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Egypt Under Nasser, United Arab Republic

Strait of Tiran, Syrian fighter jets, Arab unity, Palestine Liberation Organization, Gulf of Aqaba

The Suez Crisis enhanced the prestige of Egypt. The canal remained nationalized, Egypt was at last free from British control, and Israel was forced for the first time to withdraw from Arab territory. Syria sought to unite with Egypt, and Nasser agreed to the formation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958. Syrian enthusiasm cooled, however, as it became apparent that Egypt would dominate the UAR. The UAR suffered a further blow when a new regime in Iraq, which had just overthrown the pro-Western monarchy there in July 1958, chose not to enter the union. Newly independent Sudan also chose not to join the UAR. In July 1961, when the Egyptian government moved toward an openly socialist policy, Syria’s business leaders turned against the union. Syria seceded from the UAR soon thereafter.

Nasser was chagrined at the breakup of the union with Syria. Nevertheless, he retained the name of the UAR for his country and looked for other allies in the Arab world. In 1962 he set up a one-party political system in the UAR, with his Arab Socialist Union the sole party. When Algeria gained independence from France in 1962, the UAR hailed its new regime. When a military coup ousted the ruler of Yemen and established the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962, the UAR recognized the republican regime and sent troops to aid it against royalist forces, which Saudi Arabia supported. This action led to a prolonged proxy war with Saudi Arabia that tied up thousands of the best UAR troops. In 1963 coups in Iraq and Syria led by army officers in the Arab socialist Baath Party installed pro-UAR governments, but talks to bring these countries into the UAR broke down.

Although his attempts to create a political union failed, Nasser promoted Arab unity in other ways. When Israel threatened to draw water from the Jordan River for its national irrigation project, Nasser convened the Arab heads of state to develop a common policy against Israel. In 1964 he facilitated the birth of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), created to provide an organized channel for Palestinian nationalism. In 1966 Nasser made a mutual defense pact with Syria, hoping to moderate the stance of the radical wing of the Syrian Baath Party that had taken power. Instead, the pact emboldened Syria to engage Israel in aerial clashes in April 1967. Israel shot down six Syrian fighter jets and warned Syria against future attacks.

The Soviet government warned the UAR that Israel was concentrating its troops for an invasion of Syria. The Israelis denied the warning, which later proved false. Nevertheless, Nasser responded by sending troops into the Sinai Peninsula, which had been demilitarized after the 1956 war. He called for the removal of UN forces from the Gaza Strip and the Red Sea port of Sharm al-Sheikh, where they had been stationed since the end of the 1956 war. After reoccupying these buffer zones, the UAR announced that it would reimpose its blockade of the Strait of Tiran, preventing Israeli ships from entering or leaving the Gulf of Aqaba. The UAR press and radio also made threats against Israel.

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