School was off on Sunday and the Liddo pool was closed until 10, but an early riser who knew how could still sneak in for a swim. The water was always a haven, not merely from the heat, but from the din of patriotic music blaring everywhere. The water was a place to dull the senses and heighten the mind; its blue coolness one with the warm blue sky. The radio announcer signed off the night before with an ominous warning. Decisive war was coming, and all citizens must be ready. In Egypt of June 1967 only an imbecile or a child would raise a follow up question: how are we to prepare, what are we to do?
Up and down the line in Egypt similar questions were not asked. Nasser was isolated from operational details in his offices guarded jealously by his gate keepers. He relied on his friend Abdel Hakim, who was likely in a drunken or Hashish induced haze. The commander of the Armies, Shams Badran, promised great things with a singular guarantee “on my neck, boss. On my neck“. American journalist James Reston spoke with Nasser’s brain, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal , who provided no insights to a plan, only a list of historical grievances. It is likely he knew of none. Reston spoke of a nation sleep-walking to a war with most people standing apart as if they have nothing to do with it. In the Sinai, a capable General Badawi received orders to move his armored division 160 miles in the space of a few hours should war break, and with no air cover. Other commanders were less fortunate, for they received no instructions at all.
Some years later, thousands of miles away, there was a chance to compare notes with those of a similar age on the other side of the hostilities. What the conversation revealed was not a race of super humans, or of people less capable of massive screw ups. What they had was a plan. In case of hostilities, the residents of various towns and settlements had precise details of what to do. It is unlikely that the plans would have worked out flawlessly. They rarely do.
— Maged Atiya
Where is Zakaria?
On the morning of June 3 1967 neighbors of Zakaria Mohieddin, Vice-President of the United Arab Republic, reported that a fleet of cars arrived as his residence and whisked him out. The rumor spread through Cairo rapidly. For many the incident was a ray of hope in an increasingly worrisome situation. The assumption was that Zakaria, a favorite of the West among Egypt’s “Free Officers” was headed to Washington DC to negotiate an end to the impending crisis. President Johnson seemed to hint at an approaching resolution. In fact, Zakaria was ordered by Nasser to fly to Algiers to round up a volunteer force of perhaps 200 men who were unlikely to arrive in less than a couple of weeks.
Zakaria came back to Egypt in time to be its President, days later, for a couple of hours. His star would fade rapidly thereafter. Nasser replaced him as Vice-President with Ali Sabry and then Sadat after the 1968 revolution. But the entire episode with its hallmarks of erratic decision making, waste of valuable time and skilled manpower, and the assumption that the crisis would drag on for some time, was a microcosm of how Nasser handled the disaster of his own making. Zakaria lived on for another 45 years. Unlike Khalid, his cousin and fellow Free Officer, he was silent to his last breath.
— Maged Atiya
There is no money
“Mafish Floos” the manager of BankMisr across from Groppi in Heliopolis declared with an air of resignation before ordering the gates of the stately building shut. It was just past 1 PM, too early for the bank to close. But the branch had simply run out of money. In most countries this event would cause a near riot, or at least a run on the bank. But not in Egypt of June 1967. People just left the branch in reasonably good spirits. The lack of funds was due to a glitch in the armored car transport, but it came on the same day that US banks had refused a $50M credit extension to the United Arab Republic.
Meanwhile, in the rest of Cairo, the spirits were high, and there was a certain giddiness in the air. Thomas Brady of the New York Times reported that school boys were returning home from schools with new songs about the eminent liberation of Palestine. Um Kalthoum was hurriedly recording a song for Sawt al ‘Arab, Nasser favorite propaganda arm for the region, and soon to be the voice of alternate reality for them as well. Brady reported on the prevalence of loudspeakers blaring martial music at various street corners. His reporting understated the cheerful but manic energy that ruled the streets. Whatever revelations lay ahead were invisible to a people on the brink. Those who suspected that the entire episode might end badly kept their opinions to themselves, or whispered them furtively only to those closest to them.
— Maged Atiya
I am not weak like Eden
The topic of conversation at breakfast that Tuesday was Nasser’s news conference. Tuesday is mid-week for Egyptian schools, with Friday being the normal day off. Schools were off that day to allow students extra time to study for the upcoming examinations. But few actually did. War was in the air and with that excitement blew in with the warm May winds.
