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Egypt still reeling from 1967 War defeat: Naim Sabri

Defeat in the 1967 War ended the dream of a civil democratic Egyptian state, but novelist Naim Sabri sees hope for the future

Dina Ezzat, Tuesday 5 Jun 2012
1967 War
Israeli vehicles in the Sinai Peninusla in Egypt during the Six-Day War.(Photo: Reuters)
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It has been 45 years since Egypt and its Arab allies were defeated by Israel in the Six Day War.

The defeat led to the occupation of Egyptian and other Arab land, including East Jerusalem. An equally troubling outcome was the eventual retreat of calls for a strong civil state, which Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser had been working towards in the decade prior to the defeat.

"Ultimately, we ended up with a scenario in which the nation was faced with two choices: the power of the military or the power of political Islam," said novelist Naim Sabri in an interview with Ahram Online. "This was not immediate, but inevitable."

Sabri's novels, including his famous Shubra, examine the deep and often disturbing change in Egyptian society over recent decades. The starting point is usually the eve of Egypt's 1952 Revolution, which brought the monarchy to an end and launched a republic in which the military would play a central role.

A clear theme in Sabri's work is the changing role of religion in society, from a spiritual exercise in the 1950s and 1960s to a socio-economic one later on, which not only contributed little to society's evolution but actually ended up fostering intellectual stagnation.

"The 1967 defeat led to a loss of hope and aspiration; it was a moment of despair when society was searching for any exit, hence the turn to political Islam," Sabri said.

The rise of the 'pious president'

Anwar Sadat became president when Nasser died in 1970, and after Egypt's victory in the 1973 war, Sabri argued, Sadat, whose base of support was primarily within the military, turned to Islamist movements in an attempt to destroy the leftist opposition.

"Sadat had a political motive to eliminate, one way or another, his political opponents, especially in the student movement, and to serve this purpose he turned to Islamist movements," Sabri recalled.

After Sadat established himself as a war hero in 1973, he worked on becoming the "pious president."

"His name had always been Anwar Sadat but suddenly it became Mohamed Anwar Sadat to emphasise his Islamic identity, and he called himself a Muslim president of a Muslim state. Sectarian tension grew and the rest is history," Sabri stated.   

By the time Islamist militants within the army assassinated Sadat at a military parade in 1981, Egypt had already lost hope of establishing a modern civil state and gone far towards becoming a military/religious state.

Back in the early eighties, Sabri argued, "People were vulnerable, despair prevailed and the economy was on the decline as all the state's funds were being used to rebuild a thoroughly defeated army."

Hopes for the future

Sabri is dismayed with the outcome of the presidential election first round but is still hopeful for the future.

Over the past 45 years, as Sabri's novels reflect, Egypt has undergone many negative currents: the decline of the middle class, the 1967 military defeat, the rise of political Islam, and the expansion of the military/security apparatus. But since the 2011 uprising, Sabri has observed new hope for a modern, democratic and civil state, although "maybe not right away."

When the Six Day War defeat hit the nation back in 1967, Sabri was still an engineering student at Cairo University. "It was a moment of shock; it was a moment when we realised we had been cheated by the state and its media to believe that we were strong and undefeatable," he recalled.

Egypt is facing difficult challenges: the military-Islamist polarisation, the division of the moderate political forces, the lack of an astute political leadership and the grave miscalculations of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Sabri said. However, he added, these are challenges that Egypt can deal with due to the youth's hope and energy, as opposed to the despair that captivated the youth back in 1967.

For Sabri, it is the triumph of hope over despair that makes all the difference, no matter what the challenges might be.

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