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Memories of defeat
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 06 - 2017

‘Between the song and the gun'
The late,
Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi, poet
I was 29 years old in 1967 and was one of the first people to write “poet” as my profession on my identity card. I recognised that I was not able to work as an employee in the Qena court in Upper Egypt, so I chose to be a poet and started out on this path from the beginning.
In April 1967, I was released from prison after six months spent among many Egyptian intellectuals who had played an active role in cultural life. At the end of May I was surprised to find the whole village looking for me to answer a phone call from Cairo. Ahmed Said, the manager of the Sawt Al-Arab radio station, was asking me to come to Cairo immediately as the country was going to war. I refused at first as I did not believe him, but then [the popular singer] Abdel-Halim Hafez talked to me and insisted that I should come, saying “you must take the train today and write songs about the war.”
During the trip to Cairo I wrote the lyrics of three songs, “Edrab”, “Ahlef besamaha wa betrabha, ibnak yqolak ya batal hatly nahar”, and “Ya borkan al-ghadab”. On 1 June, I was surprised to find [composer] Kamal Al-Taweel waiting for me to take me to his house for three days. Abdel-Halim used to come at night to learn the songs we had written. On 3 June, we went to the Television and Radio Building at Maspero in Cairo to record the songs. Abdel-Halim wore a white galabiya, and we stayed in the building most of the time. The songs were soon being played everywhere in the streets, and statements about victory were being made. By 5 June, we believed that victory was ours.
On 6 or 7 June, I was passing by Said's office with Magdi Al-Amrousi, the manager of Sawt Al-Fan, the production company for Abdel-Halim's albums, and we were happy as usual. Al-Amrousi asked Said what the news was, and Said's face was very sad. I can't forget the fear and shock as he made a hand gesture as a symbol of frustration and loss. I knew then that we had been defeated. We hurried to tell Abdel-Halim the news. Al-Amrousi told me to tell him, but I said I couldn't tell him such dreadful news.
At that time, everybody was energised with enthusiasm and was confident of victory. Even after people had heard the news of the defeat, they waited for former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser's speech, hoping to hear something different. After Abdel-Halim heard the news from Al-Amrousi, he said that Egypt was not dead because it had only lost a battle. What was strange for me was that this was the slogan used for the following phase and until October 1973.
After that, we all went home, only meeting again for Nasser's speech at Abdel-Halim's house with writer Ahmed Ragab, composer Baligh Hamdi and writer Moufid Fawzi. After Nasser had finished speaking, Al-Amrousi asked Abdel-Halim what we should do, and Abdel-Halim replied that we should prevent the president from resigning. While we were on our way out, the crowds were making the same demand, “Nasser must stay!” The driver of the car took us from Abbasiya to Abdel-Halim's house in Zamalek.
I then went to Suez to welcome the returning soldiers. People welcomed them and massaged their legs with salt and hot water and served them food and offered them places to sleep. I can never forget the soldiers screaming during their sleep, as they remembered the planes dropping bombs and Napalm on them during the battles.
I stayed in Suez until the army started to send the soldiers back to dig the trenches on the banks of the Canal, instructing them to stay in the bunkers with the idea of trying to regain the land that had been taken by the Israeli occupation of Sinai.
Although Nasser admitted responsibility for the defeat, my colleagues and I never accused him of losing the land. We were not against the regime even though it had put us in prison. Our generation succeeded in separating our personal situations from the need to build the nation. Nasser faced much opposition to his development projects, and this affected the way he dealt with the opposition.
During my stay in Suez, Abdel-Halim asked whether we should remain silent. Egypt had experienced a major defeat, he said, and any singing that did not admit that would be a fake and a humiliation. “Why don't we admit the defeat in our songs,” he asked. At that moment I produced the famous song “Ada Al-Nahar”, a popular song sung by Abdel-Halim with music by Baligh Hamdi. The song gave the hope and light that almost no one had at that time.