The adults were utterly mystified by Nasser. Some thought he had it all figured out, and that we are living in the last days of Israel. Others thought he was a damn fool and that the Jews will give us a thorough thrashing. There was plenty in that news conference to support both points of view. On one hand “America is the enemy of the Arabs and had chosen to side with Israel“. On the other hand “America is a great country and we want it as a friend“. Nasser was sure of victory “We will not move one inch on the straits of Tiran“. But just in case things went badly “We will block the Suez Canal to world shipping“. As far as Israel was concerned “Negotiating peace was out of the question“. But the Palestinians need to have patience “wait a year or 10 or more until we restore your rights“. Egypt was willing to sacrifice for the Arab cause, but of course things couldn’t be better at the moment “look around, the country is full of bread and chicken“.
But the line that struck most people, and perhaps sedated them for some time, was Nasser’s declaration “I am fit. I am young. I am not yet 50. I am not weak like Anthony Eden“. Eden, 20 years Nasser’s senior, and famously sickly, survived him by 7 years.
— Maged Atiya
A Traffic Jam
Peter M., then a young attache at the US Embassy in Cairo, woke up early on Monday May 22 1967 to head to work expecting a flurry of instructions from a Washington DC returning from the weekend. He recalled the events of the day more than a decade later. His normal drive from his house in Ma’adi to work was less than 20 minutes. On that day, however, the roads were clogged and it took him the better part of 2 hours. The traffic jam was caused by the “whole bloody Egyptian Army traveling across Cairo”. The next morning he read about the events as reported by a number of Western journalists. He recalled the reporting of the highly regarded Eric Pace of the New York Times. Mr Pace asserted that the five Egyptian divisions deployed in the Sinai would “prevent any sudden humiliating defeat, like that of the offensive of 1956“. Pace also noted how the official press promoted the image of Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, a “mainstay of the regime“. In Pace’s considered judgement “In short, by his belligerence, Mr. Nasser has created an atmosphere in which military dictatorship thrives best“.
Later that evening at the Heliopolis Sporting Club, members gathered at their usual spots on tables below Sycamore trees ordering rounds of Stella beer and Termis (pickled Lupini beans). The adult conversation centered on quotidian subjects, especially the upcoming Thanawya examinations for college entrance. At one point a man pointed out the radio announcement of the calling of the reserves. Few took much heed, or give any insights on an impending war. Nor did anyone notice the absence of a sometime guest, General Medhat Fahmy. He had been ordered to speed to the Sinai at the head of his tank division. His mission was to wait near Gaza, and when ordered to make a dash north toward Haifa. Three weeks later he was indeed in Haifa, as a prisoner of war. In an interview he gave to French reporters he spoke admiringly of the skill of both his soldiers and their Israeli opponents. He said he harbored no hate toward Israel, and that he was treated with respect since his capture. More noted was the absence of Ahmed, the young roustabout who did a variety of tasks around the club. He had received a notice of mobilization at the tiny basement apartment he shared with his father, a doorman, his mother and a brother and a sister. Ahmed was never seen again at the club. More than two months later his name appeared on a list of those presumed dead. A fellow private in his unit insisted that he was taken prisoner, and that the “the Jews shot him”. It is certainly possible that this was his fate. It is also possible that the charge stemmed from anger and humiliation. The world may never know the truth. What some know for certain is that on a hot day in August 1967 a piercing shriek issued from a tiny basement window in Heliopolis. For a long time after, whenever Um Ahmed appeared in public she was clad in black and wordless, and occasionally in tears.
— Maged Atiya
The Cost of Dignity
On that day President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader who renamed a once and future Egypt as the United Arab Republic, made the decision to ask the United Nations to withdraw its peace keeping mission. We will never be able to assess his true reasons, but they are likely to have originated from the peculiarly Egyptian sin of seeking dignity at all costs. Shortly after the 1956 Suez Crisis, Nasser signed a memorandum with Dag Hammarskjold, then UN Secretary General, to de-militarize the Sinai and give the UN veto power over the withdrawal of its peace keepers. Nasser must have suffered this indignity only because the agreement was kept a secret. Anything less would have shattered the myth of the successful resistance to the Tripartite attack on Egypt. The Rotem Crisis of 1960 may have encouraged Nasser to think that the the memo has lost force and that there is room to give. The hot days of late May 1967 were a giant exercise in restoring his dignity, now tarnished by the costs of Yemen and poor economic planning. No one could pull him back from the brink, as any such effort amounted to an attack on his dignity, and by extension all of Egypt, which loved him for illusion of dignity he offered.
