'Affaire Nasser, 1962, pp. 239-40.)
The July 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal offers a similarly vivid illustration of Nasser's instrumentalism. This clear act of self-interest, which enhanced Egypt's regional prestige and gave its fledgling economy a muchneeded boost in the form of toll revenues worth in excess of 10 percent of the Egyptian national budget, was usefully transformed into an altruistic pan-Arab move aimed at eliminating the remnants of Western colonialism in the region. Nasser repeated the same trick four months later by presenting Egypt's crushing defeat by Israel in the Sinai Peninsula, and its rather lackluster military performance against a combined Anglo- French landing in Port Said, as a heroic defense of the "Arab nation" against Western imperialism. What his account blatantly ignored was that it was the United States that had saved Nasser's regime from assured destruction by forcing the invading forces to cease hostilities before achieving their objectives. Nasser's approach to the organizations and institutions charged with promoting the pan-Arab cause was no less indicative of his equation of Arab unity with his own pre-eminence. The Arab League, originally viewed by Nasser as a corrupt and inept organization, was quickly transformed into an extension of Egyptian will, with many of its existing officials, including the secretary-general, being replaced by Egyptian nationals. The international confederation of Arab trade unions, established in Damascus in March 1956 (with headquarters in Cairo) to promote the "unity of the Arab Nation" and ensure "a better life for workers in the Arab fatherland," was firmly controlled by Egyptians and used to service Egyptian interests in flagrant violation of its constitution. So were the Mro-Asian solidarity committee and the Islamic congress, which, rather than advancing their lofty ideals of international and religious solidarity, provided a vehicle for Nasser's ambitions in Africa and the Islamic world. (Wheelock, Nasser's Egypt, pp. 220, 266-68.)
Even the cherished goal of Arab unification-a shibboleth of panArabism-was no more than a tool to promote Nasser's imperial dream. For all his hyped rhetoric about unification's many virtues, Nasser would not tolerate such a development unless it was associated with his own leadership. When in the summer of 1961, following the proclamation of Kuwaiti independence, Iraq demanded the incorporation of the emirate into its territory on account of its having been a part of the Ottoman velayet of Basra, Nasser had no qualms about collaborating with the "reactionary regimes" of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which he had long been seeking to subvert, to prevent an Iraqi action against Kuwait. There was absolutely no way that he would allow Egypt's perennial rival to regional mastery to take any credit for promoting the ideal of pan-Arab unification.
Unification, when it came, would be on Nasser's terms, and in his own time.Upon forming the 1955 alliance with Syria and Saudi Arabia, he adamantly refused to make the deal any more binding than the minimum required for the immediate goal of undermining the Baghdad Pact. "We had a hand in preparing the draft of the Egyptian-Syrian-Saudi pact, conceiving it as a first step towards a federation of the three countries:' recalled Michel Aflaq, a Ba'th founding father.But the pact remained a dead-letter. It foundered in interminable discussions stretching over months on the question of a common defense budget and a common general staff. Egypt objected that she was poor and could not pay. Saudi Arabia was ready to pay but was reluctant to abandon any sovereignty. All parties were reticent when it came to discussing economic coordination. (Patrick Seale, The Struggle for Syria, 1965, 1986, p. 225.)
At a time when he was feigning poverty to Syria, Nasser found the necessary funds for a large-scale arms deal with the Soviet Union (with Czechoslovakia acting as a front) designed to enhance Egypt's regional standing. "To those who ask me whether I prefer the United States or Russia, I say that I prefer Egypt:' he argued. "Our actions should be prompted solely by our country's interests.” (Middle East News Agency, Cairo; hereafter MENA, Aug. 6, 1955.)
When Nasser eventually established a union with Syria in February 1958, it entailed the imposition of Egypt's domination over Syria rather than a partnership between equals, with power and authority concentrated in Nasser's hands and in Cairo more generally. All political parties in Syria were dissolved, and in October 1958 Nasser announced a new cabinet for the entire United Arab Republic (UAR), as the merger was called, in which fourteen ministries out of twenty-one, including the most important ones, were headed by Egyptians .. The Syrian armed forces were subordinated to their Egyptian counterparts, the Syrian high court was replaced by a council of state on the Egyptian model, and laws governing a state of emergency were unified with those in Egypt, which, in turn, gave Nasser draconian powers. (One such law, passed in 1957, imposed the death penalty for such offenses as sabotage, libel, distributing secret leaflets, and insulting the president of the Egyptian republic.) The largely unregulated Syrian economy was gradually molded along the lines of its centrally controlled Egyptian counterpart. Most of the ministries concerned with economic affairs (such as finance, economics, communications, supply, public works, rural affairs, etc.) were united and placed under the authority of Cairo-based ministers. (Tom Little, Modern Egypt, 1967, pp. 192-93; James Jankowski, Nasser's Egypt: Arab Nationalism and the United Arab Republic, 2002, pp. 120-21.)
There is little doubt that the Egyptian-Syrian merger was not Nasser's ultimate ambition but rather a stepping stone to his imperialist ambitions. The UAR would bring together the entire Arab nation "whether they like it or not:' he boasted shortly after unification, "because this is the will of the Arab people:' And the Egyptian weekly Akhar Sa'a published a map envisaging the newly established union after thirty years: Lebanon and Israel had disappeared as political entities, and the Arab world and portions of Black Africa were included within the shaded area of the new Egyptian empire. (Akhar Sa'a, March 12, 1958, as quoted in Wheelock, Nasser's New Egypt, p. 262.)
This was not to be. By the end of 1958, the euphoria stirred by the UAR's creation had all but died away. In mid-July, some seventeen hundred US marines landed in Lebanon to shore up the government against a proNasserite rebellion, and their number quickly grew to fourteen thousand. Another two thousand British paratroopers were airlifted from Cyprus to Jordan to protect King Hussein against Egyptian-Syrian subversion. Although it would take several months to stabilize the situation in the two countries, their imminent submergence under the tidal wave of Nasserism was irrevocably checked. Even what fleetingly seemed like Nasser's greatest triumph-the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in a bloody coup on July 14, 1958-only served to confirm the decline of his imperial dream. The putsch's leader, Brigadier Abdel Karim Qassem, was vehemently opposed to subordinating Iraq to its historic nemesis. Within days of the coup Qassem turned down an Egyptian invitation to participate in the celebrations on the sixth anniversary of the July 1952 "revolution:' This inaugurated a long and bitter enmity with Nasser that proved more damaging to the Egyptian dictator than his past tussles with Nuri Said. While Said was a quintessential representative of the ancien regime who could readily be discredited as a "reactionary:' Qassem was made of the same fabric as Nasser: a "progressive anti-imperialist" officer who had toppled a reigning monarchy-and who was consequently far less vulnerable to Egyptian delegitimization tactics.No less galling for Nasser were the fissures in the UAR itself. Within months of unification there were mutterings of discontent in the Syrian military, as well as reported strikes and demonstrations in Syrian cities. To make things worse, sharp disagreements ensued between Nasser and the Ba'th, which had spearheaded the Syrian drive toward unification but was subsequently forced to disband along with all other Syrian parties. By the autumn of 1959 disillusionment with the union throughout Syria was running high, and Nasser appointed Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, his close associate and second-in-command, as the country's effective ruler. As Amer failed to contain the crisis-in December 1959 all Ba'th ministers resigned their posts in protest over their growing marginalization-Nasser was forced to increase his reliance on Colonel Abdel Hamid Sarraj, the young and brutal head of Syrian military intelligence and the chief enforcer of the union in Syria. In early 1960, to Amer's exasperation, Sarraj was appointed minister of the interior and set about rewarding his benefactor by unleashing a ferocious campaign of repression. This did not help either, and in August 1961 Nasser kicked Sarraj upward by making him vice-president and commander-in-chief, and moving him to Cairo. The embittered Sarraj complied, but not before warning that his removal