Introducing: “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi” – An OMER Series on the Recent Developments in Iran

The ongoing protests in Iran mark a transformative public resistance to decades of oppression. Iranians are challenging the narratives of authority that turned women’s bodies into sites of ideological contestation and defying a deeply oppressive regime.

OMER is launching a series of weekly articles and interviews on our blog that unpack different symbols and concepts at the heart of the most recent developments in Iran. “Yearning for a Regular Life” by Natasha Parnian is the first article in this series titled, “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi” (“Women, Life, Freedom”).

We welcome our readers to contribute to the narrative by sending articles, stories, interviews, and artwork to submissions@omerjournal.com.

“Yearning for a Regular Life”: The Failure of Reform in the Islamic Republic

By Natasha Parnian

On September 16, 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, was killed in custody after being arrested by the Gashte Ershad (Guidance Patrol) for wearing an “improper hejab”. What began as protests in reaction to her death have turned into widespread civil disobedience against oppression and autocracy. Today, protesters are not calling only for reform. The radically assertive chant “Death to the Dictator” is echoed in Iran’s streets, university campuses, and high schools.

These protests, sustained for over nine weeks now, challenge the fabric of the revolutionary ideals envisioned following the Islamic Revolution in 1979. A long-term power struggle has plagued the Iranian political system since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Questions regarding the nature of an Islamic republic and the role of the Supreme Leader have stayed unresolved since the creation of the Islamic Republic, forming the basis for reform movements.

The current uprising embodies the growing dissent to the ideals of the revolution and the inability of the state to respond to their citizens’ requests. The establishment of the revolutionary state, with constructed values in opposition to the United States, or the “Great Satan” and Western imperialism[1], remains the stage on which the nation is debated. The Islamic Republic has yet to conceive or respond to demands for increased rights and democracy without deeming these large-scale reforms as threatening their existence. The uprisings illustrate the extensive disagreement over the ideals of the revolution and those who enforce them. The movements beg the question: is reform possible within the Islamic Republic? 

Velayat-e Faqih (The Guardianship of the Jurists)

Any question about reforming the Islamic Republic begins with understanding the most critical document of Iranian society: the Velayat-e Faqih. Envisioned by Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s, this document forms the basis of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It calls for a Vali-ye Faqih (Guardian Jurist) to serve as the Supreme Leader. The Velayat-e Faqih outlines the basis for Islamic governance, claiming that legislation is not enough to guarantee a true Islamic republic and legitimises the need for a supreme leader that is “an appointment of a successor after the Prophet to implement and uphold the laws.”[2]  

The Velayat-e Faqih was not without controversy. During the early revolution, important figures such as Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari opposed the Velayat-e Faqih because it disrupted the natural order of waiting for the Mahdi, a term for the final messianic figure who will appear at the end of time, which is central to Shia belief.[3]  Similarly, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, who was instrumental to the revolution, initially supported the Velayat-e Faqih but urged the Supreme Leader to be subject to popular election.[4] Others, including the then Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and President Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr, feared that the idea of Velayat-e Faqih disregarded the values of popular sovereignty and Islamic democracy.[5] Critics such as Ayatollah Montazeri were later placed under house arrest but remained influential to the reformist movements.[6] Although opposing the current interpretation of the Velayat-e Faqih, protesters in 1999 and 2009 were not asking for its removal.[7] Instead, they demanded new interpretations to allow for increased civil rights within the parameters of an Islamic republic.

Reforming the Islamic Republic

The earlier reform movements reflected the post-Khomeini revolutionary power struggle to define, structure, and control the Islamic Republic. The powers entrusted to the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council are a contentious area where reform has failed. Reformists have criticised the regime of Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, as resembling a clerical monarchy or a ‘sultanate‘–a most insulting criticism as it compares the Islamic Republic to the monarchy they overthrew.[8]

