The Papers of a Young Man

Abdel-Moneim Said
Saturday 18 Jun 2022

Abdel-Moneim Said remembers the 1967 War.


In 1969, Gamal Al-Ghitani’s first literary work, The Papers of a Young Man Who Lived a Thousand Years Ago, heralded a new generation of Egyptian fiction writers whose sociopolitical consciousness was shaped by a singular event: the Arab defeat in 1967.

The stories told by the papers of the young man in the title explored the ordeals and setbacks of some of the grimmer periods of the Mameluke era in Egypt. This was not an escapist flight from a bleak present but rather a search for a way forward that takes its point of departure from the past. For non-fiction writers, such as myself, the point of departure was different.

It began with the first heat of the moment, on 5 June 1967 at 9:00 am precisely, on a dusty day. We were freshmen at the Faculty of Political Science and Economy, and we had assembled beneath a large awning to take the “Arab Society” exam. As we were scribbling out our answers beneath the vigilant eye of professor Abdel-Malek Awda, a founding father of African Studies in Arab universities, the sound of bombs and explosions told all who had been keeping close and passionate track of recent developments that the war had begun.

Despite professor Awda’s attempts to persuade us to finish our exams, we rushed outside, quickly confirming our deduction, and began to count the hours to the moment of glorious victory.

We all know the rest of the story, of course. However, for a whole generation of Egyptians, the harsh slap continues to sting at this time of year, even 55 years later and despite major events and concerns in Egypt and elsewhere. The defeat was reverberating and humiliating. As political science students, we felt it more acutely than others because we were more aware of how deeply and severely our country had been wounded.

We thronged to the streets chanting angry slogans because that was the only response available to us. Perhaps from the midst of that outpouring emerged the question: why did this happen? Then followed another: what do we do now? That was the starting point for the long march on foot from Al-Bagour in Menoufiya to Cairo, on 9-10 June 1967, to rally in support of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and demand that he stays in power. But at the same time, the youth of that day agreed that we could not accept what had happened on 5 June and that there had to be some form of reassessment and accountability. The leader and the other Free Officers could not be immune. But nor could the rest of society be exempted from responsibility for one of Egypt’s most resounding failures.

In the days that followed, I joined a group of volunteers to help save the cotton crop which risked ruin that year. Afterwards we signed up for military training which took place in Dekheila, near Alexandria. That was where I had my first scrape with death when a bullet whistled near my face because a friend had not taken the proper safety precautions. Following the news had become a daily habit.

On 1 July, a contingent of Egyptian commandos repelled several Israeli tanks that were advancing northward in an attempt to seize Port Fouad. The battle of Ras Al-Esh, as it became known, marked the beginning of the War of Attrition which unfolded on both sides of the Suez Canal. That lasted for three years and constituted the final chapter in Nasser’s struggle. Events then brought us to the October 1973 and the greatest war fought by the Egyptians and Arabs in modern history. In it, oil united with weapons to secure victory and usher in a new era in the history of the region.

If 55 years was not enough to erase the bitter taste of the memory of defeat, the six years between then and the victory taught us the importance of knowing the limitations of force. The fact is that, unlike the denizens of Naguib Mahfouz’s famous Children of the Alley, it was not forgetfulness that plagued our alley, but rather our lack of ability, individually and collectively, to understand our bounds.

This challenge has two facets. One is external and shaped by geopolitical and geo-strategic factors such as friends and enemies, patterns of conflict and alliance, the military and economic balance of power and the quality of leaderships. The other is internal and involves the ability to assess the country’s capacities, without over- or underestimating them, in a rapidly changing world.

A lot of water passed under the bridge between the wars of June 1967 and October 1973. Together they brought an end to the definition of the Arab-Israeli War as an existential one and marked the beginning of peacemaking efforts on the basis of such formulas as land for peace and the two-state solution. It should be stressed that appreciating the limitations of force was not just an Arab problem. Israel, too, had to come to terms with realities on many fronts. This eventually led it to withdraw from the territories it had occupied in Sinai, Jordan, Lebanon and even Palestine.

Unfortunately, what has prevented the realisation of the Saudi peace initiative that was adopted by the Arab League is that there are political forces on both sides that still refuse to acknowledge that the use of force can only go so far towards the achievement of one’s aims. For example, Hamas, the creation of which Israel had encouraged as a card to play against the PLO, not only weakened the PLO, the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo Accords but also helped steer the conflict back towards the existential territory from the Israeli perspective.

On the other side, right-wing extremists have been driving Israel to destroy everything that could sustain two states living side by side, leaving no alternative but the one-state solution which neither side wants. The Israeli persistence in its policy of settlement expansion and land annexation, and its breaches of the provisions of the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty regarding the administration of the holy sites in Jerusalem have destroyed so much of what had been accomplished during five decades of both sides realising the limitations of force.

The young college kid who experienced the journey from war to peace that started 55 years ago stands amazed at this new reality, which brims with folly in the face of opportunity. Hamas’ inability to appreciate the limitations of force is matched on the other side by a political bankruptcy that renders it unable to realise the potential of the Abraham Accords and the geopolitical and geo-strategic reality that tells us that, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, there are two peoples whose only solution is to live together in peace.

A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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