would open the door to the union's break-up. His words proved prophetic. On September 28, 1961, a group of Syrian officers mounted a coup, expelled Amer from Damascus, and announced Syria's secession from the union. The Syrian move could not have been more traumatic for Nasser. Although restiveness in the UAR's Northern Region, as Syria was named after unification, had been steadily mounting for years, and the possibility of a coup by disgruntled Syrian officers was occasionally mooted, the Egyptian dictator could not bring himself to entertain the possibility of the collapse of his imperial dream. Even when he received news of the putsch on the morning of September 28, Nasser refused to accept this fateful development for what it was, instead denouncing it in a radio broadcast as a treacherous act by a "small force" that would shortly be crushed. When in the afternoon hours the rebels reached an agreement with Arner to maintain the union in return for having their grievances redressed, notably the "Egyptianization" of the Syrian armed forces, Nasser dismissed the deal out of hand. "The United Arab Republic cannot be based on bargaining:' he announced. "It is not possible for us to bargain over our Arabism.” (Jankowski, Nasser's Egypt, p. 169.)
Given this mindset, it is hardly surprising that Nasser never blamed himself, let alone his imperialist ambitions, for the breakup of the union. Not prone to self-criticism in the first place (the handful of members of the Egyptian leadership who dared to question the slightest aspects of his personal rule were peremptorily removed from power with some placed under arrest), Nasser would not acknowledge that it was the high-handed Egyptian domination that had largely bred Syrian separatism. Neither did it occur to him that this very domination, and the Syrian response, provided further proof of the supremacy of local patriotism over the flimsy ideal of the "Arab nation." For if all Arabs were equal members of the same nation, there would have been no room for the subordination of some of them merely on account of geographical origin.Immersing himself in the same kind of conspiratorial thinking that his awesome propaganda machine had been spreading for years, Nasser quickly castigated the secessionists as traitors who took their orders from Western imperialists, their Middle Eastern bridgehead (Israel), and local lackeys such as Jordan's King Hussein and the Iranian shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. If the Egyptian regime had erred in the running of the union, such errors were not the product of excessive domination but rather of nai've goodwill. "We trusted the forces of reaction, and were deceived by them," Nasser told Egyptians a few days after secession, promising to redouble his efforts "against the forces of reaction, exploitation, and imperialism, in order to establish social justice, to protect socialism, and to protect Arab nationalism.” (Majmu'at Khutub wa-Tasrihat wa-Bayanat al-Rais Gamal Abdel Nasser, Cairo, Ministry of National Guidance, Vol. 3, p. 550.)
This was easier said than done. For nearly a decade Nasser had been going from strength to strength, skillfully turning setbacks and defeats into shining victories and establishing himself in the eyes of the Arab masses as the embodiment of their imperial dream. Now that his most cherished gain had been embarrassingly snatched from his fingers, he needed a quick success to redeem his hitherto invincible image. This was seemingly found in the most unlikely corner of the Arab world: the remote and feudal state of Yemen. In September 1961 the long-reigning imam died. Shortly afterward the military stormed the royal palace and executed those members of the royal family they had managed to capture. They failed, however, to find the imam's son and successor, who fled to the mountains from where he waged a sustained guerrilla campaign, with Saudi arms and money, against the military junta.
As the fighting dragged on inconclusively, Nasser attempted to regain his lost prestige by shoring up a "revolutionary" regime against a "reactionary" challenger, conveniently overlooking the fact that only a few years earlier he had himself welcomed this feudal monarchy into the Egyptian-Syrian union. Before long, however, it transpired that Nasser had bitten off more than he could chew. What was arguably conceived as a brief and cheap operation became a prolonged and costly foreign venture as the Egyptian forces, untrained and ill-equipped for mountain warfare, were bogged down in the rugged terrain. Repeated attempts to achieve a decisive military outcome through air support and the use of poison gas did little to dent the royalist position, and the number of Egyptian troops in Yemen increased steadily: from thirteen thousand by the end of 1962, to forty thousand in 1964, to seventy thousand in 1965. But still they could not win the war, and the frustrated Nasser began to look for alternative issues that could extricate him from what was rapidly turning into yet another embarrassing setback.
