On this day in 1958, the newfound UAR (United Arab Republic, الجمهورية العربية المتحدة al-Jumhūrīyah al-‘Arabīyah al-Muttaḥidah) chose its first president: Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Proposed as a pan-Arab state, the UAR was essentially a merger of Syria and Egypt. At the time, much of the Middle East was vulnerable to dominance by the East (the USSR) and the West (NATO), and a newly-unified UAR offered a viable option for maintaining Arab independence. This phenomenon, known as Pan-Arabism, was a result of rising Cold War tensions and a desire for self-determination amongst the smaller powers in the wake of WWII.
Syrians, previously enthusiastic about the possibility of a unified Arab state, quickly grew to hate Nasser’s dominance of their country. All Syrian political parties were banned, and the UAR became essentially an Egyptian hegemony. The UAR only lasted from 1958 to 1961, when Syria broke off the short-lived union. Despite the failure of the UAR, Egyptian-Syrian relations remained relatively close; the two countries, united in their animosity towards Israel, waged the 6-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Nasser may have failed in his goal of creating a powerful, independent Arab super-state, but he created a powerful legacy. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Pan-Arabism spread throughout the region and manifested in Nasserism: a political ideology of self-determination, quasi-socialist policies and non-alignment. Nasserist powers were (and are) generally characterized by strong, brutal dictators, like Saddam Hussein (Iraq) and Muammar Gaddafi (Libya). These new Arab states, which rejected dominance by NATO and the Eastern Bloc, upset the regional power balance during the Cold War. In the 21st century, many of these same states underwent political and military turmoil during the Arab Spring, a series of revolutions that rocked the Arab world. Pan-Arabism presented a unique question: how do smaller states become strong without resorting to dictatorship?