‘History never repeats itself'
Salah Eissa, writer
A few months before June 1967, I was very busy trying to regain many of the rights that I had been deprived of as a result of writing an article against Nasser's policies. I was in the opposition at that time, and I am still in opposition to the current regime.
I was sent to prison and fired from my job, but I never had a personal quarrel with Nasser. When the news seemed to indicate the probability of war, I intended to volunteer myself, but I always considered it to be the army's war and not the war of the regime. I told myself then that the decision to go to war had not been thought-through, and the Naksa was the result.
We refused to listen to Israeli radio at that time, and I don't believe that the news the Egyptian radio broadcast ever gave us any inkling that the Israeli radio was right. What made us believe that we might have lost the war was that one of the songs broadcast at the time changed from enthusiasm to lyrical description. It was at that moment that journalists assumed we had been defeated. Many people in the opposition were happy that Nasser had lost the war, but my main concern was how to regain victory. I returned to the idea of volunteering for the army in order to support it.
On the Friday after the news of the defeat had come through, we held prayers in front of the Radio Cinema downtown and started demonstrations to refuse to recognise the defeat. I went with some friends to the Socialist Union in Cairo, and we were told to leave our names as they would call us. They told us that the Six Day War had been a conspiracy to end Nasser's rule and that our role now was to support his leadership. While listening to Nasser's speech, we heard the sound of guns, explained at the time as a warning to Israeli planes to stay out of Egyptian airspace. That evening was a nightmare. There were demonstrations in the streets in support of Nasser, but these had faded by the next day. On 9 June, I asked people why they wanted Nasser to remain in office, and the reply was clear — he had got us into this situation and he could not resign now and leave us in it.
When I saw state security officers among the demonstrators, I told myself that the regime was back to its old tricks of violating freedoms. On the third day after the defeat, I saw cars carrying officers and soldiers from the army, and they were shouting “Nasser! Amer!” but no one was repeating the slogans in their wake. It was on the afternoon of that day that the decision was taken to change the army's leadership, and Mohamed Fawzi was appointed minister of defence.
2013 is different from 1967, and history never repeats itself. But in 1967, the demonstrators also refused the verdicts issued by the military courts against those held responsible for the defeat. In 1968, I was back in prison for taking part in the student demonstrations.
The afterlife of the Naksa is still with us. Arab lands are still occupied. Add to this the restrictions on the army's movements in Sinai and the acceptance of Israel as one of the countries of the region, and we can see this clearly. I think one of the main similarities between the two periods has been the slogans that have appeared in Al-Ahram. Under Heikal's management of the paper, and with all respect to his professionalism, we felt that he had played a major role in what we had suffered.
For me, Nasser was the leader of the Arab region and of many countries all over the world. But though he was a great man, he made great mistakes as well.
‘While we were dreaming'
General Hossam Khairallah, former General Intelligence officer
I was 22 years old in 1967 and was with the Egyptian forces in Yemen to support the new republic led by Abdallah Al-Salal, who had asked for our support by making use of Nasser's talk about Arab unity. I later discovered how useless the Yemen war had been. In addition to the daily financial losses, the army did not gain any military experience from it. While we were dreaming of victory in Yemen and elsewhere, Israel was preparing for another round of war against the Arabs. This appeared in Moshe Dayan's visit to Vietnam, where he gained experience of the US war there.
Israel had also ordered a special kind of bomb from Matra, a French company, and it later used them to attack the runways of Egypt's airports. The bombs could be dropped at low level, and there was no limit on the time that they could be used. When Israeli forces invaded the Golan Heights, the Egyptian army raised its readiness and a state of emergency was declared in Yemen.
Military Intelligence told Nasser that the war was likely to start in 48 hours, and it reached an agreement with the army leaders that they should defend the country against the first strikes by Israel. However, on the ground the picture was dramatically different. The planes should have been removed from the immediate proximity of the army, which was not done, and as a result it was very easy for the Israeli air force totally to destroy Egypt's warplanes.
