Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy on the Six-Day War

The Arabs′ Groundhog Day

In interview with Sonja Zekri, Harvard-based Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy describes the Arab defeat at the hands of Israel in the year 1967 as triggering the rise of Islamism

It was a short war, just six days, yet during that time Israel destroyed the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, captured the Sinai and the Gaza Strip from Egypt and occupied East Jerusalem, which up to that point had been part of Jordan. And that was only the military debacle. The political and cultural consequences of this defeat continue to shape the Arab world to this day, says Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy. He sees a direct link between those days in June 50 years ago and the rise of Islamism, the ascendance of al-Qaida, yet also the brief flowering of the Arab Spring.

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It is said that after the Six-Day War, the Arab world was no longer the same. So what was it like before?

Khaled Fahmy: In Africa and the Middle East, many nations had cast off colonial rule. Egypt stood at the heart of this movement. The optimism was tremendous, the self-confidence of the people was huge. Hope was omnipresent.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was the star of this process of awakening?

Fahmy: He embodied this euphoria, this new dignity more than any other. He negotiated at eye-level with the former colonial powers. He said: We will make you pay for colonialism. That′s why one thing in particular bothers me.

And that would be?

Fahmy: I just wonder how someone who was so intelligent could be so bad at crisis management. He had the masses on his side, certainly, but the Arab kings, rulers, even the intelligence agencies were all working against him. After the war, many Arabs came to see him as a tragic hero, but not me.

How do you see him?

Egyptian prisoners during the Six-Day War (photo: Central Press/Getty Images)
Military debacle and Nasser′s falling star: ": I just wonder how someone who was so intelligent could be so bad at crisis management… Two weeks before the outbreak of the war, tank battalions drove around for 1,000 kilometres because they had been given contradictory instructions. Within two weeks, 100,000 men were mobilised: they didn't know in which unit they were supposed to be fighting, they had no training, no weapons, not even uniforms," historian Khaled Fahmy sounds a critical note

Fahmy: It was his own fault. He hollowed out institutions such as the Arab League; he weakened the administration, the military. Under the British, Egypt was no doubt occupied. But at least there was an intact statehood. Within 15 years, Nasser had completely undermined it. That's why Egypt would always have been defeated in 1967. Nasser knew it, the Israeli leadership knew it, even the Americans knew it.

Yet the Egyptians didn't. Although the Israeli army was the strongest in the region, Israeli leaders made their people believe they were about to be extinguished by a superior Arab power. Arab leaders got their people to believe they were invincible, although the army was in extremely poor shape. Did this exacerbate the trauma of the defeat?

Fahmy: That's an important aspect. The army was in such poor shape that it was essentially defeated before the first shot was fired. Three Egyptian commanders competed with each other on the Sinai, with the result that the soldiers didn't know who was currently issuing them orders. Two weeks before the outbreak of the war, tank battalions drove around for 1,000 kilometres because they had been given contradictory instructions. Within two weeks, 100,000 men were mobilised: they didn't know in which unit they were supposed to be fighting, they had no training, no weapons, not even uniforms. They arrived wearing jellabiyas, the traditional long robes worn by farmers.

Nasser must have known that.

Fahmy: Indeed. He tried to de-escalate the situation, but he had a powerful rival in the form of Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer. Amer was actually his friend, but over the years he had built up his own power centre within the army. Where Nasser wanted to appease, he pushed for escalation – on every day of the Six-Day War.

Abdel Hakim Amer in 1955 (photo: Wikimedia)
Friend and rival of Nasser: Fond of cultivating favourites, Field Marshall Abdel Hakim Amer had built up a considerable power base within the Egyptian army. Responsible for a series of grave tactical errors during the Six-Day War, he committed suicide in 1967 following a show trial brought against him and other high-ranking military personnel

The omnipotent dictator Nasser was unable to get rid of a rival? How do you explain that?

Fahmy: That's the million-dollar question. In my view, it was the result of the political system that Nasser had installed over the previous 15 years. No elections, a compliant government, media towing the official line. Trade unions and professional associations were monitored by the security services. No one dared criticise. Nasser infantilised the people. He presented himself as protector of the masses – and took away their political rights. During the Six-Day War, he became the victim of a system he himself had created.

Which makes the scenes following the defeat all the more baffling. Nasser resigned, but Egyptians took to the streets in their millions to ask him to reconsider. Who did the people blame for the defeat, if not him?

Fahmy: The army, the air force, the officers.

And this although during the first days after the defeat, the Egyptian leadership even allowed the people to believe that Egypt had won. They even forgave him for this?

Fahmy: That's a very delicate question, because this deception led to a confidence crisis that continues to this day. Our nation was not only militarily vanquished, we also experienced the loss of a world view, a philosophy, an appreciation of this part of the world and our place in it. And we are still living with these questions.

To this day?

Fahmy: Yes. The Arab world is still caught up in a profound crisis of legitimacy. There has been just one glimmer of hope: on Tahrir Square in January 2011 during the Arab Spring. I remember it very clearly; I took part in the protest rallies. I saw how the police force collapsed. It was the most important event of my life and I thought: today we are doing what we should have done in 1967.

What was that?

Fahmy: We looked our leaders in the eye and said to them: "Not in our name, not over our dead bodies. Away with you!"

Nasser's falling star is often cited as a reason for the rise of militant Islamism. Is there really a direct link between the Six-Day War, al-Qaida and Islamic State?

Fahmy: Absolutely. You can see it in the individual biographies of left-wingers who became Islamists. After World War One, modern Arab states suffered from a lack of legitimacy. Nasser attempted to counter this with his pan-Arabist secular project, but he failed, something that became painfully apparent during the Six-Day War. Islamists stepped in to exploit the emotional vacuum that was thus created. They said: "Look, these regimes are not only repressive and un-democratic, they are also illegitimate. But we have morality on our side. And history. And God." That's a strong message. But they have no answers.

Do Arabs still debate such issues today?

Fahmy: There is indeed a discussion currently going on in the Arab media about whether we, Arab societies and Egyptian society in particular, have dealt appropriately with the defeat. Essentially we have long avoided a direct confrontation. Even the word we use to describe the war reflects this. In Arabic we say "naksa", which means setback or relapse, as you might say following an illness. It's also a play on words with the Arabic term, "nakba" (lit.: catastrophe), which is used to refer to the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948.

Can scholarship bring clarity?

Fahmy: That's tricky. We know a great deal about the fighting, but almost nothing about the cultural, social and political reasons for the defeat. Any research is arduous. The army, president, cabinet and intelligence agencies have huge archives, but even we military historians are not allowed to see the documents. Not a single one.

Yet Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi likes to pose as the new Nasser.

Fahmy: Yes. He's especially fond of invoking the loyalty of the media. He too is keen on maintaining a sense of perpetual external threat, similar to that cultivated in the sixties. Many Egyptians like to believe in the idea of an international conspiracy. We're still trapped in the year 1967.

Interview conducted by Sonja Zekri

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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