It is June 3, and evening is falling on a rainy Paris. I have learned about the Festival Cine-Palestine, which has a screening of Al-Lail (The Night) by Syrian director Mohamed Malas. I watch with utmost attention the account of Quneitra, the Syrian town located in the Golan Heights and captured by Israel during the 1967 war. I am captivated by the portrayal of the passionate fedayeen of the town, who took part in the volunteer Arab armies fighting in Palestine during the 1936 Great Revolt. We see them leaving everything behind to go to the battlefield, fueled by an autonomous and rowdy desire to free Palestine. It is when they are waiting before getting onto the bus that will take them from Quneitra to Palestine that they ask for a collective picture. Did they know then of their forthcoming erasure?
They are individuals with a forgotten imagination of nationalism, an imagination that is possible in the big cities as much as the countryside, an imagination driven by individual and collective sentiments. It is a nationalism that will be violently appropriated and monopolized by the military regimes assuming the administration of the new decolonized nation state.
The film ends with the liberation of Syria, the captivity of the fedai and the ongoing occupation of Palestine, which will extend to Syrian lands and to the very Quneitra, years later in 1967. The police of the liberation Syrian regime arrests Al-Lail’s protagonist, one of the fedayeen, who, when not on the frontlines, would tell his son fond tales about Palestine as he carried him on his back on the way to school. Yesterday’s fedai is today’s political captive of his own liberators. 1946 Quneitra feels somewhat like 2017 Cairo, and perhaps 1967 too.
Al-Lail seems to be the appropriate window to think of the Naksa, or defeat of 1967, the moment that fractured the new nationalism, a moment nervously set aside by Arab rulers, but also a politically formative one for at least two generations of resistance to follow.
We speak with three politically engaged figures of different orientations who lived 1967 and were formed by it. With them, we ponder the political present through the lens of their pasts. With the slightly discomforting movement of tilting our heads backwards, we wonder what’s left of an anti-colonial liberation movement once charged with the promises of a new republic.
Words like “icon” and “tireless” are often used to introduce activist-mathematician Laila Soueif, and the family that she is from and has created. Long before the revolution, she was a constant presence at protests about police brutality and freedom on university campuses. She can often be spotted at public events: grey-haired, her back slightly hunched, and either very warmly greeting friends and strangers in the communities she’s known and worked with, or arguing with someone in uniform. Once, walking away from a small protest downtown which she was refusing to leave, I heard a police officer say to another with genuine weariness, “Anyone but her.”
It is an afternoon at the beginning of Ramadan when I go to talk to Soueif in her home. She’s just returned from Cairo University, where she teaches.
“I always remind myself that we should measure things by how people’s lives improve. If that’s not happening, then the big slogans don’t matter.”
When she lets me in, I am instantly confronted by numerous suitcases and bags lined up against the wall. This is an attempt to organize the material needs of her imprisoned son, Alaa Abd El Fattah — the clothes, medicines, and containers of food that rotate in and out every few weeks. Although he is rarely allowed to have books or magazines, among the suitcases are piles of literature that friends and family think he might like to read. He is serving a five-year sentence for breaking the protest law after a demonstration against the military trials of civilians.
We sit on the same couches where I interviewed her late husband, the human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif, at the beginning of 2014, when the reality of our defeat was still fresh and somewhat urgent. Alaa Abd El Fattah was in prison then, too.
Soueif was 11 in June 1967. When the protests after the war passed through her school in Cairo, calling on the state to redeem the nation by going to war, she would join them. And that was her entry point to politics.
“This was the biggest event that ever happened to me. My awareness of politics, and of the world, really, began from this low point,” she says. “I think this is why I don’t get destroyed, or I don’t get upset. Because I started at the bottom.”
She says that people started openly criticizing the regime and the military generals involved in the defeat almost immediately. This regime that was on the side of the oppressed, that was allied with just causes around the world, was suddenly seen as weak and corrupt.
In the years that followed she watched as crises hit socialist systems in Europe, feeling that, like Nasser’s Egypt, they had had “a hand in their own defeat, they were not blameless.”
But neither she nor other activists of her generation could give up on the values that those regimes stood for, or claimed to stand for, she maintains. “I’m not going to abandon the socialist dream because the Soviets are bastards, you see?”
She thinks that experiencing these defeats planted in her a lifelong suspicion of big slogans.
“I don’t trust big goals. I always remind myself that we should measure things by how people’s lives improve. If that’s not happening, then the big slogans don’t matter.”