According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, the Government has several  elected institutions, including a president and parliament, or majles, but their power is severely restricted by the Guardian Council and the Supreme leader. The Guardian Council is made up of six Faqihs (Jurists) directly appointed by the Supreme Leader and six other non-clerical officials responsible to assess the conformity of the laws passed by the Parliament to Islamic standards. It has the power to veto all legislation and approves candidacy for elections. Other powers of the Supreme Leader include the command of the armed forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the power to dismiss the president and to appoint the country’s chief justice, lower court judges, and guardian council members.[9]

The role of the IRGC differs from the military because it is primarily ideological. Thus, it is closely associated with the Supreme Leader and clerical establishment. From at least 2009, the political power of the IRGC has grown considerably. For example, the appointment of Rostam Qasemi in 2011, a former IRGC officer, as the Oil Minister was perceived by reformists as a sign of the growing involvement of the IRGC in politics, especially controversial as the legality of this is still debated.[10] From Ahmadinejads’ era in 2005, nearly half of his cabinet consisted of IRGC veterans as well as one third of the 30 provincial governors.[11] The Majlis (parliament) speaker was an IRGC brigadier.

From 2009, the clerical establishment has lost its power to the military security guards, from whose ranks President Ahmadinejad and other hardliner advisors emerged.[12] Created in May 1979, the IRGC is part of the Iranian armed forces, but differs in having the primary role to protect and promote the country’s Islamic political system. The IRGC protects the Republic’s survival through mobilisation and monitoring of the paramilitary resistance force Basij. Both these factions promote the ideology of the Islamic Republic by protecting the institutions and countering anything deemed ‘threatening’ to the law and order of the regime.[13] For example, the Basij were heavily involved in cracking down against protestors of the Green Movement in 2009 and protests in 1999. Given the approval by Khamanei, the Basij militia violently attacked and broke up university protests on June 14 at the University of Tehran and continued with beating, intimidation, and arrests of peaceful protestors.[14] The same scenes can be seen in 2022: hundreds of Basij men attack, arrest, and imprison demonstrators in the streets and university campuses across the state.

“Take off the uniforms of the American army”

  • Recent warning by Hossein Salami, head of the IRGC to the Iranian public.

Responsible for maintaining internal security, the IRGC and Basij milia exert considerable political power. As members of a volunteer organisation, the Basij volunteers and their families are the Revolutionary Guards’ popular base in society.[15] During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, they were influential in mobilising the urban poor vote, which was rewarded through subsidies, favours, bribes, and commissions.[16] However, like the hardliner constituency today, Ahmadinejad’s constituency is not simply tied to an urban or rural class. Instead, it is connected to a “regime class,” an ideological community comprised of poor and affluent members of Iranian society who share in the government’s proceeds and are encouraged to support a hardliner government.[17] Other benefits include exemption from military service, which is compulsory for Iranian men, and easier access to universities and government roles. In theory, the Basij are banned from involvement in politics by the Iranian Constitution, but former guardsmen assume public office regularly.[18] In effect, such economic and political power places the Revolutionary Guards at the forefront of political power in Iran. They fall within the ‘leadership troika’ where power is shared between the Supreme Leader, the IRGC and the neoconservative faction, or the “osul garayan” who are devoted to the Velayate-Faqih, the original ideas of the revolution, adhere to strict definitions of Shia Islam and are opposed to the international status-quo.[19] The Basij and IRGC are committed to the core principles of the Islamic Revolution. Thus, they oppose any new interpretation of Islam, especially any opposition to the Velayat-e Faqih as interpreted by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei. It is this relationship that prohibits any real reform.

The Supreme Leader’s response to the uprising indicates the unresolved legacy of the revolution. In his first public statement, Khamenei called the unrest “schemes designed by the US and the fake Zionist regime and treasonous Iranians abroad.” This is the same rhetoric used in 1979, which positions any criticism of the state as synonymous with western immorality and interference.[20] This rhetoric silences any opportunity for internal reform, such as the movements of 1999 and 2005 under Mohammad Khatami and the 2009 Green Movement under Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi.  

Women, Life, Freedom.

