Failed State Domestic Politics and the Rise and Fall of the UAR


Failed State Domestic Politics and the Rise and Fall of the UAR

Failed State
Domestic Politics and the Rise and Fall of the UAR


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Failed State
Domestic Politics and the Rise and Fall of the UAR


After France, Britain, and Israel beat a hasty retreat from the Suez Canal in
1956, Gamal Nasser became the new messiah for the renaissance of Arab
nationalism. An ideology that had wavered since the breakup of the Ottoman
empire, pan-Arabism reached its climax in 1958 with the unification of Egypt and
Syria and the creation of the first modern Arab state: the United Arab Republic
(UAR). However, its conception was not nobly based on principles of Arab justice; it
was created – and ultimately destroyed – by power-seeking domestic political
factions. Overwhelmingly, the fate of the short-lived republic was determined by
domestic politics in Egypt, Syria and to a lesser extent, Iraq; thus, the state became a
microcosm for the failure of Arab nationalism. Although ideologies, personalities,
superpowers, and regional each had a role during the rise and fall of the UAR, it was
ultimately domestic level politics and power-seeking regimes that defined its legacy.
Domestic Politics

Domestic level politics attempts to explain state actions by how their regimes
manage societies. Regimes are assumed to seek relative power by maximizing
support from society and control over a state and its financial resources. Foreign
policy is therefore based on regimes seeking domestic power. Similar to the realist
theory of systemic balancing and bandwagoning, Stephen David describes how
insecure leaders or unstable regimes of Third World countries may “omnibalance”
to maintain power. Here, weak leadership will protect itself by whatever means
necessary, even ignoring or sacrificing state interests.1 Therefore, as domestic level
analysis might predict, Arab nationalism transformed from a utopian ideal into a
political tool. Demands by various Middle Eastern states for Arab unity, Palestinian
justice, and anti-Westernization were reflections of weak governments clinging to
power by seeking approval from its domestic factions, and not the strength of Arab
nationalism. Specific cases from Syria, Egypt, and Iraq during the brief history of the
UAR demonstrate the ability of a state to allow its regimes’ domestic political
concerns shape its foreign policy.
Syria: Negotiating from Weakness
As Douglas and domestic level analysis predict, Syria’s decision to join the
United Arab Republic was based on a weak regime seeking political power in an
unstable domestic climate. Since its recognized independence in 1946, Syrian
politics had been defined by volatility: warring factions, dispersed population, and
inclusionary policies manifested in several government coups, while its central
geographical position within the Middle East lent itself to external threat.2 In the
mid-1950’s, the Syrian People’s party, which sought close ties with King Abdullah’s
Hashemite regime in Iraq, was overthrown by the Ba’ath party, under a banner of
pan-Arabism.3 The popularity of Nasser’s movement united a coalition of Ba’ath,
Nationalist, and Communist loyalists.4 However, the new Ba’ath was regime was
insecure and distrusted its former allies. Nasser’s rhetoric fuelled American mistrust

1 Douglas, Third World, 236
2 Roberts, Ba’ath Party and Creation, 44
3 Raymond and Ehteshshami, Foreign Policy, 98-101
4 ibid
and a split with the Communists led to fear of a Soviet-backed communist coup.5 As
David predicts, these external pressures led Syria’s domestic regime to omnibalance
and pursue its own power through Nasser and Arab unity and in 1958 Egypt and
Syria formally became the United Arab Republic: a unity built on a regime’s
instability, rather than on the nationalist principles that it preached.
In its desperation, the Ba’ath party allowed the UAR to be modeled on
Nasser’s terms. It willingly abandoned federalist conditions that would allow more
Syrian independence.6 The Ba’ath party even agreed to disband – under Nasser’s
provision that political parties be abolished – in the hope that they would retain
some influence over Nasser while eliminating their political rivals. Their goal was to
create a Syrian branch of the National Union Party and maintain power in a unified
country that, they predicted, would become the powerful center of the Arab world.7
However, Nasser did not afford them such privileges. Tensions were fuelled in 1959
after Nasser began to purge Syrian army and relocated several influential Ba’ath
members in order to isolate them from their power bases.8 Nasser also began to
blame several of his regimes shortcomings on the ineptitude of the Ba’ath party. A
new power-sharing agreement proposed by the Ba’ath party in 1959 was rejected,
while, externally, hope faded for a newly liberated Iraq to join the union. Syrian
citizens began to turn against the Republic as well: its creation coincided with a bad
drought in Syria – which led to rising food imports and prices – and the powerful