I believe that the first faked reports of victory were due to miscalculations and were not intentional. In Yemen, we depended on the radio for news and the signal was very poor. The BBC was the only station we could get, and what it said was totally different to what the Egyptian radio was saying. Feelings changed from good to bad, and troops from Yemen were sent to Sinai to support the forces there. All leave was cancelled, and the pressure was upped to a maximum.
I returned to Egypt in November 1967, and it was then that I read Salah Nasr's book The Battle of Words and Belief. This explained how words affect belief, and the book helped me later when I left the army to work for the General Intelligence in December 1976.
After the 25 January Revolution, loyalty to Egypt reappeared as it had done during Nasser's time. Dedication and public spirit were what we saw during the revolution, when people played the role of the police and guarded their homes and the streets. However, a main difference between the two periods was in Egyptian lifestyles. In 1967, there was harmony between Egyptians, but today the gap between classes has increased. Even the language used among young people is totally different to that we used in 1967.
Although the defeat took place under a dictatorial regime, it was one that was able to make use of the feelings of young people. This was obvious in 1968, when many Egyptians refused to accept the decisions taken by the courts against those found responsible for the defeat.
‘The hardest shift of all'
Brigadier Sayed Aly Ibrahim, former army officer
If the scent of war was in all the papers, it was the smell of victory you sensed in the streets. I was responsible for supervising the customs night shift at Cairo airport on 4 June 1967. Heading for the airport, where I would be on duty from 8pm until 8am the following day, I noticed nothing unusual in the streets. It was only when I had reached the airport that I realised something was awry.
My main work was in guarding the airport's gates in addition to responsibility for security. I started in 1964 and I continued until April 1969, when the Ministry of Interior was made responsible for airport security. During the period before the war, emergency readiness had reached its maximum level, and the country was seeing the comings and goings of many important figures.
On 25 May, the then UN secretary-general U Thant arrived in Cairo, and at the same time General Bernard Montgomery, then aged 80, returned to visit the scene of the Battle of Alamein and pay his respects to the thousands of men who had died there. He was welcomed by army leaders and by Mahmoud Fawzi, the foreign minister at the time. Montgomery said that “desert war needs large concentrations of troops,” something seen at Alamein, where he had led an army of more than 200,000 men in 1942 and emerged victorious. Montgomery visited Alamein to mark the anniversary of the allies' first major triumph against the Germans in World War II. For the German General Rommel, the battle showed that even a great military leader can be defeated in time.
As the war approached, the number of foreign flights decreased when compared to their usual number, and this was especially the case after the international forces left Sinai after Nasser had asked for their withdrawal. On my way to the airport on 4 June 1967, where I stayed until 8am on 5 June, I saw banners in the streets supporting the army. On Friday 2 June, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal's weekly column in Al-Ahram was full of enthusiasm, saying that our troops would reach Tel Aviv. Heikal played a major role in raising the morale of the Egyptians at that time, making the officers and the army morally ready for war in particular.
The moment I began my shift, the sense of 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 I heard the sound of explosions and the shattering of the glass in the transit hall. I quickly left my office to see what was going on and saw Israeli Mirage planes striking the runway and a photographer taking photographs of the scene. I went back to my office and called headquarters, at that time in Tahrir Square, to tell them what had happened. I was then informed by Lieutenant Kamal Al-Damhougi, my assistant, that the plane of Abdel-Hakim Amer, the commander-in-chief of the army, had landed near gate 34 and Amer had then left in a taxi.
After the call, I went to check and found that Amer's plane was pockmarked with bullet holes. I spent almost four days at the airport after receiving orders to stay at my post. All leave was cancelled, and a state of emergency was announced. We stayed at the airport, listening to the radio. For me, it was the longest shift ever, and for Egypt it was the hardest shift too. The region had been totally changed as a result of the war, and Egypt had had to accept its loss.