The current uprising must be placed within a long history of reform to the tenets of the ideology of the Islamic Republic. One month after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, women protested the imposition of the hijab and regressive laws that determined women’s social and familial roles and legal and civil rights. Whilst they could postpone this mandate for a few years, the hijab was imposed in 1983 based on the Islamic Republic’s interpretation of Islamic governance. Under the rubric of “rescuing women from the superficiality of Pahlavi pseudo-modernity,” women’s bodies became symbols of anti-modernity and secularisation-ideologies the revolution fought against.[21] State media cautioned the public that hijab was a religious duty upon which the foundation of the Islamic Revolution was based.[22] In the early revolutionary period, the Gashte Sar-Allah (Patrol of Gods Vengeance) terrorised women in the capital cities, detailing a litany of moral transgressions, including the length and colour of fingernails, showing off natural female contours and the use of cosmetics as offences to the state and Islam. Consequently, this enforcement furthered the class warfare of the revolutionary period by exploiting poorer people with religious proclivities to inspect and correct the “vices” of the “secularised” middle class. Today, the Gashte-Ershad exercise similar power in victimising women as symbols of moral deterioration and opponents of Islamic values.

Obsession with the female body as a marker of revolutionary success is precisely why the state has not responded to the repeated calls to remove the Gashte-Ershad. Applications such as requiring women  to sign a form declaring that they will not commit the “bad hejab” offence again and forced to take part in police-oriented guidance to learn how to observe “Islamic values” is evidence of the strict connection between the values of the state and the bodies of women. There is no specific legal definition of what “bad hejab” constitutes, which enables the Gashte-Ershad to enforce Islamic morality how they choose. Article 146 of the Constitution binds the Judge to adjudicate each case based on the written law. In case of the absence of any such law, he is to deliver his judgement based on “authoritative Islamic sources.” Without proper guidance, police can enforce their interpretations of “bad hejab” and charge them as moharab, “enemies of the state.”

Today’s protestors and the response by the state are entrenched in the legacy of the 1979 revolution. Iranians are challenging the absolute rule of the Supreme Leader, rooted in the Constitution and the repressive political and social laws dictating every arena of Iranian life. They want to change the very fabric of the Islamic Republic until, in the words of Shervin Hajipour,  they can achieve their yearning “for  an ordinary life.”

Natasha Parnian is a PhD Candidate at the Department of History and Archaeology, Macquarie University focusing on the reception of Persia as a concept. Her research examines the overlap between the ancient past and nationalism, particularly how Iranians have reimagined themselves as a nation post the revolution of 1979.

Bibliography

Afshari, Ali, and Graham Underwood. “Iran in Ferment: The Green Wave.” Journal of Democracy 20.4 (2009): 6-10.

Amanat, A. Iran: A Modern History. Yale University Press, 2017.

Ansari, Hamid, ‘Narrative of Awakening: A Look at Imam Khomeini’s Ideal, Scientific and Political Biography from birth to ascension’ in Institute for Compilation and Publication of Works of Imam Khomeini, International Affairs Division, transl. 1994: Seyed Manoochehr Moosavi, 165-167.

Afary, J. Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009

Arjomand, Said A. After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Fazili, Yousra Y. “Between Mullahs’ Robes and Absolutism: Conservatism in Iran.” SAIS Review 30.1 (2010): 39-55.

Forouzan, H and Shahi, A “The Military and the State in Iran” Middle East Journal 71.1 (2017): 67-86.

Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010.

Khomeini, A. R,. Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist: Velayat-E Faqih. Transl. Algar, H. The Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, 2005.

Kurzman, Charles. “Critics Within: Islamic Scholars’ Protests against the Islamic State in Iran.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 15.2 (2001): 341-359.

Milani, Mohsen M. “The Evolution of the Iranian Presidency: From Bani Sadr to Rafsanjani.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 20.1 (1993): 83-97.

Moallem, M. Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Rizvi, Mahtab-Alam. “Evaluating the Political and Economic Role of the IRGC”. Strategic Analysis, 36:4 (2012): 584-496.                                                                 

Safshekan, Roozbeh, and Farzan Sabet. “The Ayatollah’s Praetorians: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the 2009 Election Crisis.” Middle East Journal 64.4 (2010): 543-558.

Takeyh, Ray. Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.


