INTERVIEW: June 1967 - Revisited

Dina Ezzat , Monday 19 Jun 2023

Novelist Iman Yehiya talks to Ahram Online about his novel Qabl Al-Naksah Be-youm ‘A day ahead of the setback’, which closely examines ordeal of the June 1967 defeat and its impact on successive generations



Launched last year, Qabl Al-Nakssah Be-youm was one of the best received novels of the year and one of the bestselling novels by its author Iman Yehiya, 69, a medical doctor who has an established name as an author. 

In line with its title, and the black and white photo selected for the cover by the publisher, Dar Al-Shorouk, the novel is a story of the state of affairs - political, social and economic - in Egypt on the eve of the June 1967 defeat to Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

Designed as a wide-scope scene-setter for a military defeat that left a big scar on the collective consciousness of the nation - at least for two generations in the 1960s and 1970s, Yehiya’s novel is framed around the high aspirations and big disappointments of three university students, Karima, Hamza and Abdel-Moe’ti.

The three protagonists shared a strong faith in the call of Gamal Abdel-Nasser for social justice, welfare and political leadership.

They joined the Youth Organization, one of the many tools that Nasser used to lobby uncontested popular support.

However, during a big youth rally that Nasser attended in Alexandria in August 1966, the protagonists got to see that their faith in Nasser was perhaps misplaced.

A round of arrests of political activists - and even suspected political activists - took place at the time as the nation was heading towards a defeat, which the Nasser regime decided to call it Naksah or Setback.

In a parallel timeframe, the novel follows the fate of the three characters half a century later with the 2011 January Revolution, as the now-scattered group finds a trail of hope for democracy in Tahrir Square – this time with a new generation of youth: their own grandchildren.

Yehiya says he wrote this novel for the generations who did not live the 1967 defeat or see its immediate painful impact.

Ahram Online: Your novel is the story of a generation that suffered a deep wound?

Iman Yehia: It is about the impact of the defeat of 1967 on three successive generations - of the 1960s, 1970s – and to an extent of the 1980s. The impact of the defeat went beyond one generation.

AO: The novel blames the defeat on lack of pluralism. However, right in the wake of the defeat there were massive demonstrations against Nasser’s announced plan to step down?

IY: These are two different things. Prior to the defeat, Nasser had what could safely be called a full endorsement from the nation; this was not the case after June 1967.

The demonstrations of 8 and 9 June 1967, which called on Nasser to remain in office, were a reaction to the defeat and not a renewal of the endorsement of Nasser.

In these demonstrations, the nation was saying that Nasser cannot just decide to step down before working to reverse the defeat.

However, shortly after the defeat there were some clear public reactions, with student protests and also workers protests in factories.

AO: Why did Nasser call the defeat a setback?

IY: The fact is that failure was established; it was not just a military failure - it was more a failure of leadership – all across the ranks of leadership to the very top.

Everything that the leadership was invested in, including the Youth Organization, fell apart in June 1967.

The Youth Organization should have been the legitimate body to carry the beacon of social justice and welfare as portrayed by the 1952 Revolution.

It was an impressive body with so many dedicated and passionate men and women. But Nasser had very little faith in it.

This was the case before and after the defeat. His position did not change.

AO: Did Nasser not have faith in civilians?

IY: He tried to incorporate some civilian advisors but it did not really work well; this was not just about Nasser; the same could be said about his successor Sadat.

AO: But why did the leadership continue to rule after June 1967 in the same way as it did before?

IY: If we are talking about things like the agrarian reforms and the nationalization scheme, these were items on the agenda of the national movement long before July 1952.

Ibrahim Shoukry, a leftist political leader in the 1940s, had proposed a draft bill for agrarian reform to Parliament before 1952, but it was not passed.

As for the negotiated agreement to end the British occupation, an item in the agreement which granted Britain the right to return to the Suez Canal in case of emergency faced considerable opposition from the nationalist movement.

AO: Did Nasser have any plans for pluralism?

IY: If Nasser wanted to opt for pluralism he could have done that after the Suez War in 1956. It was an opportune moment where he was politically victorious even if not militarily victorious. But he did not. Prior to the Suez War, around late 1953 or early 1954, there was an appeal put out to Nasser to take the position of political leadership away from executive powers but he declined.

AO: Why did the people insist on keeping Nasser in office?

IY: The people had no choice but to hold on to Nasser and to oppose him at the same time; they thought that this was the recipe of ‘no surrender’: hold on to the leader and oppose his policies.

The demonstrations that called on Nasser to stay in office were later followed by a lot of political movement, especially from students and the Left.

However, this movement dissipated and some of the student leaders of the movement were conscripted alongside everyone else in the war effort.

AO: The novel seems to convey a sense that the January 2011 Revolution brought the youth back to the forefront?

IY: History tends to pick up the pieces at times. Since the 1919 Revolution, the national Egyptian movement was in a big part one of the youth.

In January 2011, all of a sudden, this movement was there again with the youth at the heart.

AO: The novel seems to credit the January Revolution for reversing the sense of defeat in 1967 more than the 1973 October War victory?

IY: The crossing of the October War was a great military achievement for sure, but, at the end of the day, this victory did not settle all issues and it did not bring about a different style of rule.

The healing of the nation came partially, only partially, after the 1973 war victory.

The war was followed by a political compromise; this was not just about Anwar Sadat as some would like to argue; Nasser himself knew right from the early days that followed the defeat of 1967 that a certain compromise has to be reached; the Soviets [his close allies] told him this; they even had a proposal on this.

AO: So, Nasser’s choice of Sadat as a vice president was not one inspired by the defeat of 1967?

IY: No; it was not; Nasser knew that Sadat was a shrewd politician and he deliberately chose him as vice because he knew a compromise had to be made, and that Sadat was the man capable of making the compromise. In a sense, Nasser chose Sadat to correct the mistake he had made.

Sadat played very important roles under Nasser. And, indeed, it was Sadat who managed to find the compromise – like it or not – to restore Sinai.

If the Arabs listened to Sadat at the time, the whole context of negotiating the return of Arab territories annexed by Israel after 1967 would have taken a different path.

Short link: