A day like no other
From the dream of victory to the reality of defeat, a turnaround compressed into just six days: Nesmahar Sayed
speaks to some of those who remember the 1967 war
Click to view caption|
A 1967 painting by Wagdi Habashi; Sayed Aly at Cairo Airport with Egyptian foreign minister Mahmoud Riyad and UN sceretary-general departing Cairo on 25 May, days before the war; a cartoon by Sarokhan which appeared in Al-Ahram days before the war portraying Israel's power as a bubble
On 5 June 1967 Fatma Mohamed was in her final year in secondary school and, like many members of the public, she idolised Gamal Abdel-Nasser. "I used to stand on the balcony, we lived on 26th of July Street, on the anniversary of the revolution just to catch a glimpse of him going to the officers' club in Zamalek," she recalls.
She had assumed the day would be like any other, spent toiling in preparation for final exams, despite the exuberant public mood that had accompanied Nasser's response to growing regional tension. The good feelings did not last for long.
"We were convinced that we were great. We lacked any imagination, could not even conceive that the Israelis were our equals. We knew that we were better," Egyptian writer Safynaz Kazem told Al-Ahram Weekly. On Sunday night, the fourth of June, she says, "we all had the feeling that once the Egyptian army moved, Israel would be defeated immediately. When morning broke things were completely different."
Kazem, who was living in Nasr City at the time, woke to the sound of Israeli air strikes. Yet believe Egyptian news broadcasts in the run up to the war, and during its first few days, and the dream was on the brink of being realized. Indeed, so confident was one shop keeper that he painted the legend on the wall of his shop: "We are temporarily closed in preparation for opening a new branch in Tel Aviv."
It was a message that reflected the faith Egyptians had in the perspicacity of Abdel-Nasser and the strength of the army.
For Qadrey Hefny, professor of psychology, there was nothing exceptional about the eve of war. Yet the following morning, as he and his colleagues began their days work testing for drug addiction among prisoners, they were told to leave by an official who announced "we are striking Israel".
Less than a week later, on 9 June, when Nasser appeared on television announcing the withdrawal of Egyptian troops, Hefny's assumptions had been turned upside down. "This was the watershed for me and for two of my friends", he says. "They felt their dream had been ruined and we all began to base our future plans on the reality of defeat."
"No politics, no homeland, no nothing. I will become a millionaire," he recalls one friend saying. And he did, Hefny remembers with a wry smile. Another friend believed that resistance was the only way out from defeat. "The group that was determined to resist the defeat at that time was Fatah and he became a leader within the movement."
Hefny felt the Israeli attack as a personal blow. "I realised I knew nothing about Israel. I woke up not knowing who had defeated us." It was a situation he felt honour-bound to rectify.
It was the disaster of the 1967 that first set Hefny studying Israel, and ultimately led to several publications on the subject. His first book, Embodying Illusion, which dissects the mythical dimensions of the state of Israel propagated by some Jewish groups, was produced for Al-Ahram Centre for Palestinian and Zionist Studies, the precursor of Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
From June to July Al-Ahram used red headlines to highlight the course of the Naksa, the setback. In Preparing the Paper for Press, published in 1973, Samir Sobhi, who was Al-Ahram's layout editor at the time, writes that the general feeling was of such unreality that only the radical use of colour and of new fonts and layout was deemed capable of reflecting the public mood.
Israel dealt a crippling blow to Egypt's Air Force on the early hours of 5 June, and on 9 June Nasser delivered his speech announcing the defeat. Mohamed recalls listening to him speak and failing to understand why he had offered to resign as president. After more than 40 years she still remembers a family servant weeping, repeating what she had heard in the streets following Nasser's ultimately abortive resignation.
The Middle East crisis was already moving inexorably towards a crescendo when, on 16 May 1967, General Indar Jit Rikhye received a letter from Mohamed Fawzi, Egypt's chief- of-staff, requesting the withdrawal of all United Nations emergency Forces from Sinai. A day earlier, on 15 May, Al-Ahram had appeared with a headline announcing the "probability of explosion along the border between Syria and Israel". By 4 June the headlines had become even more ominous. "The soldiers are the only ones talking now in Israel," ran Al-Ahram 's banner, while the front page commented on the reaction from the West to the decision of 22 May to close the Gulf of Aqaba to "all ships flying Israeli flags or carrying strategic materials". At the bottom of the same page the department store Hannaux announced the start of its summer sale, while the back page of the same issue carried a large photograph of demonstrations in Khartoum in support of Nasser and Egypt above a news item reporting the broadcast of Jerusalem is Ours, a new song by Lebanese diva Fayrouz.
"Indeed, music would play an important role in boosting the spirit of Egyptians and their marshal fervor," says Mahmoud Khalil, professor of journalism at Cairo University. He comments on the use of special language to mask certain unsavory realities. Rather than defeat or Hazima, the word Naksa or setback was coined by Ahram's editor-in-chief Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. And there were other terms used to let the people swallow the bitter medicine of the defeat.
"If the scent of war was all over the papers, it was the smell of victory that you sensed in the streets," says Sayed Aly, the captain responsible for supervising the customs night shift at Cairo Airport on 4 June. Heading for the airport, where he would be on duty from 8pm till 8am the following day, Aly noticed nothing unusual in the streets. Once he reached the airport, though, he realised something was awry.