The sight of Amer's plane left me convinced that even Egypt's top brass was unaware that the war had really begun at that early time. How could Amer be in the air at the same time as the Israeli warplanes, I asked myself. It is a question that still perplexes me whenever talk turns to the Naksa.
Among my most vivid recollections is that of the disappointed UN secretary-general 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, and no one thought that the country was heading for anything less than victory.
Even now, I cannot forget two scenes from that night. The first one is of a photographer taking pictures of the Israeli planes bombing the runway. The other is of General Yehia Al-Shennawi, the airport's manager at the time, trying to fix the runway so that the Egyptian planes could still use it. I remember Egyptian pilots coming back to refuel and fly back into battle. Many of these young men never returned, having been martyred in the war.
I still remember the subsequent days with bitterness as within a week the public mood had swung to such an extent that people had lost all respect for the military and we began to be insulted in public. Nasser himself was like a conjurer. The Egyptians loved him no matter what. Even though you know a magician is playing a trick, people cannot turn their eyes away from what he is doing for fear they might miss something.
I believe that even today, and with all the difficulties we are now going through, things are much better than they were during the Naksa. The only difference is that in 1967 it was the Egyptian army'sNaksa, but after the 25 January Revolution it was the Naksa of the police.
‘As if he knew!'
Samir Sobhi, senior layout editor at
For me, the year 1967 was an unforgettable one. I got married in February 1967 and saw a year that was full of political, economic and cultural events. My eldest daughter Maggie was also born in November 1967. In my opinion, the 5 June War started on 14 May, when Nasser made a speech at the Arab Workers Conference. Al-Ahram's headline the next day was “probable explosion on the border between Syria and Israel”. On my way home, I saw a notice on a shop that said “shop closed pending opening of a branch in Tel Aviv.”
In January that year, Heikal had written about what he saw as the main features of the coming year. The main idea was that the United Arab Republic, as it then was, would be playing an increasing regional role owing to the conspiracies against it. This led me to write a book later called “Fi Dahalieez Al-Sahafa”, or “As if he knew!”
During this period I remember talking to my late friend Kamal Mustafa about a photograph in Al-Ahram of General Mortagui saluting Abdel-Hakim Amer. Later another photo of Amer saluting Nasser was published, and Mustafa's comment was “everything is ok.” All the news after that was about the run-up to the war, and Heikal had a reputation for knowing all. This was also true after the 25 January Revolution, when many people would wait for his views to be screened on the satellite channels, as they were in 1967 in different media.
Heikal was editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram in 1967, and the paper's readers used to wait to read what he had written in his weekly column every Friday. Today, people still gather around their television sets to watch him, believing that he still knows what is really going on. He is a man who has a unique political vision. The journalist in him gathers the news and events together and squeezes the essential information out of them.
I was living in Nasr City in 1967, and on 5 June my father phoned me from Helwan to tell me that the Israelis had invaded Egypt. I immediately went to Al-Ahram, then in Mazloum Street in the downtown area. Cars were being prevented from passing until the trains had been allowed through, and at the time we thought that perhaps these trains were carrying captured Israeli soldiers. It was only later that we discovered they were full of wounded Egyptian soldiers.
I believe that there was a conspiracy in 1967 to end Nasser's rule. The year saw the end of the first five-year plan, and Egypt had started its drive towards industrialisation. At that time, The Washington Post even quoted the then US president, Lyndon Johnson, as saying that Nasser's name would be remembered “as the man who started the Third World War.” Johnson also proposed to the Soviet Union that Russia and the US should cooperate in the face of the crisis in the Middle East.
At that time, the Middle East was indeed in the midst of many conflicts, with the war in Yemen, the problems in Greece, and the activities of Israel. On 1 June, Al-Ahram published an article saying that the US was stepping up its military, economic, political and moral campaign against us. The IMF revised an agreement it had made with Egypt at the same time.