[1] This a derogatory epithet for the United States, originally used by Khomeini in May 1979.  It became a commonly used epithet for Iran’s foreign policy concerns. The term  “Iblis” (the devil) was also used to address the US. These terms were regularly used  during the US hostage crisis, largely in support of the students’ takeover. Finally, the “Lesser Satan” was used to describe the Soviet Union and communism. These were common epithets Khomeini used to communicate his views on Iran’s foreign policy and domestic  values.

[2] Khomeini, A. R,. Islamic government: Governance of the jurist: Velayat-E Faqih. Transl. Algar, H. The Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, 2005.

[3]Fazili, Yousra Y. “Between Mullahs’ Robes and Absolutism: Conservatism in Iran.” SAIS Review 30.1 (2010):42.

[4] Kurzman, Charles. “Critics Within: Islamic Scholars’ Protests against the Islamic State in Iran.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 15.2 (2001):346.

[5] Milani, Mohsen M. “The Evolution of the Iranian Presidency: From Bani Sadr to Rafsanjani.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 20.1 (1993): 86.

[6]Kurzman, Charles. “Cultural Ju-Jitsu and the Iranian Greens” in Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010:6.

[7] Fazili, Yousra Y. “Between Mullahs’ Robes and Absolutism: Conservatism in Iran.” SAIS Review 30. 1 (2010): 50.

[8]Arjomand, Said A. After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:70.

[9] Arjomand, Said A. After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:91.

[10] For a brief overview of this debate see: Rizvi, Mahtab-Alam 2012:588-589. See also this debate from as early as Khomeini’s time regarding the political influence of the IRGC in Ansari, Hamid, ‘Narrative of Awakening: A Look at Imam Khomeini’s Ideal, Scientific and Political Biography from Birth to Ascension’ in Institute for Compilation and Publication of Works of Imam Khomeini, International Affairs Division, transl. 1994: Seyed MAnoochehr Moosavi 165-167. The unresolved nature of the question about the IRGC’s involvement of politics and the economy is the root of modern discussions of their role, see for instance:

Aftab news: “Officials Should Prevent the Politicisation of the Basij” Dec 2007, http://www.aftabnews.ir/vdcamyn49un0i.html

[11] Rizvi 590, Forozan and Shahi 2017: 67-86 for an overview of the increasing presence of the IRGC in Iran’s political economy and business and economic activities during Rouhani’s presidency.

[12] Takeyh, Ray. Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:227.

[13] Safshekan, Roozbeh, and Farzan Sabet. “The Ayatollah’s Praetorians: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the 2009 Election Crisis.” Middle East Journal 64.4 (2010): 548.

[14]Arjomand, Said A. After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:170.

[15] Safshekan, Roozbeh, and Farzan Sabet. “The Ayatollah’s Praetorians: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the 2009 Election Crisis.” 64.4, 2010: 551.

[16] Bayat, Asef, “A Wave for Life and Liberty: The Green Movement and Iran’s Incomplete Revolution” in Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010: 51

[17] Bayat, Asef, “A Wave for Life and Liberty: The Green Movement and Iran’s Incomplete Revolution” in Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010: 51.

[18]Takeyh, Ray. Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:224.

[19] Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010. Pg xvii

The current President, Ebrahim Raisi belongs to the neoconservative faction as did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and previous candidates Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf and Ali Larijani amongst others.

[20] For an overview of Khomeini’s political philosophy and consolidation of power, see Amanat 2017: 743-751.

[21] Amanat, A. Iran: A Modern history. Yale University Press, 2017: 88. For further discussion on the role of women in postrevolutionary Iran, see: Afary, J. Sexual Politics in Modern Iran Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 and Moallem, M. Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

[22] Amanat, A. Iran: A Modern History. Yale University Press, 2017:883.

Egyptian-Syrian Relations after the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel: Alliance, Union, Rivalry?

