President Jamal Abdul Nasser greets Captain Abdul Ahmad of the country’s air force during celebrations to mark the 15th anniversary of the Egyptian revolution in Cairo on July 24, 1967. Nasser conferred on Captain Ahmad the ‘Star of Military Honour’ after he claimed to have shot down an Israeli jet fighter over the Sinai area. Image Credit: AP

Cairo: Mahmoud Ahmad was not born yet when Egypt suffered an ignoble military defeat by Israel in 1967. However, Ahmad, now 32, has felt the reverberations of the defeat, often referred to in Egypt as “naksa” or setback.

“I didn’t directly experience the aftermath of the naksa. But based on my reading and what I heard from my father, grief and bitterness overwhelmed each and every Egyptian. This remains the case till now,” said Ahmad, an accountant at a pharmacy chain in Cairo.

“Grief because Egyptians, as my father told me, felt that their dream of building a powerful country at the domestic and regional levels was cruelly shattered. As for bitterness, it was because Egyptians found out that they were the victim of a big lie circulated by the state media that the Egyptian army was at the gates of Tel Aviv,” Ahmad told Gulf News.

On June 5, 1967, Israeli warplanes bombed Egypt’s grounded fighter jets and destroyed airbases. The surprise Israeli attack also robbed Egypt of its Sinai Peninsula and brought Israeli troops to the bank of the Suez Canal, a major waterway that connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.

The defeat dealt a shattering blow to the leadership of Egypt’s charismatic president Jamal Abdul Nasser. Days after the defeat became public news, Nasser announced his resignation in a solemn TV speech. Massive street demonstrations prompted him to revoke his decision and remain in office until death in 1970.

“Fifty years after the naksa, we don’t know yet what went wrong,” Ahmad protested.

“Apart from some writings here and there, there are no credible records to tell us why what happened in 1967 did happen and who was to blame for this catastrophe. Transparency is important to learn lessons from the past and make accountability an established principle in our life.”

Suraya Mahmoud was eight when the 1967 War broke out. Today she still has vivid — albeit agonising — memories about the earth-shaking event.

“In the days before the war, I remember I joined other children in my district in Al Waili [in northern Cairo] and chanted enthusiastically that our army would enter Tel Aviv,” Suraya, now 58, reminisced with a quivering voice.

“When the war started, there was no doubt we’d give Israel a good dressing down as my father used to tell me at the time. But I could not forget the sight of my father when the news of the defeat spread. He looked stunned and even burst into tears. I couldn’t shut his breakdown from my memory,” Suraya, a school headmistress, added.

“And when Abdul Nasser announced his resignation, my father and my eldest brother joined millions of Egyptians who flooded the streets, demanding him to stay in power. My father later told me that they wanted Abdul Nasser to remain because he was the one who brought about this tragedy and so he had to eliminate it.”

In his last three years in power and life, Abdul Nasser conducted a major shake-up among the military commanders and embarked on rebuilding the army’s capabilities. He also initiated what came to be known as the war of attrition that included artillery and aerial duels with Israel with the aim of forcing Israelis to withdraw from Sinai.

The fighting was also aimed at boosting the morale of ordinary and military Egyptians.

Three years after Abdul Nasser’s death, Egypt under his successor Anwar Al Sadat launched a surprise attack against Israel that enabled Cairo to regain parts of Sinai.

In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

Some analysts believe that despite the 1973 military victory, Egyptians have not recovered from the lingering trauma of the 1967 War humiliation.

“This defeat instilled in Egyptians a crippling feeling of despair,” Salah Al Hadi, a political expert, said.

“I think this feeling was the result of falling victim to the illusion of power propagated by state media. The shock of discovering this deception came at a heavy price in terms of the number of soldiers killed in the war and the enormous economic losses,” the 66-year-old analyst told Gulf News.

“This feeling has passed down from generation to generation, leaving an indelible impact on the Egyptian psyche. It is still living with us although a lot of things have happened since then, not the least the October [1973] victory.”

Looking back, Al Hadi points to several blunders that he thinks made the 1967 defeat almost inevitable.

“The Egyptian army was exhausted after fighting for five years in Yemen,” he said, referring to an anti-monarchy military campaign undertaken by Egypt in Yemen starting in 1962.

“Involvement in the Yemen quagmire also drained the Egyptian economy,” Al Hadi added.

“Moreover, Nasser made a blunder when he asked the UN monitoring forces stationed in Sinai to leave. Afterwards, he barred Israeli ships from the Gulf of Aqaba, thus pushing the already tense situation to the brink. He did all this although the Egyptian army was not in its best combat shape.”

Abdu Mubasher, a writer in the state-run Al Ahram Weekly, believes that the roots of the 1967 defeat began many years earlier.

“After young army officers [led by Nasser] took power in 1952, they expelled their experienced superiors,” Mubasher argued.

“Major Abdul Hakim Amer was given command of the armed forces and promoted four ranks at once, to a general. However, he didn’t receive the training needed for that post. A similar case is that of Shams Badran, the office manager of then Field Marshal Amer, who was made defence minister right before the 1967 war. Badran’s military education had stopped at his last army rank, that of lieutenant. So the top military command in June 1967 was inexperienced with a novice for defence minister,” he said.

“Second, with the rise of the 1952 officers to power, Egypt entered a phase of dictatorship. Words such as freedom and democracy disappeared from the lexicon, and the president became the sole decision-maker,” Mubasher added.