The UAR collapse in 1961: Sealing a fate?

Mohamed Salmawy
Saturday 28 Jul 2018

Did the collapse of the United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria in 1961 cast a shadow across the next five decades of events, as prominent journalist Salah Montasser claims

One might agree or disagree with the eminent journalist Salah Montasser (85) on this issue or that. But what no one can deny is that throughout his extensive career he has remained independent and unaffiliated with any of the political regimes he has lived through.

From the regime of Nasser through those of Sadat and Mubarak, up to Al-Sisi’s today, he has followed and analysed events, but never placed his practice at their service.

Therefore, any criticism he levels at those regimes needs to be seen as detached, disinterested and emanating from his personal convictions.

Montasser’s recently published My Testimony on the Abdel-Nasser Era: Years of Victory and Defeat (“Kitab Al-Youm” series, Akhbar Al-Youm Publishing House) contains all his criticisms of the policies of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser who ruled from 1952 to his death on 27 September 1970.

The author kindly dedicated the book to me with the words, “I know in advance that you will disagree with me. But I hope this does not diminish the affection in our friendship.”

In fact, I would say that the realm in which our views overlap considerably exceeds the realm of divergence.

The book discussed at length the unprecedented nature of Abdel-Nasser’s leadership, the adoration he inspired in the masses across the length and breadth of the Arab world, and his unswerving commitment to the goals to which he dedicated his life, some of which he achieved while, according to the author, he failed to realise others.

Abdel-Nasser is famed for putting an end to 70 years of British colonial rule and nationalising the Suez Canal in 1956.

Montasser explains that although the canal was due to revert to Egypt 12 years later, which was when the franchise agreement with the British and French was due to end, that was no guarantee that the colonial powers would leave the canal of their own accord and hand over control to Egypt.

In fact, the tripartite invasion in 1956, secretly planned and carried out with Israel, was proof of the colonial powers’ intent to retain control over the canal.

If they were genuinely planning to leave anyway in few years’ time, they would not have gone to all the trouble and exorbitant expense to wage that military offensive.

But Montasser also explains that, to Egypt, the nationalisation of the canal was, above all, a battle for dignity. It was a response to the slap in the face delivered by the US’s refusal to finance the Aswan High Dam project.

What increased the sting was that the US justified its refusal on the grounds that the Egyptian economy could not sustain such a mega project whereas shortly before that Washington had testified to the health of the economy and urged the World Bank to help fund it. “Therefore,” Montasser writes, “when Abdel-Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal on 26 July 1956, we did not sit down that day to perform profit and loss calculations on nationalisation versus the eventual reversion of the canal to Egypt after 12 years. Our calculations were based on the fact that this was a battle for dignity which outweighs all sacrifices for its sake.”

As Montasser relates, Abdel-Nasser emerged victorious from the Suez War. Overnight, he was transformed from a national leader to a pan-Arab hero. He would not be eclipsed in this status for the rest of his life, in spite of the setbacks and defeats he faced during his 18 years in power.

On the other hand, Montasser takes issue with Abdel-Nasser’s socialist economic policies which, he argues, proved a failure in every country in which they were applied. Montasser believes that if Nasser had been fated to live longer, like other socialist leaders in the world, he would have reversed these policies just as they eventually reversed theirs.

The Committee for the Liquidation of Feudalism, which was headed by Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer, also comes in for vehement criticism in the book, especially for the way it was run and the many “crimes” it committed.

Nevertheless, his spirit of objectivity compels him to cite the minutes of a high-level meeting in which Nasser reproached his aides for their failure to notify him promptly about the excesses committed by that committee.

As for the defeat in June 1967, Salah Montasser can find no justification for it or exempt Nasser from responsibility, even if he acknowledges that others were more directly at fault.

But he also testifies to Nasser’s determination to move beyond that defeat and his indefatigable drive to overcome the effects.

Nasser’s success in rehabilitating and rearming the Egyptian military was what would eventually enable Egypt to achieve victory in the October 1973 War, Montasser stresses, adding that the road to that victory began the moment that Nasser launched the War of Attrition with the sinking of the Israeli naval destroyer Eilat in October 1967.

The losses that accrued to Israel in the War of Attrition were so great that the US moved to intervene, dispatching Secretary of State William Rogers with a ceasefire initiative.

Although many of Montasser’s criticisms have been voiced by others, his Testimony explores a rarely discussed chapter in Egyptian history: the union with Syria from 1958 to 1961.

Montasser maintains that the wound that Nasser sustained from Syrian secession from the United Arab Republic in 1961 continued to bleed for years afterwards.

To it could be traced most of the crises that he would encounter until his death, which occurred on the same day of the year: 27 September. Montasser writes: “The effects of the Syrian secession continued to be felt in all critical events and decisions Egypt experienced afterwards,” from the Egyptian intervention in the civil war in Yemen to the decision to enter the 1967 War.

The implementation of socialist economic laws had its roots in the Syrian secession from the UAR, he argues. Moreover, according to Montasser, the effects of that event extended beyond Nasser’s death.

He holds that it was essentially responsible for the defeat in the battle of 14 October 1973, which created the breach in Egyptian forces in Sinai.

Montasser is also of the opinion that it was Syria that exported to Egypt the idea of introducing hereditary rule into the republican era, which was one of the causes of the 25 January Revolution.

I personally believe that the argument is forced, in this case. But there is no denying that it is an original idea, never before propounded with Montasser’s lucidity and thoroughness.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Salah Montasser

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