Tick-Tock to Apocalypse: June 7 1967

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Blackout

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

 


Tick-Tock to Apocalypse: June 6 1967

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Victory

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

 

 

 


Tick-Tock to Apocalypse: June 5 1967

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The Idiot

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

 


Tick-Tock to Apocalypse: June 4 1967

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A Plan

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

 

 


Tick-Tock to Apocalypse: June 3 1967

 

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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

 

 


Tick-Tock to Apocalypse: June 1 1967

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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


Tick-Tock to Apocalypse: May 30 1967

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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