"The moment I began my shift the quiet was palpable. There were no planes on the tarmac, except for one Comet plane and the private plane of Al-Salal, the leader of the Yemeni revolution, which was standing near gate 27."
The quiet was broken at 7:30am when Aly heard the sound of explosions and the shattering of the glass of the transit hall. "I quickly left my office to see what was going on and saw Mirage planes striking the runway and a photographer taking photos of the scene," said Aly. He went back to his office and called his headquarters to tell them what had happened. "I was then informed by Lieutenant Kamal El-Damhougy, my assistant officer, that the plane of Abdel-Hakim Amer, general commander of the army, had landed near gate 34 and Amer had left in a taxi."
After the phone call Aly went to check and found that the body of Amer's plane was pockmarked with bullets. He spent almost four days at the airport after receiving orders to stay at his post.
The sight of Amer's plane, says Aly, left him convinced that even Egypt's top brass was unaware that war had begun. "How could Amer be in the air at the same time as Israel's warplanes?" It is a question that still perplexes Aly whenever talk turns to the Naksa.
Among Aly's most vivid recollections is that of the disappointed UN Secretary General, U Thant, returning to New York after failing to negotiate a diplomatic end to the crisis. "There was complete confidence in Nasser's decisions at the time," he says, "and no one was under any illusion that he was heading for anything less than victory."
Aly remembers the subsequent days with bitterness as, within less than a week, the public mood swung to such an extent that "people lost all respect for the military and we began to be insulted in public".
Radio announcer Kamel Al-Bittar, host of the popular programme "With the Arab Workers", now looks back on the days of 1967 as among the worst in his career. The media, he says, must in part shoulder the burden of painting an image of victory in people's minds by magnifying the capabilities of the Egyptian army and downsizing those of the Israelis, with no basis in reality.
"Nothing in media coverage at that time was based on reason. We were simply a tool, used to broadcast military propaganda coordinated by the then minister of information," says Al-Bittar.
"We made things worse by deceiving the audience, though we were deceived as well," he says. And after the collapse of Egypt's army Egyptian broadcasters would face a long haul in an attempt to regain some vestige of their tattered credibility.
On the eve of war Wagdi Habashi, an employee of the Museums' Administration and a painter, was working full out to prepare for the opening of the Museum of the Revolution, which it was planned should occupy the building which housed the headquarters of the 1952 Revolutionary Command Council in Gezira. "On Sunday we were selecting paintings of Nasser and the army, both before and after the revolution. The next day the project was terminated because of the War. Until now the museum remains an unfinished project," he told the Weekly.
Following the defeat Abdel-Qader Rizq, then in charge of national museums, organised a special exhibition under the title "Art and the Battle", which was intended to act as a lightening rod for public discontent. "I had four paintings in that exhibition," says Habashi. "The theme of three of them was Christ on the cross, with people looking up at him helpless and sad. The fourth was about Egypt embracing peace."
Major General Fouad Allam, former deputy head of the state security police, remembers the months leading up to the 1967 War as a time when the ministry of interior was working in overdrive. "There were times when we would stay at work for two weeks without going home. Five days before the war I regularly attended on operations room and even now, 40 years later, I cannot tell you what went on there."
The Ministry of Interior's main concern for almost two years preceding the war was to prevent groups opposed to the regime from diverting Egypt from the course set by Nasser. The Muslim Brotherhood was perceived as the greatest threat, says Allam. Leading Brotherhood ideologue Sayed Qutb was arrested in May 1965 and sentenced to death the following year. Many of those arrested with Qutb, however, were engaged in a dialogue with the authorities though all that ended, says Allam, with the outbreak of war. "The main aim of the dialogue was to release those who moderated their ideas and ideologies but it all stopped on 15 May 1967," he said.
Popular support for both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Communists, perceived as enemies by the regime, received a boost because of the defeat, says Allam. "We then faced a growing political movement against Nasser and his regime. Surprisingly, most of those who took to the streets in protest in 1968 were young people who had been brought up on the principles of the 1952 revolution, but whose loyalties had been shattered by the Naksa."
One result of the defeat, argues Allam, was to give impetus to the creation of a variety of Islamist groups. "They benefited from the people's feelings of loss and helplessness by offering God as a solution."
Yet, as Awatef Abdel-Rahman, a professor of journalism at Cairo University, points out, defeat in the Six-Day War did not, in the end, force Nasser to revamp his own image. "The absence of democracy, and the pervasiveness of dictatorship, meant that corruption in the army, which was responsible for what happened, was brushed beneath the carpet."
Nasser's credibility, says Abdel-Rahman, remained strong in the Egyptian street, and received a boost following his resignation speech. He was able to recover quickly and soon was forgiven. Abdel-Rahman understands why: though she lost any confidence in the army and its leaders she retained her own belief in Nasser, confidence reinforced after the Khartoum Summit of 27 September 1967 where Egypt's president famously spelt out his three No's: "No reconciliation, no negotiations, and no recognition."
"Nasser was like a conjurer," says Aly. "The Egyptians loved him no matter what. Even though you know the magician is playing a trick people can not turn their eyes away from what he is doing for fear they might miss something."