By Jonathan van de Gronden

“Egypt and Syria are the core actors around which the Arab state system revolves.”[1] Since the Cairo-Damascus axis crosses the very heart of the Middle East and encloses the disputed Israeli-Palestinian territory, Egypt and Syria quickly came to play a key role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has set the terms for the region’s geopolitics ever since 1948. Although united by Islam, Pan-Arabism, developmentalism and anti-Zionism, Egyptian-Syrian relations gradually developed in an increasingly ambiguous manner. They have been characterised by both periods of strong unity and severely diverging – even opposing – interests, also at the same time point in time.[2] This paper seeks to understand these relations, focusing on the cases of the United Arab Republic, the Arab Triangle and Egypt’s separate peace with Israel.

In the first two decades of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Egypt and Syria aligned themselves under the banner of Pan-Arabism, fighting Israel from the very day it declared its establishment on the 14th May 1948 and quickly moving to occupy large parts of the Palestinian Territories in conjunction with Transjordan, Iraq and Lebanon. However, Israel struck back in early 1949, regaining all of the territories that Egypt and Syria had taken, except for the Gaza Strip.[3] Tensions between Israel and the Arab states were further stirred by the Suez Crisis. Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and, in so doing, closed the gateway to Israel’s main port. This led to a joint attack by Britain, France and Israel, initiated by the latter, leaving the Arab states with yet another memory of an Israeli invasion, on top of the one from 1949. However, the joint aggression by Britain, France and Israel, although resulting in a military defeat for Nasser, became a political victory: the three aggressors withdrew under American pressure, which meant, from an Egyptian perspective, not only a triumph over the illegitimate Israeli state, but also loss of face for former colonial powers Britain and France.[4] These events greatly contributed to the rise of Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser as leader of the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s.[5]

The Apparent Heyday of Egyptian-Syrian Unity: The United Arab Republic

It was especially in this “Age of Nasser”, from 1952 to 1967, that the Egyptian-Syrian tandem dominated the politics of the region, with its culmination in the establishment of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in February 1958.[6] With the political preeminence of the figure of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, combined with the ideology of the Ba’th Party that rose in Syria, this union turned out to dominate the pursuit of the Pan-Arab goal, which also seemed to attract other, surrounding Arab countries.[7] This Arab nationalism was combined with a developmentalist approach to domestic economics and politics, which is based on the idea that the state drives both the economic and social development of the country. Massive public expenditures aimed to improve social welfare, which went hand in hand with building a voter base among big parts of the populace.[8] This combination of Arab nationalism with a developmentalist regime became the leading trend in the Middle East and North Africa.

However, as dramatic and sudden as the UAR came into being, so quickly the union collapsed as well. Despite stating to the outside world how logical the validity of the unification was as part of the gradual development of Pan-Arab nationalism, the union was actually in disarray from its very beginning. The countries’ governance structures were completely out of balance. While Nasser made a name for Egypt as leader of the Arab world, the relatively new Ba’th Party found itself unable to govern the political chaos in Syria. Syria’s turmoil derived from the toxic mixture of the French divide and rule politics during the Mandate era, the subsequently established political party system that exacerbated the pre-existing fragmentation, the dissent within the army and the ongoing battle for leadership in the Arab world. The army was divided between those officers who wanted to side with Egypt’s Nasserism and those who wanted to increase cooperation with Iraq’s conservative and pro-Western Hashemite monarchy prior to its demise in the 1958 revolution.[9]

This imbalance in governance structures – with Egypt on the one hand being strictly organised under Nasser’s rule, while Syria was divided by different military factions – was further encouraged by the presidency of the former. The UAR turned out to be an Egypt-centric state, as Nasser got rid of Syrian party politics, dismissed most of Syria’s officers and introduced a derivative of Egyptian land reform laws. This made tensions within the Syrian military rise again, which ended in the termination of the experimental union of the two countries by Syria.[10] Subsequently, “the complexities of Syrian-Egyptian relations as they developed in the mid-sixties also led to the 1967 war.”[11] In an attempt to regain legitimacy from the Arab world, Syria started to support the “fedayeen” – meaning ‘self-sacrificers’ – which were groups of activists who had embarked on a guerilla war against Israel.[12] To avoid staying behind, Nasser significantly increased his anti-Israel rhetoric, denying the Holocaust and inviting 300 German engineers and scientists formerly employed by the Nazi-government to develop intermediate-range missiles.[13] Moreover, “Nasser, attempting to maintain his credibility as a leader of militant Arabism and maintain control over events, reestablished his alliance with Syria, and hence set in motion the chain of events which would drag him, along with Syria, into the devastating 1967 defeat.”[14]