This brought him in no time to the "Palestine Question." The issue had constituted an integral part of inter-Arab politics since the mid-1930s, with anti-Zionism forming the main common denominator of pan-Arab solidarity and its most effective rallying cry. Having ignored it in his early days, Nasser endorsed this problem with great zeal in the mid-1950s as a corollary of his imperial dream. Now that this dream lay in ruins following the collapse of the UAR and his inconclusive entanglement in Yemen, Nasser reintroduced the Palestine Question as the trump card in reviving his political fortunes. "Arab unity or the unity of the Arab action or the unity of the Arab goal is our way to the restoration of Palestine and the restoration of the rights of the people of Palestine;' he argued. "Our path to Palestine will not be covered with a red carpet or with yellow sand. Our path to Palestine will be covered with blood." "When we speak of Israel, we must think of 1948 and what happened in 1948": Nasser invoked the traumatic historical memory of the Palestine war to underscore his demand for pan-Arab unity.
There was no Arab unity and no line for concerted Arab action. There was no plan for a unified Arab objective .The Arab countries were defeated because they were seven countries fighting against one country, namely Israel. ... In order that we may liberate Palestine, the Arab nation must unite, the Arab armies must unite, and a unified plan of action must be established. (President Gamal Abdel Nasser's Pre-Election Speeches in Asiut, Minia, Shebin el Kom, Mansura, Cairo, Information Ministry, 1965, pp. 28-29, 68.)
By way of transforming these high principles into concrete plans, in January 1964 Nasser convened the first all-Arab summit in Cairo to discuss ways and means to confront the "Israeli threat:' A prominent item on the agenda was the adoption of a joint strategy to prevent Israel from using the Jordan River waters to irrigate the barren Negev desert in the south of the country. A no less important decision was to "lay the proper foundations for organizing the Palestinian people and enabling it to fulfill its role in the liberation of its homeland and its self-determination:' Four months later, a gathering of 422 Palestinian activists in East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian rule, established the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and approved its two founding documentsthe organization's Basic Constitution and the Palestinian National Covenant.
At a stroke Nasser had managed to restore his lost prestige and influence. He was yet again the undisputed leader of the Arab world, the only person capable of making the Arabs transcend, however temporarily, their self-serving interests for the sake of the collective good. He was nowhere near his cherished goal of promoting the actual unification of the Arab world under his leadership, as he had seemingly been in 1958. Yet he had successfully hijacked pan-Arabism's most celebrated cause and established a working relationship with his erstwhile enemies in Amman and Riyadh. In a second summit meeting in Alexandria in October 1964, the heads of the Arab states accepted Nasser's long-term antiIsrael strategy. This envisaged the laying of the groundwork for a decisive confrontation with Israel through the patient buildup of Arab might in all areas-military, economic, social, and political-and the simultaneous weakening of Israel through concrete actions such as the diversion of the Jordan River estuaries. The PLO was authorized to create an army of Palestinian volunteers, to which the Arab governments were pledged to give support, and a special fund was established for the reorganization of the Lebanese, Syrian, and Jordanian armies under a united Arab command.Nasser's strategic planning was thrown into disarray before too long by an unexpected sequence of events that led within a few weeks to the third ArabIsraeli war since 1948. The event that set in train this escalation was a Soviet warning (in early May 1967) oflarge-scale Israeli troop concentrations along the border with Syria aimed at launching an immediate attack. (Anwar Sadat, In Search of Identity: An Autobiography (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 171-72; al-Ahram, May 23,1967.)
