18 MAY 1962, Page 5

The Lessons of Syria


ONE vital question in meeting President Nas- ser this year was how deeply, self-critically, he had studied the causes of the Syrian secession. Nasser was 80 per cent. correct in naming re- actionaries, afraid of the new socialist measures, as the instigators. The March 28 second coup confirmed that no Syrian regime can now survive that does not maintain his socialism.

But there was another cause—or permissive condition—behind the secessionists' success as a relative handful of men. The union lacked the very means—in dynamic, genuine organs of political expression—by which the mass Syrian support for it that has never waned could have tried to protect it. And a significant number of the Syrian intelligentsia—admiring Nasser in every other respect—had become gravely disillusioned by the lack of free expression, by the ubiquitous police of Colonel Serraj. Does Nasser under- stand these causes?

Within weeks of the secession, Nasser publicly admitted the lack of genuine political organs both in Egypt and in Syria, and said, 'Labour unions, farmers' co-operatives, universities, pro- fessionals' associations, women's societies, all must now become centres of creative intellectual influence.'

And an official UAR journal said Nasser meant by this that 'political and social freedom cannot be preserved except by more political and social freedom.' In Egypt. in Syria, indeed all over the Middle East, educated people are now poised in tremendous expectation of Nasser as a result of these and countless similar refer- ences—and actions—since the secession. It is significant (and vital for the West to understand) that few of them now seek mere Western democratic mechanisms in these UAR promises. The word 'mere' is apt: today's Arab intellec- tuals, I find, look upon Western multi-party systems, based on and working in utterly different conditions, as inadequate, not as cherished memories. They point above all to the immense difference of having vast, politically unorganised, isolated and illiterate masses.

But what these same educated Arabs do now expect of Nasser, more than ever because of what be has said and done since Syria, can be briefly defined as: a new political system which will give the masses experience of self-government for the first time; but which will also provide them with a climate of intellectual liberty, and a continuous dialogue of constructive 'criticism within socialism' (their phrase), a feeling of joining in national service with their leadership.

The last year in Egypt has already seen first steps towards this vital need. Where, before, both `middle-class' educated people and the wealthy old guard looked over their shoulders as they spoke, the former do now feel less suspense. The Egyptian press is far more open. There are whole pages of public comment—ranging from Iociferous criticism of named Ministers (not least ex-officers) to articles openly calling for more intellectual debate.

The effort to encourage public participation can be seen in many ways. All co-operatives have been decentralised from Cairo out to governorate and district levels. Nasser told me that the plan for a complete overhaul and de- centralisation of the whole civil service—a bureaucratic nightmare for any government—is just ready.

In terms of new national institutions, there has already been the Preparatory Committee—an assembly of occupationally chosen delegates, during which Nasser personally insisted on free criticism, and then answered it, the whole pro- cess going out over TV and radio.

The next stage begins this coming week, when Nasser will propose his 'Charter' of political and social principles to a national congress of the same delegates, leading after debate to a new constituent assembly and constitution. And it is now, beginning on May 21, that the UAR's edu- cated minority will be watching anxiously for signs of Nasser's understanding of their longing. Everything that has been happening has quick- ened their hopes.

Does Nasser understand this longing? In the hours spent with him in 1958 and now this year, one has sensed—and found other evidence else- where—that he genuinely may not have realised how widespread became the atmosphere of fear among truly patriotic, otherwise admiring edu- cated people in Egypt and Syria during the years of constant external crisis and internal police vigilance. I doubt if he realised how police vigilance, aimed at foreign agents, the old guard and Communists, also intimidated what his own Revolution had thrust up—a new educated generation, native as he to the land, no more at home than he among the old, suspect cos- mopolitan elite, and almost inherently socialist. But this year he said to me, quite suddenly, without prompting: `You know, we began in 1952 with a too narrow base. We had no popular movement, and really no cadre. We were—what? about ninety. A revolution, anywhere, must have two things to make lasting change—a wide cadre, as wide as possible, and a real popular movement. Till now, we have not gone far enough with this: now we will.'

The popular base—drawing some 20 million fellahin out of their inertia, their village-limited horizons, their resignation—will be challenge enough. But somehow, at the same time, Nasser needs to find more ways of speaking to and listening to the whole potential 'cadre'—the numerically smaller but nationally precious edu- cated minority. This has begun—a great many more dons and professionals have been brought on to the new institutes, boards, and advisory bodies adjunct to government. But there re- mains the challenge of devising a new constitu- tion visibly guaranteeing, and protecting, the new climate of open thought and debate.

For all this, Nasser has no precedent, no convenient foreign model to guide him: all must be sheer innovation, experiment, and very prob- ably more trial and error. He told me something of potentially great significance—that he intends to relinquish most of his presidential duties to devote himself personally to building the new political institutions.

The whole future of Arab unity is bound up with what begins this week in Cairo. Gone is the old 'solidarity' with archaic regimes like Yemen, against Western pressure. So, too, the period when Nasser was unable to modulate the `flood of aspirations' for union against which he warned Arabs only four days after the 1958 union with Syria. The socialist programme which that union delayed, and then broke upon, has brought—in the words of his close colleague Ali Sabry—`the real conditions for Arab unity, out in the open'; and Sabry meant Syria as much as any Arab country. There remains, for this week and beyond, the challenge of galvanis- ing a whole new phase of the Arab revolution through new political bodies. If Nasser succeeds, he will be pioneering not only for Arabs, but for much of Afro-Asia.