It has been five decades since Israeli aggression stripped Egypt of its military might, which Egyptian commanders at the time claimed was the greatest in the Middle East. The June 1967 war also stripped Arab countries of considerable territory, including East Jerusalem, most of which has still not been retrieved, whether through negotiation or conflict.
It has also been five decades since the collapse of Arab nationalism, the realization of which was promised by former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the subsequent empowerment of Islamism, both moderate and radical.
As Khaled Fahmy, visiting professor of modern Middle Eastern history at Harvard University stresses, five decades have passed since a consequential war whose leading figures have disappeared and the main events of which remain shrouded in mystery, “by the will of the ruling powers in all Arab countries, especially in Egypt.”
The events of the war have never really been revealed, he says, “even by way of taking stock of what actually happened or understanding why the defeat was so harsh and so rapid.”
“The documents are all still held in the archives. They have not been released, as they should have been by now, and so today key questions are still being asked,” Fahmy says. “1967 was much more than a military defeat, not just by the virtue of its consequences, but by virtue of it being a dramatic, fast and shocking defeat.”
According to Fahmy, who has invested significant time into assembling as many of the testimonies and sparsely available documents on the war as possible, the mega-defeat “was not inevitable.”
Even if a military defeat were unavoidable, through assessing historical evidence and the testimonies of members of the ruling regime and military commanders at the time, he say that “it did not have to be so deep and devastating a defeat.”
“If we compare the condition of the Arab states’ armies, particularly Egypt’s, before the war in 1967 with 1948, they had certainly improved their capacities and were well-equipped for the time.”
The trouble, argues the historian, seems to have been primarily political. “It is true that there were questions, very legitimate ones, regarding the quality of military training and planning, but the real issue lay with the infighting among military commanders at the time, and between the Armed Forces, the presidency, the intelligence services and the police.”
Fahmy asserts, for example, that, contrary to most assessments, the feud between Nasser and his controversial military chief Abdel Hakim Amer was not a byproduct of the 1967 defeat.
“Rather the opposite,” he poses. “Judging by the accounts available, the feud had been ongoing for at least a good five years before the defeat. In reality it would seem that the defeat was a byproduct of this and other feuds, among additional factors.”
Fahmy has authored a series of articles that he has shared on his Facebook page since mid-May to mark the date of the beginning of the political and military buildup that led to the 1967 defeat, when Amer deployed military forces upon “mistaken information offered by the Soviet Union about an Israeli presence on the Syrian front.”
Fahmy’s articles highlight that Amer did not consult Nasser regarding this move, and that he even failed to pass Nasser’s “accurate” prediction of the date of Israel’s strike and subsequent directives to top brass. He depicts Amer as keeping the details of the defeat from Nasser in the early hours of June 5, almost deliberately, despite repeated queries by the president.
In the series, Fahmy reflects on the failure of parallel bodies to promptly share information that could have alerted commanders to an upcoming Israeli attack, information that would have allowed for a proper defense plan that could have, at the very least, limited the extent of the damage.
“Then again, we still have many unanswered questions. An obvious question that demands an answer, even 50 years later, is regarding the decision to withdraw the Armed Forces, after Israel had almost eliminated Egypt’s Air Force,” Fahmy says.
“We don’t know exactly who actually made the decision. Was it Amer or Nasser, or Amer and some of his gang? When exactly was it made and was it discussed among the military commanders? Were commanders ordered to recall their troops and if so, how and when?”
“To date, we are still in the dark about the details of that day,” he says. “We might assume that we know, but until we see the tightly kept records that ought to have been released, we are only making assumptions.”
“Essentially, all we have are the testimonies shared in published memories,” he says. “But even these are not exhaustive, because key accounts may have been eliminated upon military orders. This also applies to the testimonies partially shared as part of the investigations conducted in the wake of the defeat, which involved all military leadership, Amer included.”
“In fact, there was more than one fact finding mission, and there were multiple investigations and trials, not only in relation to the defeat, but also in relation to the attempted coup orchestrated by Amer immediately after, which opened the door for his arrest. He was later said to have committed suicide,” Fahmy says.
The accounts offered in memoirs are no replacement for historical records, and until the Armed Forces decides to open its archives to researchers, “we will remain only partially informed,” Fahmy reiterates.
He has no doubt that the records are there in full and intact. What he is skeptical about is the reasons why the documents remain classified. Perhaps, he suggests “they would show a regime in a state of disarray, which would force us to come to terms with the fact that the devastation of 1967 was not only a result of Israeli aggression but also because of a failure in our leadership and an inter-state feud.”
Over half of Egypt’s current population was not alive at the time of the 1967 defeat, and many who were likely have little recollection of it. However, they still feel the consequences of a war that led to a significant, yet-to-be-reversed economic downturn.
As for those who can remember 1967, their best recollection may be Nasser’s fiery speech ahead of the war, the images of troops in Cairo preparing to travel Sinai amid expectations of the promised military victory and finally the images of defeated soldiers returning.
“At the end of they day, this was a war with on-going consequences,” Fahmy says. “Its history is still a black box. Our responsibility, as researchers and even as citizens, is to try and learn what really happened.”