The previous month the Israeli Air Force had shot down six Syrian fighters, and the Syrians demanded Egyptian military support in accordance with the defense pact signed between the two states in November 1966. This placed Nasser in a dilemma. Since he had little sympathy for the radical Ba'th regime, which had seized power in a military coup in February 1966, his main aim in mending the fences with Damascus, after years of alienation, was to gain the maximum control over the impetuous Syrians. Now all of a sudden his plan soured. Instead of enabling him to assert his authority over his junior partner, the defense pact threatened to force him into a crisis not of his own making. To calm things down, Nasser sent his prime minister and air force commander to Damascus for consultations, yet took no concrete action on Syria's behalf.
Once the Soviets had warned of an imminent Israeli attack, however, Nasser could no longer remain aloof. As standard-bearer of the Arab imperial dream he had no choice but to come to the rescue of a threatened Arab ally, tied to Egypt in a bilateral defense treaty, especially when the rival regimes in Jordan and Saudi Arabia were openly ridiculing his failure to live up to his high panArab rhetoric. On May 14, the Egyptian armed forces were placed on the highest state of alert and two armored divisions began moving into the Sinai Peninsula, formally demilitarized since the 1956 Suez war. That same day, the Egyptian chief of staff, Lt.-General Muhammad Fawzi, arrived in Damascus to get a first-hand impression of the military situation and to coordinate a joint response in the event of an Israeli attack. To his surprise, Fawzi found no trace of Israeli concentrations along the Syrian border or troop movements in northern Israel. He reported these findings to his superiors, but this had no impact on the Egyptian move into Sinai, which continued apace. "From that point onward;' Fawzi was to recall in his memoirs, "I began to believe that the issue of Israeli concentrations along the Syrian border was not ... the only or the main cause of the military deployments which Egypt was undertaking with such haste." (Muhammad Fawzi, Harb al-Thalath Sanawat, 1967-1970 ,Cairo, 1980, pp. 71-72. )
Within less than twenty-four hours, Nasser's objective had been transformed from the deterrence of an Israeli attack against Syria into an outright challenge to the status quo established in the wake of the 1956 war. With Fawzi's reassuring findings corroborated both by Egyptian military intelligence and by a special UN inspection,( Abdel Muhsin Kamel Murtagi, al-Fariq Murtagi Yarwi al-Haqa'iq: Qaid Jabhat Sinai fi Harb 1967, Cairo, 1976, p. 64; Indar Jit Rikhye, The Sinai Blunder , 1980, pp. 11-12.) and the Israelis going out of their way to reassure the Soviets that they had not deployed militarily along their northern border, Nasser must have realized that there was no imminent threat to Syria. On three occasions the Soviet ambassador to Israel was invited by the Israeli authorities to visit the border area, but declined to go. (Sydney D. Bailey, Four Arab-Israeli Wars and the Peace Process, 1990, p. 190.)
He could have halted his troops at that point and claimed a political victory, having deterred an (alleged) Israeli attack against Syria. But his resolute move had catapulted him yet again to a position of regional pre-eminence that he was loath to relinquish. At a stroke he had managed to undo one of Israel's foremost gains in the 1956 war-the de facto demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula-without drawing a serious response from Jerusalem. Now that the Egyptian troops were massing in Sinai, Nasser decided to raise the ante and eliminate another humiliating remnant of that war, for which he had repeatedly been castigated by his rivals in the Arab world: the presence of a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) on Egyptian (but not on Israeli) territory as a buffer between the two states. As the UN observers were quickly withdrawn and replaced by Egyptian forces, Nasser escalated his activities still further. Addressing Egyptian pilots in Sinai on May 22, he announced the closure of the Strait of Tiran, at the southern mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, to Israeli and Israel-bound shipping. "The Gulf of Aqaba constitutes our Egyptian territorial waters;' he announced to the cheers of an ecstatic audience. "Under no circumstances will we allow the Israeli flag to pass through the Aqaba Gulf:' The following day the Egyptian mass media broke the news to the entire world.
