The True Nakba
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
Rumors work passably well as an antidote to lies when facts are not close at hand. June 8 1967 in the United Arab Republic, nee Egypt, was the zero hour, the singularity, the big bang for a universe of rumors that over half a century has expanded inexorably into an unshaken world view. The day started acceptably enough with a trip downtown. Four men and a boy in a 1962 Ford Falcon, the car with saucer taillights. As the car headed toward Shawarby street, past Ain Shams and Abbasyyia, the men rolled down the windows to catch a bit of air and watch the buildings pass by. There was no evidence of war. No bombed our buildings, no craters, no sirens or cowering people. In fact little indicated a country at war beyond the conversation of the men.
The men possessed mismatched temperaments, yet they all offered various rumors, all with impeccable provenance, to attempt an understanding of what they could not yet name, or perhaps dare not name. Many of these rumors would be offered the next day by the President of the Republic in lieu of accountability. The great man was a supreme conjurer who could tease hopes and dreams out of thin air and then let the people watch them flutter away as doves do in a magic act. The rumors were ramparts against reality, building an air tight case for collusion and a massive stab in the back by external forces. The number of planes in the air was three times the size of the Israeli air force, so where did the additional planes come from? And what about the attack from the west, where only the American airbase in Libya could support such a venture? Didn’t some farmer find American insignia below the hastily painted Israeli star on a downed airplane? The men were not all supporters of Nasser, but in a moment of crisis they could no more part with him than accept the undiluted humiliation of the day. One of the men spoke forcefully to the dashboard. “Bas Kedda. El Zubat Kharabo El Balad“. “Enough. The army officers have ruined the country”. Another felt safe to raise a point in the company of friends and in the privacy of an automobile. What if the price of defeat is the removal of Nasser? No one could not imagine a different leader, or one that was not an army officer. In fact, there seemed to be no alternative to the great man. They started the journey certain about past events they did not know and were now coming to its end unsure of what future events they wished to see. The Egyptians, in their hurt pride, had conjured their great conjurer out of their own pain and sense of underachievement. His errors had become synonymous with the nation’s hopes.
The day was not a moment of crisis or understanding for the boy, and in any case we should distrust such sudden conversions. It did begin a process of departure. He could neither follow nor rebel against his men folk. He seasoned affection with skepticism and dislike with understanding. Ultimately he would build an abiding faith in the redeeming power of doubt.
— Maged Atiya
It was a restless night. Blackout was instituted and block wardens, both official and self-appointed, intermittently yelled “Tafi El Nour” (cut the light) all night. Only some of the groggy residents were preparing to go to work. Thabet and Hosny started to set up the short wave radio at about 7 AM. They did not expect to be able to tune to the BBC service as it was usually jammed. But that morning they managed to hear it clearly. Either the government was letting it through to soften the few who receive it for the inevitable news, or it was simply incompetence. But regardless, neighbors quickly gathered in the hallway to listen in. Abba Eban was holding forth, announcing the transition from “serious danger to successful resistance”. But his words were not known to most of those listening, as they waited for the Arabic translation. Anyone who did not understand English received one or more filtered versions. All seemed to suggest that things were not going well for our side. No one seemed ready to believe the worst. In fact, it was a calmer and kinder day than most.
Sometime in the early afternoon the radio broke from the usual exhortations to air a long discussion on the history of the World War II Russian front. The rapid retreat of the Soviet armies set them up nicely for a decisive win, the radio claimed. Those familiar with the ways of the government information campaigns saw trouble ahead. That premonition proved true when the radio announced that troops in Sharm El Sheikh were retreating to combine forces with other troops. As darkness approached the rumors grew. Adults introduced unfamiliar terms; “open city”, “sealed trains”, and “government in exile”. People discussed these as they sat on their verandas, sometimes arguing across gaps between buildings. One man, feeling particularly gloomy, insisted that Israel will occupy Cairo using its female troops to add further humiliation. That set up the amusing prospect of armed young Israeli women in sandals swarming west on Gisr El Swais.
The remainder of the night passed in darkness with small news. The complete annihilation of a squadron of Israeli paratroopers, the death of an enemy pilot in Zagazig, and vague reports of exceptional bravery on the front. Still people found comfort in such news and their enhanced patriotism.
— Maged Atiya
On the morning of June 6 1967 Sawt Al ‘Arab, the United Arab Republic propaganda station broke its regularly scheduled hysteria to announce that Moshe Dayan has fled Israel in advance of the approaching Egyptian army. This was the one and only such announcement and was never repeated. The station went back to its steady diet of claims of various battles inside Israel and of assertions of eventual victory. By mid morning the station began a virulent attack on the US and Britain, asserting that they are helping Israel. The station made the charge that Israeli planes were taking off from American carriers. A mob in Alexandria sacked the consulate. The situation was alarming enough to warrant a special brief to the White House before dawn in Washington. The assault on imperialism went on all day, with confident predictions of victory over its forces in short order. Uncle Thabet, the irrepressible commentator next door, made the observation that we seem to be winning against those not actually fighting us.
Later that evening the US Ambassador Richard Nolte was called to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. Among US diplomats few have harbored more sympathetic and understanding views toward the Arab cause than Nolte. It was his luck to have been sent on his mission barely 3 weeks before the outbreak of hostilities. Later that night, an adult was heard by children to claim that when Nolte came back to the embassy he smiled at the Egyptian staff and shrugged “Khalas!”. This is the text of his dispatch home.
Cairo, June 6, 1967, 1640Z. 8618 1. Called at 6:30 this evening to FonMin for meeting with El Feki. He announced “withdrawal of recognition” by UARG of USG. No time limit put on exodus, continuation of administrative section under friendly power permitted. Nes and Bartos will pursue details with Chief of Protocol later this evening. 2. Basis of withdrawal is US air support for Israel in current hostilities, not only initially, but “replacing Israeli losses as they occur” according to Cairo Radio. 3. Thus endeth my meteoric mission to Cairo. 4. Request designation of protecting power immediately.
The embassy closed in name only. More than a year after these events it was handing out immigration visas.
— Maged Atiya
On the morning of June 5 1967 at 9:35 AM local time, an Egyptian school boy named Medhat was taking his exams along with his classmates, who regularly called him Al ‘Abeet (The Idiot) in recognition of his finer qualities. While most of the boys wrote and erased furiously, Medhat stared out the window anticipating the futility of his efforts. There was a boom, but no one looked up as such sounds had become routine in the past month. Suddenly the Idiot piped up “Tayara Yahoudia” (A Jewish Airplane). He claimed to have seen a jet flying low with the distinctive Star of David markings. Some boys snickered, but the teacher hushed everyone. Five minutes later the air raid sirens came on. The Principal ran from room to room insisting that the students stay in place for the remaining 20 minutes of exam time. It was a wise decision as a shrapnel of unknown origin, likely Egyptian, landed in the school yard.
Most historians now agree that by that time Israel, established in 1948, had already won a decisive victory over its larger and younger rival, the United Arab Republic, established in 1958. Yet across Cairo, the people formerly known as Egyptians ignored the sirens and celebrated the impending victory with small demonstrations, most of which were not organized. It is even said, on the authority of one attendee, that the Egyptian Communist Party, which had steadfastly resisted military rule and Nasser for 15 years, joined one such demonstration. Later that evening, as the radio proclaimed that 88 Israeli planes had been shot down and that the Egyptian army was racing north to Tel Aviv, many snapped up the evening newspaper editions for a diet of fictional war reporting. Most would not recognize the scale of the catastrophe for two more days, if at all.
— Maged Atiya
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