So, it was precisely the “shotgun marriage” of the UAR that came to characterise Egyptian-Syrian relations.[15] This led Fouad Ajami to state: “As Nasser discovered, the Syrians can make formidable rivals and difficult friends.”[16]Not only would the failure of this short period of common statehood cast a shadow over the countries’ diplomacy up until this day, but it also prescribed the recurring pattern of momentary unity, followed by longer periods of rancour towards each other.

The Arab Triangle Recreates the Cracks in the Cairo-Damascus Axis

The shameful defeat that the Arab states suffered following less than a week of fighting in June 1967 pushed Egypt and Syria in the direction of Saudi Arabia. To rebuild their countries and militaries, funding was needed. Moreover, Nasserism had lost face, sowing the seeds for a new stance towards Israel. Therefore, the three countries aligned in the pursuit of negotiations to establish peace and the restitution of the territories lost in 1967.[17]

As was the case for the UAR, the detente with Saudi Arabia first appeared to herald a new chapter in Arab and therefore Egyptian-Syrian unity, with the three countries forming the so-called “Arab Triangle”. However, also along the same lines of the UAR’s fate, it was the Arab-Israeli conflict that undermined this trio’s bond. Israel, at that point perceiving itself as outstandingly more powerful than the whole Arab world following the 1967 War, prioritised territorial expansion over  peace. In response to Israel’s unwillingness to negotiate, Egypt started emphasising domestic politics over military revenge against Israel. Syria, however, held on to the goal of the full recovery of territories that had been lost in 1967. It was here that the beginnings of the wedge driven between Egypt and Syria, that would reach its height after the 1973 October War, started to become visible. Saudi funding has, up to this day, played a role in exacerbating this tension in providing both countries with the means to drift away from each other.[18]

However, it was not only for the Saudis that the Cairo-Damascus axis started to show cracks. Increasing doubt was rising in Syria with regard to Egypt’s willingness to pledge loyalty to the Arab cause in the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the same time, Egypt only grew more anxious and distrustful of Syria’s war strategies, afraid that Syria’s rogue behaviour and errors would cause new tensions with Israel and implicate Egypt.[19] So, in bringing new military possibilities, the Saudi funding oddly enough also increased the distrust between Egypt and Syria. While striking back against Israel after the disgrace of 1967 started to become an increasingly viable possibility, underneath their unity, it was not clear to what extent Egyptian and Syrian strategies would align.

The Reverberation of the October War: Egypt’s Separate Peace

The situation became even more unclear after Nasser’s death. His successor, Anwar Sadat, changed both Egypt’s domestic political-economic and foreign policies. His goal was to develop Egypt in a similar way to the Four Asian Tigers – Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and South Korea. In fact, in the 1990s Egypt actually came to be called the “tiger on the Nile.”[20] To this end, Sadat had to overcome the Arab-Israeli conflict, so he believed, because this would be the only way to open up the Egyptian private sector to the markets and capital flows of Europe and the United States. Zooming in on this second case, one could say that Sadat only participated in the October War to gain more negotiating power in an Egyptian-Israeli detente.[21] It could be said, therefore, that the seeming synchronisation of the Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal into the Sinai and the Syrian attack on the Golan Heights in the October War of 1973 was premised on huge differences in strategy between the two countries. Just like in the case of the UAR and the Arab Triangle, the newly re-established unity of Egypt and Syria on the regional and international level turned out to be the prelude to frosty and tense relations.