Did Nasser consider the possibility that his actions might lead to war? All the available evidence suggests that he did. Initially, when he briefly believed in the imminence of an Israeli attack against Syria, he could not have taken for granted that the Egyptian deployment in Sinai would have deterred such an action, in which case he would have been forced to come to Syria's defense. Moreover, the demilitarization of Sinai was seen by Israel as vital to its national security, which made its violation a legitimate casus belli. But then, Nasser was being rapidly entrapped by his imperialist ambitions. He began deploying his troops in Sinai out of fear that failure to do so would damage his pan-Arab position beyond repair. He kept on escalating his activities, knowing full well that there was no threat of an Israeli attack against Syria, because of his conviction that the continuation of the crisis boosted . his pan-Arab standing.
It is true that the lack of a prompt and decisive Israeli response to the Egyptian challenge, together with the quick realization that there were no Israeli concentrations along the Syrian border, might have convinced Nasser that the risks were not so great, and that war was not inevitable. Yet when he decided to remove UNEF and to close the Strait of Tiran, Nasser undoubtedly knew that he was crossing the threshold from peace to war. "Now with our concentrations in Sinai, the chances of war are fifty-fifty;' he told his cabinet on May 21, during a discussion on the possible consequences of a naval blockade. "But if we close the Strait, war will be a one hundred percent certainty." "We all knew that our armaments were adequate-indeed, infinitely better than in the October 1973 War:' recalled Anwar Sadat, who participated in that crucial meeting. "When Nasser asked us our opinion, we were all agreed that the Strait should be closed-except for [Prime Minister] Sidqi Sulayman, who pleaded with Nasser to show more patience .... [But] Nasser paid no attention to Sulayman's objections. He was eager to close the Strait so as to put an end to the Arab maneuverings and maintain his great prestige within the Arab world." (Sadat, In Search of Identity, p. 172.)
Heikal, who also participated in the meeting, essentially confirmed Sadat's description, though he argued that Nasser estimated the risk of war after the closure of the straits at 50 percent. Another participant corroborating Sadat's account of the meeting was Zakaria Muhieddin, second vice-president in 1967. See: Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, 1967: al-Infijar, Cairo: al-Ahram, 1990, pp. 514-19; Richard B. Parker, "The June War: Some Mysteries Explored," Middle East Journal, Vo!. 46, No. 2, spring 1992, p. 192.)
The die was cast. Having maneuvered himself yet again into the driver's seat of inter-Arab politics, Nasser could not climb down without risking a tremendous loss of face. He was approaching the brink with open eyes, and if there was no way out of the crisis other than war, so be it: Egypt was prepared. Daily consultations between the political and military leaderships were being held. The Egyptian forces in Sinai were being assigned their operational tasks. In a widely publicized article in al-Ahram on May 26, the newspaper's editor-in- chief, Nasser's mouthpiece Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, eXplained why war between Egypt and Israel was inevitable. A week later, at a meeting with the armed forces' supreme command, Nasser predicted an Israeli strike against Egypt within forty-eight to seventy-two hours at the latest. (Nasser's speech on the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, July 23, 1967, in Walter Laqueuer ,ed., The Israel-Arab Reader, 1970, p. 248.)
The coming of war is seldom a happy occasion. It is often fraught with misgivings and apprehensions. But if doubts assailed Nasser's peace of mind, he gave them no public _expression. The Egyptian war preparations were carried out in a confident and even extravagant fashion, in front of the watching eyes of the world media. The closer Nasser came to the brink, the more aggressive he became. "The Jews have threatened war;' he gloated in his May 22 speech, "we tell them: You are welcome, we are ready for war:' Four days later he took a big step forward, announcing that if hostilities were to break out, "our main objective will be the destruction of Israel:' "Now that we have the situation as it was before 1956;' Nasser proclaimed on another occasion, "Allah will certainly help us to restore the status quo of before 1948.” (New York Times, May 27 and 30,1967.)
