Six-Day War marked political turning point in the Arab world


In the early hours of 5 June 1967, Field Marshal Abd al-Hakim Amir of the Egyptian army boarded a plane destined for the desert of the Sinai Peninsula.

The field marshal had nothing more on his mind than boosting the morale of troops stationed in an area where tensions with Israel had been increasing. Amir was sure that war with Israel was inevitable. He was equally sure that it would not break out that sweltering summer's day.

He was wrong.

Shortly after 8 am, more than 180 Israeli jets appeared above the Sinai and fired their first rockets.

The field marshal and his entourage managed to escape intact. The troops weren't so lucky. Egypt's grounded aircraft were sitting ducks.

In just 90 minutes, Israel destroyed more than 300 fighter jets before the Egyptian army could even react, wrote German historian Helmut Mejcher in his book about the Six-Day War. Radar and defence stations were destroyed, runways rendered useless.

Egypt's army was paralysed as Israeli troops took Sinai and advanced to the Suez Canal, the key waterway that connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. On 8 June, Cairo, defeated and humiliated, agreed to a ceasefire.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had played with fire and been severely burned. The charismatic leader, in power since 1954, was well known for firebrand oratory, which had infused the Arab world with new pride. Nasser stood for anti-colonialism, Arabism, Arab socialism – and opposition to Israel.

But he was also under pressure. At home, his socialism had failed to bring the people the standard of living that they had hoped for. Abroad, his standing took a hit after Egypt invaded Yemen and became ensnared in a five-year war that saw thousands of Egyptian soldiers killed.

The Arab world was still feeling the effects of two previous wars with Israel, in 1948 and 1956. They were determined to get even with the Israeli army, according to the Oxford historian Eugene Rogan.

Nasser turned to an old trick that had proved successful in the past: He began a game of political chicken. In 1967, he ordered his men to march into Sinai, where UN troops were stationed to act as a buffer between Egypt and Israel. The UN troops left at Nasser's behest. The president then closed the Straits of Tiran to shipping traffic, isolating the Israeli port city of Haifa.

But did Nasser really want to go to war with Israel? Egypt's army was drained by the ongoing war in Yemen at the time, but Nasser was under pressure to prove his leadership abilities and credibility to the rest of the Arab world, according to Rogan. In the end, the war was "the result of miscalculations, misunderstandings and a lack of communication between Tel Aviv and Cairo," summarised Mejcher.

Nasser paid a high price for the gamble, announcing his resignation on 9 June. The announcement prompted mass demonstrations demanding he remain and he stayed in power for three more years until his death in 1970.

Arab socialism and pan-Arabism, the leading political ideas in the Middle East at the time, lost their lustre after the war and Nasser, despite staying in power, had to endure ridicule. Rogan described a "crisis of confidence in Arab political leaders." The defeat created a vacuum that was filled by politicised Islam.

Libyan-American author Fawaz Gerges has even argued that the Six-Day War was the catalyst for the rise of today's Islamic extremism, embodied by terrorist militias like Islamic State.    (dpa)

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