She has grown less and less patient with this tendency to overlook people’s lives: “I’ve watched people — watched us — make the same mistakes, over and over again … people see the big, and stomp on the small.”
“I think this is why I could work with the human rights movement,” she says. It’s all for the big ideas, “but what it’s directly concerned with is how will I get this person out of this jail, right now.”
Today’s defeat in Egypt seems a sort of inversion of 1967. In 1967, the defeat was of the state’s army by that of another, leading to the shaking of people’s faith in a popular regime. “1967 was the defeat of a project which people thought was victorious … in 2011, we didn’t get a chance to believe in the victory.”
When it comes to the state, there was no trickery, no illusion of strength or correctness by 2011.
“After 1967, the regime actually did a good job of correcting their mistakes before the public,” she says. “There were still good people in the institutions, so if you broke the ruling clique – and in the military this was [defense minister and army commander] Shams Badran and Abdel Hakim Amer and so on – there were others you could bring in.”
“Part of our naive thinking in 2011 was that we thought the world was still like this. We didn’t know the extent of the damage that had been done to these institutions.”
Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh was the poster child of the new Islamism in 2012, the year Egypt witnessed its first truly multi-candidate presidential election, one of the products of the revolution. His decision to run would accompany his decision to leave the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011 once and for all, to set his own brand of moderate Islamism through a community of followers and a party that had Egypt, and not Islam, in its name.
After years of being the enfant terrible inside the Muslim Brotherhood, Abouel Fotouh was finally kicked out from the Guidance Bureau in 2009. This was a culmination of years of practicing subversive acts in the midst of an organized group, something that started with the defeat of 1967.
“Defeats tend to come on the heels of dictatorships.”
“If Nasser had told us this is not the sun, we would believe him, but 1967 ended that,” says Abouel Fotouh, who was a school student at the time of the defeat. When he formed a group, practicing mostly activities for the community in Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine, he was keen to crystallize the notion that there should be no blind obedience. It was a time when he and others were realizing how empty the slogans they had internalized from the authorities were: “That we will perform dusk prayers in Tel Aviv and that we will throw Israel into the sea.”
“This obedience was unfortunately the prevalent culture inside the group,” he says. “I used to tell them: don’t cancel out your feelings or your mind when you are in a civilian organization. I am in an organization and it is fine to object and oppose.”
But the Naksa came with another key formational realization for Abouel Fotouh, which as he recounts it, adds credence to the argument that the defeat was the thrust for the return of religiosity in the defeated societies, but also the victorious one.
“If we think of the blessings of the crisis, one of them would be the return of a certain trust by Egyptians in their values, which were disrupted: the sincerity, the integrity, the devotion,” he says. He explains that this disruption of values was manifested in how the people blindly absorbed the authorities’ depiction of the opposition, whereby “the Brotherhood are terrorists who will kill Om Kalthoum and the communists are a bunch of atheists.”
This return to religious values wasn’t far from his decision to form a group at the university that would perform primarily religious activities on campus, such as Quran reading and hadith interpretation, and that would gradually move to spreading political messages against the political leadership. This would become one of the first cells of Al-Jamaat Al-Islameya, whose members condoned and practiced violence and read Sayyed Qotb and Ibn Taymeyya. It was not long before Abouel Fotouh abandoned them and joined the Brotherhood in the 1970s.
All of this was happening in a context of a relative opening of the political space as the inevitable product of the defeat, and another of its “blessings.”
“I started seeing patients from the Muslim Brotherhood for the first time in Qasr al-Aini hospital, where they hadn’t been allowed in. The Brotherhood members in prison without verdicts were released in 1968 and were followed by those with verdicts in the 1970s. In mosques, preachers used to criticize the authorities openly. In university, there were free student union elections. Even the state media was starting to be critical of the authorities.”
In 1967, Abouel Fotouh saw that the military, under the leadership of Nasser, was being utilized for political ends, in a way not far from what is happening now. In 2013, the military took power and went on to marginalize the group where he was formed politically, the Muslim Brotherhood, and his own reconfiguration of it in the 2011-born Strong Egypt Party.
“This was one of Nasser’s crimes: to use our collective concern and throw our kids on the frontlines when he wasn’t ready to fight after his defeat in Yemen, only because he thought this would be the start of negotiations with an American intervention. He thought he could strike a fake victory like in 1956, but the result was that Israel captured the whole of Sinai, the West Bank, east Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the south of Lebanon. Our armies were given as a gift to Israel.”
He bitterly remembers Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Nasser’s prime media marketer, who said that, “even if the dust was occupied, Arab regimes didn’t fall.” For him, Arab regimes fell that day.
Abouel Fotouh has an ominous reminder: that “defeats tend to come on the heels of dictatorships.”
Journalist and editor Mona Anis was part of the student movement in Egypt in the 1970s. While in graduate school in the UK, she was an activist for the Palestinian cause.
In June 1967, Anis was about to start her last year of high school. She was part of the Fetewwa, a nationwide cadet system set up by the state for both boys and girls, through which they received what Anis describes as “light military training” during their last three years of school. She was also a member of the Youth Organization, a branch of the Arab Socialist Union, the only political party at the time.
When she heard the morning news on the radio in June that “we downed 30 or 40 Israeli planes,” she went running to her school in her cadet’s uniform.
“We took lessons in how to give injections. On sandbags, you mark where you should be inserting the needles, and where you should be avoiding,” she says.
Her father, an intellectual and university professor, had been imprisoned for six years under Nasser for his communist activity, although a military court had found him innocent. Anis was thus personally aware of Nasser’s dictatorial elements. “I visited him in concentration camps. My father is a very distinguished mathematician. It was not easy to go see him in prison barefoot and working in quarries. But all those dictatorial elements somehow were not magnified for me because of the national cause.”
She began to feel something was not straightforward though after a conversation with her father, who had been released in 1964.
The family lived in Heliopolis, close to the road to Suez. In those early days in June, Anis half-jokingly asked her father, “What reward will you give me when our army enters Tel Aviv?”
He was angry when he responded, “Could you leave me now? I hope we don’t find them here by tomorrow.”
“I loved my father, he was my role model. And for the first time in my life, I thought, ‘Maybe, maybe Nasser was right in arresting them. Maybe they really are spies’,” she recalls. “You see? You see the conviction that we were victorious, to the point of doubting my father? I can understand how teenagers and young cadets reported their parents in Germany or Iran. You are full of enthusiasm. It’s unbelievable.”
“Luckily or unluckily, my faith in my father was restored. The following day, Nasser came on TV announcing that we were defeated. I couldn’t doubt Nasser. I had doubted my father, but I could not doubt Nasser. Something was changed forever. At that age, you are so sure of the justice, the cause, that all the Zionist gangs will be defeated. And suddenly you realize you were living in la-la land, in a fantasy.”
“Nothing is permanent and nothing is lost completely. There always remains something that you build on.”
Anis says she wasn’t really political until the defeat, although she had been part of the Youth Movement. “I was that girl who tried to bargain for an increase in her pocket money as we were going to Alexandria for the summer, where the most important thing would be the new swimming suit, the beach and the boys. On June 6 and 7, I was mainly thinking of going to Alexandria, and I asked my dad, ‘Are you going to give me more pocket money?’”
“That period of 1967 until the death of Nasser was a time of being preoccupied with resistance,” she says, “Of dreaming of the time we would be able to right all the wrongs…”
Anis joined university in the fall of 1968, and took part in the protests through that winter, against light sentences handed down to the top brass, especially the Air Force commanders. “The protests were against the oppression we were feeling but they were also calling for a popular war.”
This demand for a people’s war was one that would carry through the student uprising of 1971 and 1972. “A lot of people remember that the student movement was calling for democracy and so on, but we often forget that a central call was this: the people’s war. People wanted to be trained, to be sent to the frontlines.”
“The war in October 1973 satisfied some, but it also divided the whole movement,” she says.
“Between those saying, ‘This wasn’t a war, it was a play for Sadat to get what he wanted,’ and others who thought that he was right, there was fragmentation, atomization even,” she remembers. “We weren’t talking to each other. Some were calling each other traitors.”
Anis counts this fracturing as one of the main reasons she left to the UK. “I had lost many valuable friendships from the student movement and university. Underground organizations were starting, and then the rows and the splintering. I thought: ‘I don’t want to remain here.’”
In the UK, she became active in the student movement to resist normalization with Israel, almost as soon as Sadat went to Jerusalem in 1977. “The national struggle and the question of Palestine and Israel were always at the heart of any political activism I did. I don’t think I ever thought only of democracy.”
Asked if there are comparisons to be made between the way defeat is either structured or felt, in 1967 and now, she says that back then, “there were no winners, no victors and no defeated people. The enemy we all were united around was Israel. We wanted to fight and win another battle.”
But now, there are victors, and they are “butchers,” she says.
“We have lost. If we are ever to win again, that’s anybody’s guess. Nothing is permanent and nothing is lost completely. There always remains something that you build on.”
Additional reporting: Omar Said