A group of interested young people gathered around me after I took part in a panel discussion at the Cairo International Book Fair. One of them brought up the subject Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 War, a defeat that has been used to issue a blanket condemnation of the Nasser period as the “age of defeats” and to cast the Sadat era into relief as the age of the October War victory.
I replied, “never in history has there been a leader whose career was an unbroken chain of victories. Even the prophets won some battles but lost others. Napoleon’s career ended in military defeat and exile.
But French history and, indeed, world history is not just about that last chapter in the life of that commander who changed the face of Europe and spread his influence to most of the world, just as Nasser changed the face of the Arab world and spread his influence across most of the Third World.”
If we want to assess the Nasser or Sadat experience, or that of any other leader, we have to examine it as a whole. If we home in on a single event, our evaluation is likely to be biased and unscientific.
If, for example, I wanted to condemn the Sadat era, I might say that he was responsible for the spread of the religious fanaticism and terrorism that we face today because he encouraged Islamist political leaders out of the belief that he could use them to counter the leftists.
Eventually, their power increased as their influence spread through a society in which minds were vulnerable to their rhetoric and ruses due to a lack of appropriate education and awareness.
Then, they turned against Sadat and assassinated him, just as they had assassinated dozens of politicians before. But I asked my interlocutor, would our assessment of Sadat be fair or objective if we considered only that aspect? What about the victory in the 1973 War? How could we ignore that? In like manner, if we focused only on that victory, we would be overlooking the isolation that Egypt endured during Sadat’s time.
By the end of his rule, Egypt’s relations had been severed with the majority of other Arab states, whereas it was precisely from its leadership of the Arab region that Egypt had acquired its weight in the international arena.
Egypt’s relations were also broken with the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe. At one point it seemed that Egypt’s membership in the Non-Aligned Movement would be suspended, even though it was a founding member of that bloc of Third World nations.
The 1967 War ended in a devastating military defeat. Nasser owned up to his responsibility and resigned. Nasser asked the late Mohamed Hassanein Heikal to write his resignation speech. Heikal related that the original text read, “I bear my share of the responsibility,” and that Nasser took out his pen and wrote instead, “I bear all responsibility.”
The important question now is what Nasser did after the masses across the Arab world refused to accept his resignation.
Did he continue to govern with the same policies and means as before? In answer to the people’s demand that he remain in power, Nasser vowed to make necessary changes. His first step was to dismiss officials who had contributed to making the defeat possible.
Foremost among these was the head of the intelligence agency which Nasser, himself, had described as a state within the state. Salah Nasr, whom some regarded as the epitome of the corruption that had spread through government, was dismissed, brought to trial and sentenced to prison.
The same occurred to the heads of many ministries, especially the Ministry of Information. These dismissals signalled the beginning of a new era.
The biggest change in the post-1967 era occurred in the army which, under the command of Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer, had sustained enormous losses in troops and materiel.
Nasser’s pledge to “eliminate the effects of the aggression” was not a hollow slogan. It was a political act that was manifested in the sweeping changes that were introduced into the armed forces at three levels. The first was in the nature of the troops themselves.
Until then, the armed forces were primarily drawn from poor peasants and workers who did not have the “pull” to escape the draft. Henceforward, recruitment would include graduates from universities and other higher educational institutions. The second was at the level of armaments. Nasser concluded a series of arms deals with the Soviet Union that would more than compensate for the weapons lost and that would also equip our forces with much more modern arms. The third change took place at the level of training.
This occurred in a practical way during the War of Attrition, which began with the sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat. The War of Attrition lasted a full year during which Israel sustained more losses than it had during the June 1967 War, leading the US to step in with the Rogers initiative. The ensuing ceasefire, in turn, gave Nasser the breathing space he needed in order to build a missile wall in order to protect the Egyptian interior. By the time Nasser died, a fourth element was in place: the plan for the crossing of the Suez Canal. That plan, conceived by General Mohamed Fawzi and codenamed Granite, would serve as the basis of the 1973 October War.
Lastly, we should not forget Nasser’s communique of 30 March in which he laid out his future vision for a new political life characterised by a scope of civil freedoms considerably larger than existed under his two successors. Unfortunately, death intervened, taking him from Egypt at the age of 52 before he could see all these commitments through.
The 1967 War was not just a military defeat. It was also an important moment in which Egypt and the Arab world were jolted out of slumber. Perhaps some of the most important victories are those wrenched from the ruins of defeat.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Nasser and the ’67 defeat'