Once again imperialist winds were blowing. "This is the real rising of the Arab nation;' Nasser boasted, while the few skeptics within the Egyptian leadership were being rapidly converted to belief in victory over Israel. In the representative words of Naguib Mahfuz, Egypt's foremost writer and winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize, "When Nasser held his famous press conference, before the June 1967 war, and spoke with confident pomp, I took our victory over Israel for granted. I envisaged it as a simple journey to Tel Aviv, of hours or days at the most, since I was convinced we were the greatest military power in the Middle East." (Ibid. May 27, 1967; Abdel Latif Baghdadi, Mudhakirat, Cairo, al-Maktab al-Misri alHadith, 1977, Vol. 2, p. 271; al-Usbu ,Cairo, Jan. 24, 1976.)
By this time, the conflict was no longer about the presence of UN forces on Egyptian soil or freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba, let alone the alleged Israeli threat to Syria. It had been transformed into a jihad to eradicate the foremost "remnant of Western imperialism" in the Middle East. "During the crusaders' occupation, the Arabs waited seventy years before a suitable opportunity arose and they drove away the crusaders;' Nasser said, styling himself as the new Saladin: "recently we felt that we are strong enough, that if we were to enter a battle with Israel, with God's help, we could triumph.” (Nasser's speech to Arab trade unionists, May 26, 1967, in Laqueur, The Israel-Arab Reader, pp. 215-18.)
Nasser's militancy was contagious. The irritating chorus of criticism had fallen silent. His former Arab rivals were standing in line to rally behind his banner. On the morning of May 30, King Hussein, who at the beginning of the crisis still mocked Nasser for "hiding behind UNEF's apron;' arrived in Cairo where he immediately signed a defense pact with Egypt. He returned to Amman later that day accompanied by Ahmad Shuqeiri, head of the PLO and hitherto one of the king's arch-enemies. The following day an Egyptian general arrived in Amman to command the eastern front in the event of war. On June 4, Iraq followed suit by entering into a defense agreement with Egypt, and Nasser informed King Hussein that their pact now included Iraq as well. By this time, Arab expeditionary forces-including an Iraqi armored division, a Saudi and a Syrian brigade, and two Egyptian commando battalions-were making their way to Jordan. (Samir A. Mutawi, Jordan in the 1967 War, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 11-12; Moshe Dayan, Story of My Life, 1978, p. 314.)
The balance of forces, so it seemed to the Arabs, had irreversibly shifted in their favor. The moment of reckoning with the "Zionist entity;' as they pejoratively called Israel, had come. "Have your authorities considered all the factors involved and the consequences of the withdrawal of UNEF?" the commander of the UN force, General Indar Jit Rikhye, asked the Egyptian officers bearing the official demand. "Oh yes sir! We have arrived at this decision after much deliberation and we are prepared for anything. If there is war, we shall next meet at Tel Aviv."The Iraqi president, Abdel Rahman Aref, was no less forthright. "This is the day of the battle;' he told the Iraqi forces leaving for Jordan. "We are determined and united to achieve our clear aim-to remove Israel from the map. We shall, Allah willing, meet in Tel Aviv and Haifa." (Rikhye, The Sinai Blunder, p. 21; Baghdad Radio, June 1, 1967.)
After the war Nasser would emphatically deny that he had any intention to attack Israel, a claim that was quickly endorsed by numerous apologists seeking to present the Egyptian leader as the hapless victim of an uncontrollable chain of events. Some went so far as to portray Nasser as a mindless creature thriving on hollow rhetoric and malleable in the extreme: "retired members of the old Revolutionary Command Council wander in and out of meetings and give their opinions; Nasser butts in and nobody pays much attention to him; he takes journalists seriously and revises his intelligence estimate on the basis of their remarks; he is influenced by the casual conversation ofdiplomats." (Richard Parker, The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East, Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. 97-98.)
Aside from doing a great injustice to Nasser-the charismatic dictator who had ruled Egypt autocratically for over a decade and mesmerized millions throughout the Arab world-this description has little basis in reality. As evidenced both by Nasser's escalatory behavior during the crisis and by captured military documents revealing elaborate plans for an invasion of Israel, the Egyptian president did not stumble into war but orchestrated it with open eyes. He steadily raised his sights in accordance with the vicissitudes in the crisis until he set them on the ultimate objective: the decisive defeat of Israel and, if possible, its destruction. Yet for all his militant zeal, Nasser had weighty reasons to forgo a first strike at this particular time. His war preparations had not been completed: the Egyptian forces in Sinai were still digging in; the Arab expeditionary forces to Jordan had not yet been fully deployed; and coordination of the operational plans of the Arab military coalition required more time. Nasser also feared that an Egyptian attack would trigger a US military response that might neutralize the new Arab political and military superiority over Israel, which had been gained by the most remarkable demonstration of pan-Arab unity since the 1948 war. (Nasser's speech of July 23, 1967; Robert Stephens, Nasser: A Political Biography , 1971, p. 489.)
Nasser's fears of American intervention were compounded by the nature of the Egyptian operational plan, which envisaged deep thrusts into Israel's territory. An armored division was to break out of the Gaza Strip and capture some border villages inside Israel, while another armored division was to cut off the southern Negev from the rest of Israel, thereby achieving the longstanding Egyptian objective of establishing a land bridge with Jordan. (Israel Defense Forces, Southern Command, "The Four-Day War, 1967" (an internal IDF document, June 1967.) The existence of operational plans to occupy Israeli territory was also confirmed by Egyptian military sources. See, for example, Muhammad Abdel Ghani al-Gamasy, Mudhakirat al-Gamasy: Harb October 1973, Paris, 1990, pp. 70-71,73-74.)
Given Nasser's belief in the US commitment to Israel's territorial integrity, such plans could hardly be implemented if Egypt were to take the military initiative. Their execution as an act of self-defense in response to an Israeli attack was a completely different matter, however. This explains Nasser's readiness to play the political card, such as his decision to send his vice president, Zakaria Muhieddin, to Washington. He had no intention whatever of giving ground; the move was aimed at cornering Israel and making it more vulnerable to Arab pressure and, eventually, war. Robert Anderson, a special American envoy sent to Egypt to defuse the crisis, reported to President Lyndon Johnson that Nasser showed no sign of backing down and spoke confidently about the outcome of a conflict with Israel. (William B. Quandt, "Lyndon Johnson and the June 1967 War: What Color was the Light?" Middle East Journal, Vol. 46, No. 2, spring 1992, p. 221, fn. 68.)
Anderson was not the only person to have heard this upbeat assessment. Nasser's belief in Egypt's ability to absorb an Israeli strike and still win the war was widely shared by the Egyptian military and was readily expressed to the other members of the Arab military coalition. In his May 30 visit to Cairo, King Hussein was assured by Nasser of Egypt's full preparedness against an Israeli air strike: no more than 15-20 percent losses would be incurred before the Egyptian air force dealt a devastating blow to Israel. The other members of the Jordanian delegation heard equally confident words from Abdel Hakim Amer, Nasser's deputy and commander of the Egyptian armed forces. (Hussein of Jordan, My "War" with Israel , 1969, p. 55; Mutawi, Jordan, p.110; Sadat, In Search of Identity, p. 174; Heikal, 1967, pp. 1062-63.)
In fact when the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mahmoud Riad, asked Amer about the armed forces' state of readiness, he was told that "if Israel actually carried out any military action against us I could, with only one third of our forces, reach Beersheba.”(Mahmoud Riad, The Struggle for Peace in the Middle East, 1981, p. 23.)