5 Devlin, Ba’ath Party, 135
6 Olson, Ba’ath and Syria, 30-34
7 ibid
8 ibid
business community began to lose trust in the Ba’athists ability to govern.
9 After a
poorly run campaign and devastating results in a 1959 election, Ba’ath party
officials realized their ambitions for a powerful position in a united Arab state were
a fantasy.
In 1960, many Ba’ath party members accepted secession from the Arab
union as an acceptable outcome. These members resolved to condemn the decision
two years earlier to disband the Ba’ath party.
10 A group of ousted militant Ba’athists
formed a secret organization, and with the support of Ba’ath loyalists successfully
orchestrated a coup in Damascus. Shortly thereafter, in September 1961, Syria
formally seceded from the United Arab Republic.
11 The UAR had failed had failed to
provide the power and stability that the Ba’ath party envisioned, and so it was
abandoned. A country allegedly created for utopian Arab unity was thus exposed as
a means for a desperate domestic party to save its own political life.
Egypt: Defining the Terms
While Syrian foreign policy concerning the UAR was based on Ba’ath party
politics, Egypt exhibits classic behavior of an exclusionary domestic regime seeking
an aggressive foreign policy. In domestic political theory, exclusionary regimes,
especially in the Middle East, perceive external threats as opportunities for a regime

9 Devlin, Ba’ath Party, 135
10 Roberts, Ba’ath Party and Creation, 47
11 Olson, Ba’ath and Syria, 30-34
to be undermined.12 Egyptian foreign policy has long exemplified this theory; its
consolidated populations have been subject to regimes build behind one powerful
leader, which seeks to make foreign policy their main political agenda.1314 After
gaining power in the Free Officers coup of 1952, Nasser proved no different; indeed,
he himself described his foreign policy as more reaction than action.15 During the
short history of the UAR, Nasser allowed his regime’s popularity and his personal
position of Arab authority to manipulate his own needs.16 While Nasser, his regime,
and his pan-Arabic rhetoric boasted an extraordinary level of societal support after
his apparent victory at the Suez Canal, Egypt continued to feel threatened by
external forces. In 1955, Britain signed the Baghdad pact between it, Iraq, Turkey,
Iran, and Pakistan, in an effort to combat Soviet influence. Britain also attempted to
include Syria and Jordan.17 Nasser condemned the pact as a new imperialism and a
threat to his regime and Arab independence. Nasser’s regime also felt threatened by
the possible union between Hashemite monarchies Jordan and Iraq. Recognizing
Syria’s needs and weaknesses, Nasser redoubled his efforts to create a unified Arab
state whose power structure lay in Egyptian hands. While Syria’s domestic political
pressures afforded an unstable Arab union, his own unwillingness to compromise
his regime’s power eventually overshadowed his goals for a regional hegemony and

12 Mansour, Imad. “Domestic Politics.” Foreign Policy: The Middle East, McGill
University. Montréal. 9 Jan. 2009.
13 Roberts, Ba’ath Party and Creation, 44
14 Raymond and Ehteshshami, Foreign Policy, 98-101
15 ibid
16 Pore and Winkler, Rethinking Nasser, 188
17 Butt, Lesson From History
his ideals of Arab cooperation. Alienation of Syria and other domestic factions
ultimately led to the collapse of the United Arab Republic.
Iraq: A False Hope
While the United Arab Republic struggled to remain together amid internal
power struggles, Iraq provided a source of optimism. After the Hashemite monarchy
was overthrown in 1958, Syria and Egypt hoped the newly formed Iraqi Republic
would join the UAR and provide new momentum for Arab nationalism. However, the
republic was formed under the leadership of ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim.18 Although many
Iraqis, himself included, backed Nasser and his pan-Arab efforts, Qasim was intent
on creating a more inclusionary administration, and thus focused on strengthening
his own domestic regime. The new Iraqi Republic faced internal conflict between his
regime, hard-line pan-Arabs, and Communists; therefore, Qasim pursued a
domestic-based strategy of power consolidation instead of seeking external support
from the UAR.19 Ultimately, the new regime forwent popular Arab ideals and
regional security of the United Arab Republic, and focused on domestic politics. This
rejection left Egyptian and Syrian political factions to resolve their differences alone,
and dealt a crippling blow to the legitimacy of the UAR as a unified Arab state.
Alternative Theories
Like any historical event, the rise and fall of the United Arab Republic can be
rationalized through different theoretical lenses. Two alternate models provide