When I see the role the US is now playing in the region, I think that today is the same as yesterday, since the US also played a major role in the Middle East during the Six Day War. The Middle East was passing through a tense time then, as it is today. I think that the 1967 defeat and its results have continued to be felt, since even today we have not recovered from the defeat in economic terms. We should add the October 1973 victory to this, of course, though many experts have described that victory as an incomplete one.
The difference between 1967 and the days we are living through now lies in the habits and lifestyles of Egyptians, as well as the media that is available today. In the past, most Egyptians wore galabiyas, but now they wear jeans. In 1967, the radio and the newspapers were the main sources of information, but now the Internet and the satellite channels have replaced the radio and the newspapers. In 1967, I was laying out Al-Ahram, and this experience fed into my 15 later books about politics and journalism.
For me, 1967 was a period of rumours and superstitions. We were told that Israel would be destroyed, but later and after the defeat, I can still remember a colleague, Bahira Mokhtar, a journalist on Al-Ahram daily and a member of the Socialist Union, saying that “we won't be able to strike Israel because the United States has given it a military umbrella that covers the whole sky.”
During this worst period in Egypt's history, I never thought of emigrating although many people did. Opportunities abroad were always better than they were at home, and the procedures were easier than they are today. In 1967, people left Egypt carrying just their bags. Today, you have to be a millionaire in order to do so.
‘The sound of war and revolution'
Mahmoud Khalil, professor of journalism at Cairo University
Although I was only four-and-a-half years old when the June 1967 War struck, I can still remember the sadness and bitterness that it revealed among my family. This was much the same as the emotions that many people feel today. The bitterness was a result of feeling cheated, notably by the country's media. Before the Naksa, the media played a very important role in using the Arabic language with all it richness to cover events on the ground. For me it was an “age of singing” and a period when people lived two lives, the first being a life lived in a heaven of optimistic songs and media statements. The second was real life with all its difficulties.
One of the characteristics of the Egyptians is that they like the sound of words rather than their meanings. The majority of Egyptians and Arabs like slogans, and they do not look behind these to appreciate their real meaning on the ground. After June 67, many writers described the Arab people as being overly dependent on sound, and the same thing is taking place today. Although this disease started in Nasser's time, because Nasser had excellent speaking skills of the kind that almost no other Egyptian or Arab leader had, it is still continuing today.
Nasser's words could exhibit genius. Nasser's speech after the failure of the assassination attempt against him in Manshiya Square in Alexandria in 1954, for example, showed him able to complete his words perfectly and fire up the emotions of the audience by claiming that “you are all Gamal Abdel-Nasser”. Anwar Al-Sadat, the next president, repeated the same scene later when he wanted to get rid of Nasser's people in government. He said, “they say that Nasser is dead, but I am telling you that Nasser is not dead… there are 40 million Nassers in Egypt.”
Mohamed Morsi tried the same thing when on 29 June 2012 in Tahrir Square he opened his jacket and told his supporters, “Oh great Egyptian people; Oh beloved; Oh great people of Egypt, who stand in the square of revolution, the square of freedom, Tahrir Square. Oh you who are standing now in all the squares of Egypt, in all the villages, cities, and governorates of Egypt; Oh you who are watching us now at home; Oh you who are looking on; Oh free world; Oh Arabs; Oh Muslims; Oh beloved Egyptian people, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters; Oh Muslims of Egypt; O Christians of Egypt” and so on.
According to my studies of the media, such attitudes started in Nasser's time, though no one since then has had Nasser's charisma and no one has been able to raise expectations to the maximum in the way that he did. Even the word “Naksa” was coined by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram at that time, to replace the word “defeat”. In Arabic, Naksa originally means a camel sitting down on its knees. Heikal used it to try to lighten the associations of defeat, wanting to suggest that what had happened was temporary and that though we had lost a battle the war would continue. The word also meant something in the context of Nasser's rule, since a camel is stubborn, patient, and loyal, and it does not forget to take revenge on its enemies. Much the same was true, it was thought, of Nasser.

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