Historiographical frustrations: Writing the history of the 1967 defeat

In October 1975 an official committee established by Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat to write the history of the Nasserist era, particularly the 1967 War, met for the first time. Chaired by former president Hosni Mubarak, the committee was comprised of journalists, military officers, pundits and a few historians. Mubarak announced that the aim was to write a scientific and objective history, which would put the conflicting narratives that filled the public sphere at that time to rest.

In an unconventional break from the state’s previous attempts at writing history, Mubarak told committee members that the president had assured them they would have access to secret archival material, and be permitted to speak with public figures from the era. Despite this, historian Ezzat Abdel Karim voiced his criticism, questioning the reasons behind the committee’s establishment as if he himself were not a member. He contended that Egyptian historians were of a sound professional tradition, and all they needed was a functional national archive like those found in the UK and US, and access to the state’s historical records. He asserted that while every country had national security stipulations, they were not used to completely block access to archives.

Abdel Karim’s criticism of the state-sponsored foray into history writing gained traction, and soon enough it turned to outright opposition, forcing Mubarak to insist the committee would not monopolize history writing, and that it would also be tasked with collecting, organizing and categorizing documents. Eventually this became the primary function of the committee, whose main work was mining the files of the government, the General Intelligence Services, the Revolutionary Command Council and the Free Officers, among others. As time passed it became clear the committee faced difficulties in finding many important documents, interest in its work waned and Mubarak stepped down as chairman. After Sadat’s assassination and the state became preoccupied with other issues, the committee was quietly dissolved.

Since then, state documents, including documents detailing the 1967 war and its aftermath, have been in the restricted domain of their respective state institutions. Yoav Di-Capua is a professor at the University of Texas in Austin recounts this story in his book Gatekeepers of the Arab Past: History and History Writing in Twentieth-Century Egypt. According to him, the absence of basic archival sources from the post-1952 era gave history writers the freedom to publish whatever they wished, leading to the proliferation of contradictory reports.

A captive archive

The absence of official Egyptian archival documents is particularly felt in history writing about the 1967 War, one of the most crucial stages in the country’s modern history. For such a short war, well-researched accounts are plentiful, though most of them are written by non-Egyptians, and many by Israelis. Michael Oren’s detailed and well-documented Six Days of War, for example, emerged as an authoritative text, despite its triumphalist tone. All the available literature on the war makes mention of the absence of Arab archival material.

It was the Czech archive which sparked the most recent book published on the war — Guy Laron’s The Six Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East, published last February. In the book’s preface, Laron credits documents found in the National Archives in Prague as being the key to writing a study about the Soviet Union’s role in the war, piquing his interest in the subject and inspiring his February publication. It may seem counterintuitive to use Eastern European archives to research the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it was fruitful for Laron in light of the difficulties he faced accessing Soviet archives, and the impossibility of viewing Arab ones. The only secret official Arab documents he could access about the war were accessed in Israel, which captured them after invading Syria in 1967.

American historian Wm. Roger Louis and British-Israeli Historian Avi Shlaim, one of Israel’s new historians, mention the problem in The 1967 Arab-Israeli War: Origins and Consequences,  which they co-edited in 2012. A clear asymmetry exists among primary sources used to write the history of the war; while countries like Israel, the UK and the US have 30-year rules, requiring the eventual release of secret documents, Arab nations continue to block access.

This situation forces historians to rely on the memoirs and interviews of Arab political and military leaders to try and discern what happened on their side. However, solely relying on memoirs as a source for history writing engenders serious problems. Primary among them is the fact that memoirs are most often written to justify the actions of their protagonists rather than to attempt a balanced and objective recount of events, even more so when they recall a debilitating defeat.

This issue is glaringly apparent in the memoirs of Egyptian military leaders. Major General Abdel-Hamid al-Dighidy, the Air Force commander in charge of Sinai and the Suez Canal during the 1967 War, received a significant share of the blame for the swift destruction of the majority of Egyptian combat jets on June 5. In his memoirs, he repeats time and time again that he was the only commander posted when the attacks happened. He describes the performance of the 8th Air Defense Division under his command as an “ideal model for heroism and valor,” and instead lays the principle responsibility of the defeat on the military’s chief of staff Mohamed Fawzy, commander of Sinai’s field army Salah Mohsen and the chief of military intelligence Mohamed Sadeq, whom he names the “three musketeers.”

In turn, Fawzy’s memoir blames the Air Defense Forces for the defeat, as they did not return fire when Israeli planes attacked, and condemns military intelligence for not learning that the Israeli Air Force’s range had extended to include Cairo and southern Egypt, not only the Suez Canal as available intelligence suggested.

This trend is also prevalent in the memoirs of other commanders like Colonel General Abdel-Mohsen Murtagi, commander of Egypt’s ground forces, and Lieutenant General Anwar al-Qadi among others. Despite this, many of the events and some of the major shortfalls of the command structure can still be gleaned from these memoirs, as Egyptian historian and visiting professor at Harvard University Khaled Fahmy argues. Fahmy adds that these narratives give a hint as to why the archives are off limits.

Damning documents

The insistence on barring access to state archives may strike some as bizarre. After all, the majority of those involved in the war have died so the fear of personal scandal should not be a factor. Fahmy argues that the main reason is because these historical documents would reveal Egypt’s decision making process; essentially, how the state really works.

He says the “core” of the Egyptian state isn’t apparent in the minutes of Cabinet, Parliament or Socialist Union committee meetings. It can only be understood in terms of the relationship between the presidency, the military and the intelligence bodies. The restricted documents would reveal how the divisions between Egyptian leaders and power struggles between its institutions led to disaster.

Giving an example, Fahmy recalls how former President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Armed Forces commander Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer disagreed on decisions as significant as the mobilization of 100,000 soldiers across the Suez into Sinai, starting the chain of events that led to the war.

The historian asserts that Nasser opposed the decision as he knew a battle with Israel would be a losing one. He said this publicly and privately, according to Fahmy although Laura James contends the opposite in The 1967 Arab-Israeli War: Origins and Consequences, writing that Nasser suggested that Egypt could withstand a defensive battle with Israel until superpowers intervened to end the conflict. In Fahmy’s account, Amer egged Nasser on as he wished to erase previous blunders, essentially making the decision to mobilize without the president’s knowledge, only informing after it was in motion. The details of this are outlined in a series of blog posts about the 1967 War published by Fahmy in Arabic.

He marvels at Nasser’s decision to keep Amer on: “Amer was an incompetent commander. He was defeated in 1956, he failed at managing the union with Syria, the Egyptian army was losing in Yemen, and yet Nasser kept him as commander-in-chief.” Military figures’ memoirs show that personal relationships and alliances established an inadequate conditions within state institutions, which was one of the main reasons for the defeat.

“There was Amer’s clique and Nasser’s group, and it was apparent that many of the appointments in leading positions were made according to the politics of this division,” Fahmy says. He references Fawzy’s choice as chief of staff, as he and Amer were known for their mutual dislike. Fawzy was close to Nasser, who appointed him at a time he criticized Amer for managing the military like it was his personal fiefdom, says Fahmy.

This division led to overlapping authority between the different commands, and confusion and contradiction in military orders. An illuminating example, according to Fahmy, is the confusion in the Armed’ Forces overall strategy during the war. He recounts how Lieutenant General Salah Mohsen, commander of the Sinai Field Army, had to send Major General Ahmed Ismail Ali to Cairo on May 27 because it was unclear whether the general strategy was meant to be offensive or defensive.

“The documents are damning,” says Fahmy. “The state doesn’t want you to find out the scandalous way it did its business.”

Alternative historiographies

Most of the war’s historiography, narrating the rise of tensions in May and consequent mobilization and closure of the Straits of Tiran, the battle plans and outcomes, the Egyptian army’s withdrawal and consequent occupation, exists within the confines of military or political history. Historians have constantly mulled over questions like did Israel plan to attack before the crisis? Did Nasser bet on superpower intervention to prevent fighting? Did Israel receive any direct military support from the United States? Did Israel’s initial plan include the occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem? Among others.

While these questions are normal in the context of military history, the extent and effect of 1967 is so significant that its history must be written using several approaches and from many perspectives, addressing additional questions, such as what role did popular culture play in dealing with the defeat and confronting the status quo after it? What were the social circumstances that gave rise to such power relations between state institutions and society, and within state institutions? What voices are silenced and marginalized by the archive, if we had access to it, and what power relations does it engender? Can we let go of the periodization conventionally employed in the study of the war, and instead of starting in May 1967, possibly start in 1952 at the inception of that era’s military and state institutions? Or go back even further to the royal era?

Sherene Seikaly, professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at University of California Santa Barbara, believes these queries are essential in order to transcend the epistemological categories that limit the historiography of the war.

She gives the example of the Palestinian revolution of the late 1960s, saying that to write the history of the Fedayeen, why not study them in the 1950s, or in the 1930s during the Great Revolt? Why not go back to the 19th century? We can write history outside the epistemological tradition and study things like revolution and independence, even in eras “before the nation-state paradigm became the only way to organize collective life and liberation,” she poses in an article published by the Middle East Research and Information Project.

Abdel-Aziz Ezz al-Arab, history professor at the American University in Cairo, additionally argues that sometimes important historical periods fall off historians’ radars due to grander events that precede or follow them. He believes that the significance of 1968, when the first large-scale protests against Nasser sprung up in February and November, was lost obscured by the prominence of the 1967 and 1973 wars.

To study the causes of defeat in 1967, Seikaly tells Mada Masr, we should also free ourselves from succumbing to the intellectual shackles of a “culture of despair,” what she describes as a failure to recognize the existence of deep struggles for popular sovereignty. We should not surrender to historical accounts that view authoritarian institutions as the sole actors, she says.

For these reasons, Seikaly suggests that historians must resort to other sources, such as oral testimonies, literature, speeches, media and pamphlets. In the case of Egypt, Seikaly believes cultural production, like the songs of poet Ahmed Fouad Negm and singer and composer Sheikh Imam, could reveal a lot about society during the period following defeat and provide narratives absent from the official archives.

Ezz al-Arab concurrs. He cites Negm and Imam’s Thank God He Hit Us Under Our Armpits, a bitter ode satirizing the official revolutionary rhetoric during a period of defeat and the military that caused it.

Thank God, thank God he hit us under our armpits

Oh, how nice it is when our officers return from the line of fire

Oh, people of Egypt that is protected by thieves

The fava beans and falafel are abundant, and construction fills the land

Life is sturdy, and everything is going well

So long as his excellency and his entourage are bellied and plenty

Do not tell me Sinai, we have not forgotten anything

Don’t give me a headache

There are six hundred buses traveling and loaded with people

So what if a million or the whole universe dies

Life is never guaranteed and people are lifetimes…

The poem reflects the sense of disappointment and bitterness stemming from the defeat, and the widespread criticism of the factors that caused it.

He also references Syrian poet Nezzar Qabbani’s diwan “Marginal Notes on the Book of Defeat,” which was banned by Egyptian censors at the time.

Ezz El-Arab says focusing on popular culture through examining song, film, literature and the stories of the people who lived through the defeat will reveal crucial parts of the history of the war. He dedicated a whole course to the study of such primary materials which reflected popular responses to the defeat.

He also places an emphasis on the potential for oral testimony, insisting on its value in documenting the people’s psychological condition, prompted by the defeat. Many who lived through the experience are still living, and he affirms that their stories should be told before they die.

Seikaly is also an advocate of the importance of oral testimony, saying it is especially crucial when the archives are off limits, or worse, in the hands of an occupier. She points to how Palestinians have been successful at utilizing oral histories to counter the “state of siege” currently imposed upon Palestinian archives.

Di-Capua also agrees that the historiography of the war is severely lacking. He tells Mada Masr that he knows of no work which explains, for example, how a military setback was “transformed into a culture of defeat that was internalized by millions across the region.” He believes the academic field of Trauma Studies has the most potential to elucidate how this occurred.

Despite the potential of other historiographical approaches and conceptualizations that don’t depend on the archive, as noted by these historians, other obstacles continue to hinder history writing in Arab countries.

In the case of Egypt, Fahmy believes that Egyptians have collectively decided not to deal with the defeat. They regard it as a setback, or Naksa, a viewpoint facilitated by the rapid rebuilding of the military and subsequent 1973 War. As a result, 1967 was never weighed with its due importance in modern and contemporary Egyptian history.

Osman El Sharnoubi 

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