Indeed, Syria unequivocally stuck to its initial position of enmity towards Israel. It kept viewing the Palestinian question as the dominant issue in the region, especially in the handling of their international relations, in particular with the US.[22] Whereas Syria’s position was mainly stirred by its material interest in the Golan Heights at first, its motivation changed into an ideational one after Egypt’s turn to peace negotiations with Israel. The Arab-Israeli conflict became the way to commit the country to Arab nationalism, dissenting from Israel’s “imperialism and Zionism.”[23] The ideological nature of Syria’s motives and foreign policy clashed even more with Egypt’s pragmatism that brought it closer to Israel and the US. This was most clearly displayed as Hafez al-Asad severed all diplomatic relations with Egypt following the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979.

Moreover, tensions were further stirred by the vacuum of Arab leadership after Nasser’s death which remained unfulfilled as Sadat looked west. Cleveland goes even as far as to say that Asad “was seen as a possible successor to Nasser in the drive for Pan-Arab unity.”[24] So, the ever recurring competition for the leadership of the Arab world returned to the stage.  The competition was noteworthy as the Arab leadership came with huge benefits.  The succeeding candidate would not only stand as the Pan-Arab spokesman in foreign relations, but also enjoy the economic advantages of becoming a hub via which all sorts of goods and financial services are distributed. Aforementioned benefits were among the reasons for Syria’s dramatic proclamation of its leadership as the last hope for the Arab world against Israel. However, Syria failed to coordinate the different foreign policies of the Arab states, as they explicitly refused to align under the Syrian flag. As a result, Israel took advantage of this Arab fragmentation, embarking on the Lebanese war in 1982.[25]

This new chapter in the Arab-Israeli conflict gave rise to the Lebanese militia named Hezbollah. Moreover, the outcome of the Lebanese war was a new uprising of Palestinian protests which led to a stricter Israeli regime, which, in turn, facilitated the first intifada.[26] Amidst this violence, another faction rose to the stage: Hamas. Both Hezbollah and Hamas would start to gain the support of Syria, however, given the Egyptian-Israeli peace, they found themselves opposed to Egypt. Therefore, these groups further increased the complexity of Egyptian-Syrian relations. Given the fact that both groups were born as a response to the Egyptian-Israeli separate peace treaty of 1979, Hinnebusch stated: “Thus, from Sadat’s policies flowed a chain of consequences which have fragmented and rendered powerless the Arab world.”[27]

Ongoing troubled relations

It took Syria until 2005 to reestablish diplomatic contacts with Egypt. However, even with Hafez’s son Bashar in power, relations stayed troubled. When the Muslim Brotherhood gained power in Egypt in 2013, they supported the Syrian rebels against Asad’s government. It was only after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup d’état that state relations were restored. However, although Egypt explicitly supports the Syrian government, under al-Sisi, Egyptian national interests tend to prevail over the Arab bond between the two countries. This is demonstrated by the close relations Egypt tries to maintain with Saudi Arabia, the biggest funder of the armed rebels in Syria.[28] However, Saudi Arabia is also the provider of the so-called “financial aid” that has become of major importance for Egypt’s state budget. Stemming from the Arab Triangle and initiated at the very moment that Egypt and Syria started to diverge under the regime of Sadat, Egyptian-Saudi relations endure to be a divisive issue in Egyptian-Syrian relations up until this day.[29]

In short, the cases of the UAR, the Arab Triangle and Egypt’s separate peace process with Israel, show how the Egyptian-Syrian relations are linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is a continuing paradox that runs through these three cases: appearing as showcases of their unity, they actually hide the tensions between Egypt and Syria that interacted with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Their diverging interests and strategies in fighting Israel, the ongoing struggle for Pan-Arab leadership and the imbalances in the Arab world that this brought about, complicated the situation in the region. Thus, these power asymmetries fed into the involvement of Western countries, whose presence kept prolonging and exacerbating the conflict’s devastating effect on the Middle East.[30] However, it is an ambiguous balance: the antagonism between the two countries was always displayed within the shared ideals of Pan-Arabism. To lead the Arab world, therefore, could be seen as one of the main motives for Egyptian-Syrian rivalry. Therefore, their ambiguous relationship also sparked Arab unity under the banner of Egypt and Syria’s cooperation. In the end, then, it could be said that Egypt and Syria together highly influenced the region’s domestic and international politics, both by unity and division.