— Maged Atiya
For a few in Egypt who had access to external information, the June 5 1967 rapid success of Israel came as no surprise. The Jews had in less than two decades built a functioning state that acquired the underpinning of Western culture that many Egyptians envied. The claims and exhortation of “Voice of the Arabs” radio were hollow, and even for a young boy the Arabic language had acquired such a patina of empty bravado that it seemed less a native tongue than imposition by an evil step-mother. In any case, the evidence of defeat came rapidly with news that all military aircrafts around Cairo had been destroyed in less than one hour.
The true disaster began to unfold four days later as Nasser tendered his resignation in a short speech on Television. For a few minutes some imagined an escape under Zakaria Mohieddin; a silent man whom many in Egypt believed to be friendly to the West and hostile to the failing economic policies of the preceding few years. But those who listened closely to the speech heard a father’s assumption of responsibility for the failures of his children; a profoundly damaging and cruel sentence to inflict on those who worshipped him, and those who loved him, even when they feared him. It was also an effective one, for crowds rushed into the streets to demand the immediate return of the “Ra’is”. There has never been an evidence of orchestration on the part of Nasser, and Egypt’s trajectory since that day provides plenty of evidence that the reaction may have been genuine. But a genuine reaction is far more troubling than a coerced one. And indeed, subsequent history would reproduce its lamentable features.
We should note Rushdi Sa’id’s description of the 1967-1973 years as those of “Hope and Despair”. There were genuine openings and an attempt to bring the country together in a spirit of cooperation and “can-do”, but the presence of Nasser, and the “Free Officers”, at the helm meant that little of fundamental change could come to pass. The February revolution of 1968 was at attempt at genuine and liberal change, and it was snuffed out quickly by the wily Nasser who came to its aid as if he had not governed the country for 15 years.
There were bound to be introspection on “what went wrong”. The first, and probably least known, was a panel talk in early July 1967 at Cairo University, organized outside official supervision and thus sparsely attended. A professor of Engineering (later forced to emigrate) boldly suggested that the defeat had two underpinnings. First, Israel had a more educated population, skilled in science and technology which are the tools of modern warfare. Second, it effectively mobilized its population because they were free to voice their views and believed in the goal for which they might give up their lives. The myth of “little Israel” had blotted out the reality that on June 5 Israel had a fraction of the population but more troops, armor and aircrafts than the combined forces of Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Both points were to make it to the official and social conscience, but in grotesquely corrupted forms.
The official propaganda in Egypt began a campaign of promotion of “Science and Technology”, as a quick magic potion to overcome the defeat. But few were willing, even if able, to assert that science rested on the pursuit of truth, and to promote it, one had to rid Egyptian education of lies. In fact, the opposite came to pass. Commentators claimed that Science was an Arab contribution that the West has since appropriated and now it was time to claim it back in “authentic” form. The Israelis, understandably cocky, strutted on the world stage aided by admiring Western press. The psychic damage was severe, leading to a claim that the West had a fundamental aversion to Arab progress and an innate desire to keep the “East” under heel. This flammable discourse had existed since the 1920s and the days of the “Eastern League “in Egypt. (As an aside, the virus having acquired a systematic vector would eventually jump its host to settle in Western discourse of “post-colonialism”) This handicap meant that even the rise of impressively educated technical elite would not rid the country of habits of thinking that anchor authoritarianism deep into the social structure. A prime case is that of Dr. Mohammad Morsi, an American-educated rocket scientist, politician, and briefly a President of the Republic, who would issue bizarre and clearly incorrect speculations with a straight face. Nor is he an exception. Among his opponents there are many (in the acid words of an Egyptian scientist) “back-street obscurantists”.
The second corruption was even more dangerous. The observation that in 1967 Israeli troops were more willing to die for their cause than the Arab troops was twisted horribly toward a culture of death rather than freedom. What the professor meant was that the average Israeli soldier was a citizen with a stake and a voice in his polity, while the Arab soldiers felt coerced, intimidated and ultimately not valued as either citizens or free men. The resurgence of political Islam post 1967 twisted this logic into building a desire to protect and die for Islam. It was but a short step to the grotesque and alien world of suicide vests and decapitation videos.
Many will correctly try to link the setback of June 5 1967 to the current disasters in the Arab world. The hinge remains June 9 1967, when reality, having shone a light on profound deficiency, caused a retreat to the comfort of myths and repose of death within them.
— Maged Atiya