18 Encyclopedia Britannica “’Abd al-Karim Qasim,”
19 ibid
satisfactory – although incomplete – explanations: system-level analysis and
constructivism. Realist systemic and regional analysis notes Syria’s centrality and
permeable borders and identifies three external threats: overthrow by the United
States to secure a more conservative regime, a Soviet-backed communist coup after
the Ba’ath-Communist split, and the growing power of the Hashemite in Iraq, who
were protected by Britain and the Baghdad pact and appeared on the verge of
creating a powerful unity with Hashemite Jordan.2021 Each threatened Syria’s
relative power within the regional system and motivated unity with Egypt in order
to balance against global and regional risks. Similarly, unity provided Nasser’s
regime an opportunity to advance Egyptian regional influence and establish itself as
leader of the Arab cause. However, while systemic considerations may have
influenced Syrian-Egyptian unity, Syrian decisions were ultimately based on Ba’ath
party politics and not systemic or regional level considerations. In addition, Syria’s
subsequent succession was not characteristic realist action of a power-seeking
state; rather, it was an act of a desperate regime clinging to power.
A second method of analysis is constructivism, which understands rationality
in normative context.22 Without the strength of Arab nationalism, and a society
shifting towards an Arab identity, the United Arab Republic could not have been
created. Manipulative tactics aside, Nasser captured the imaginations of millions
with his inspiring utopian ideals. Although it became more tool than building block,
Arab nationalism captured the hearts of many in the Arab world, and influenced,

20 Aparajita and Abdulghafour. Arab Nationalism, 198-200
21 Olson, Ba’ath and Syria, 30-34
22 Green Constructivism, 79
through whatever means, the course of regional politics. However, Arab identity
was not enough to overcome dominant Syrian and Egyptian identities and domestic
political concerns; ultimately, the United Arab Republic was defined by the triumph
of politics over ideals.
Whatever dream of a unified Arab state remained after the breakup of the
UAR died with its popular advocate, Nasser, and was abandoned after the failure of
the Arab-Israeli wars. Although Arab nationalism may have had cultural appeal, and
brought relative power benefits of a regional hegemony, it failed because states’
foreign policy was determined by domestic politics and conflicts: Syrian policy was
created by a weak Ba’ath party seeking power, Egypt’s actions were shaped by its
populist leader, exclusionary regime and aggressive foreign policy, while Iraq’s
regime chose to strengthen itself by remaining independent. Hindsight may be
perfect, but domestic levels of analysis allow us to correctly predict the failure of a
unified Arab state and, indeed, the failure of pan-Arabism. Although Nasser’s was a
popular, ambitious vision, it was manipulated to serve regimes rather then itself.
While systemic, regional, and ideological levels of analysis describe characteristics
of the failed United Arab Republic, ultimately it was regimes’ strategic motivations
that determined its lifespan, and conflicting domestic politics that extinguished the
Arab nationalist dream.
David, Stephen R. “Explaining Third World Alignment” World Politics Vol. 43 No. 2
(January, 1991): 233-256.
Devlin, John F. The Ba’ath Party: A History from its Origins to 1966. Stanford, CA:
Hoover Institution Press, 1976.
Encyclopedia Britannica Online. s.v. “’Abd al-Karim Qasim,”
(accessed March 25, 2009)
Gerald Butt, “Lesson from history: 1955 Baghdad Pact”. BBC News Online, February
26, 2003, (accessed
March 26, 2009)
Gogoi, Aparajita and Gazi Abdulghafour. Arab Nationalism. New Delhi: Lancers
Books, 1994.
Green, Daniel M. Constructivism and Comparative Politics. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharmp,
Hinnebusch, Raymond and Anouchiravan Ehteshshami. The Foreign Policies of
Middle East States. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.
Olson, Robert W. The Ba’ath and Syria 1947 to 1982: The Evolution of Ideology, Party,
and State. Princeton, NJ: Kingston Press, 1982.
Pore, Elie and Onn Winckler. Rethinking Nasserism. Gainesville, FL: University Pres
of Florida, 2004.
Roberts, David. The Ba’ath Party and the Creation of Modern Syria. London & Sydney:
Coom Helm, 1987.


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