Bibliography

Fouad Ajami, “Stress in the Arab Triangle,” Foreign Policy, Winter 1977-78, no. 29 (New York: Slate-Group, LLC, 1977-78): 90-108.

Michael N. Barnett, Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

Asef Bayat, “Activism and Social Development in the Middle East,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34, no. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 1-28.

Yehuda U. Blanga, “Saudi Arabia’s Motives in the Syrian Civil War,” Middle East Policy, 24, no. 4 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017): 45-62.

William L. Cleveland & Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 6th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2018).

David T. Dumke, “Congress and the Arab Heavyweights” Questioning the Saudi and Egyptian Alliances,” Middle East Policy, XIII, no. 3 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006): 88-100.

Raymond A. Hinnebusch, “Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System,” in The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Two Decades of Change, ed. Yehuda Lukacs & Abdalla M. Battah (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988): 179-193.

Michael Kuntzel, “Nasser’s Antisemitic War Against Israel,” Fathom, Spring 2017 (London: British Israel Communication and Research Centre, 2017) https://fathomjournal.org/1967-nassers-antisemitic-war-against-israel/.

Mustafa El-Labbad, “Egypt: A ‘Regional Reference’ in the Middle East,” in Regional Powers in the Middle East. New Constellations after the Arab Revolts, ed. Henner Fürtig (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014): 81-99.

Tony Rea & John Wright, The Arab-Israeli Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Panayiotis Vatikiotis, Nasser and His Generation (London: Croom Helm, 1978). Stephen M. Walt, The Origin of Alliances (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).


[1] Raymond A. Hinnebusch, “Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System,” in The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Two Decades of Change, ed. Yehuda Lukacs & Abdalla M. Battah (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988): 179.

[2] Ibid., 179-180.

[3] William L. Cleveland & Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 6th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2018): 252-53.

[4] Panayiotis Vatikiotis, Nasser and His Generation (London: Croom Helm, 1978): 277.

[5] Cleveland & Bunton, A History, 320.

[6] Ibid., 286.

[7] Ibid., 310.

[8] Asef Bayat, “Activism and Social Development in the Middle East,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34, no. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 1.

[9] Cleveland & Bunton, A History, 307-09.

[10] Ibid., 298.

[11] Hinnebusch, Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System, 181.

[12] Tony Rea & John Wright, The Arab-Israeli Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993): 43.

[13] Michael Kuntzel, “Nasser’s Antisemitic War Against Israel,” Fathom, Spring 2017 (London: British Israel Communication and Research Centre, 2017): https://fathomjournal.org/1967-nassers-antisemitic-war-against-israel/.

[14] Hinnebusch, Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System, 181.

[15] Michael N. Barnett, Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998): 128.

[16] Fouad Ajami, “Stress in the Arab Triangle,” Foreign Policy, Winter 1977-78, no. 29 (New York: Slate-Group, LLC, 1977-78): 94.

[17] Hinnebusch, Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System, 182.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ajami, “Stress in the Arab Triangle,” 99.

[20] David T. Dumke, “Congress and the Arab Heavyweights” Questioning the Saudi and Egyptian Alliances,” Middle East Policy, XIII, no. 3 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006): 98.

[21] Cleveland & Bunton, A History, 380.

[22] Cleveland & Bunton, A History, 429.

[23] Stephen M. Walt, The Origin of Alliances (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990): 144.

[24] Cleveland & Bunton, A History, 431.

[25] Hinnebusch, Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System, 187-88.

[26] Cleveland & Bunton, A History, 451-53.

[27] Hinnebusch, Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System, 183.

[28] Yehuda U. Blanga, “Saudi Arabia’s Motives in the Syrian Civil War,” Middle East Policy, 24, no. 4 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017): 45

[29] Mustafa El-Labbad, “Egypt: A ‘Regional Reference’ in the Middle East,” in Regional Powers in the Middle East. New Constellations after the Arab Revolts, ed. Henner Fürtig (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014): 82-85.

[30] Hinnebusch, Egypt, Syria, and the Arab State System, 179 & 192-93.