History has returned for revenge. The family of Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer, the commander of the Egyptian army in the 1950s and 1960s, are accusing former President Gamal Abdel Nasser and a handful of military leaders of murdering Amer. We don’t know how solid these accusations are, but it is possible. Of course Abdel-Nasser is capable of murder; he and his comrades began their rule by killing Mustafa Khamis and Mohamed Al-Baqari whose only crime was leading a labour strike in Kafr Al-Dawar. Imagine that.
Labour strikes are a guaranteed right for workers, and if the authorities ban this right they are described as tyrants. When strikers are jailed we call those in power goons, so what is the description for those who kill workers going on strike?
Abdel Nasser had his reasons to justify the killing of the field marshal. Amer was a failed military leader who was defeated in all the wars he entered, and was resisting attempts to remove him from power to be replaced by more competent commanders who could go to war against Israel. If Abdel Nasser had indeed murdered Amer then he surely found moral “justification” for it, but in reality eliminating Amer in a manner that could have been murder is the result of Amer’s refusal to accept sole responsibility for defeat. He insisted that Abdel Nasser should also share the responsibility, but the latter could not possibly accept that.
The most Abdel Nasser was willing to acknowledge responsibility for was keeping Amer at the head of the army despite his poor military performance. Nasser’s supporters made excuses for him by saying that he tried but failed to remove Amer because the field marshal had created centres of power within the army, making it difficult to depose him and that this could only happen after a disgraceful defeat.
In the struggle between the president and the field marshal after the defeat, Amer took a progressive position. He refused to be “dumped” with the responsibility for defeat by himself and wanted to defend his military honour after being accused of cowardice and fleeing in the face of the enemy without offering any resistance. Thus he asked for a public trial, which was the last thing that Nasser wanted. A public trial for the field marshal would put on trial the political regime that placed at the helm a group of adventurers who relied more on adroitness than knowledge and planning.
In order for the regime to shed the shame of defeat, Amer had to be “dumped” with the responsibility and vanish, and with him would vanish all evidence of the issue — the issue of the humiliating defeat of an army that did not fight.
Opening the case of Field Marshal Amer’s death is a positive development because his murder or suicide is the gateway to honestly addressing our defeat in June 1967. It is also a passage to writing a new narrative about the defeat because the available narratives are unconvincing; the field marshal’s negligence and poor military performance could explain our defeat against Israel, but they do not explain our defeat without a fight.
Unearthing Amer’s grave is an impressive and radical step because graves are a rich source of information about the dead. Aren’t graves the key source of our knowledge about Ancient Egyptians and how they lived, and in turn reflect on our own lives? Our lives are an extension of their lives. Some might say let the dead lay where they are and let’s look to the future, but the fact is those who are scared of the dead are scared of history, and those who fear history can never forge a future because the past is the map of society’s development. Anyone who does not understand history cannot understand the future.
The generation that come to power in Egypt today is one whose political conscience began forming after the 1967 defeat; a generation that shed Nasserist dreams and rejected the Nasserist narrative of the defeat, which essentially put all the blame on Amer. It is also a generation that was at a loss in contemplating two key answers about the question of defeat.
The Islamist current interpreted it as rooted in the fact that the people of Egypt and their state had distanced themselves from God, therefore they were cursed with defeat (as if Israelis were closer to God or were God’s chosen people, and therefore He made them defeat us). Civic currents, on the other hand, argued that the defeat was caused by political dictatorship, the army’s heavy involvement in politics, our scientific and technological inadequacy and delusional thinking.
Thus no one agrees on the reasons behind the defeat, so that we can teach our children in school, especially since school books continue to omit any real information about the 1967 defeat. It is a topic that we quickly glance over so as to reach the happy ending, the October war that erased the shame of defeat.
Anyone who believes that the October war is evidence that the Egyptian army had completely overcome all the reasons that led to the 1967 defeat is mistaken. One of the key reasons for the defeat, as stated by Field Marshal Abdel-Ghani Al-Gamasi in his memoirs, is that “the Armed Forces entered the domains of agricultural reform, international transportation, the work of State Security Investigations, the High Dam, and other aspects. Involving the Armed Forces in so many state activities prevented or distracted it from paying attention to its fundamental duty of preparing the troops for battle.”
Al-Gamasi’s testimonial can also apply to the Egyptian army today. Do we not complain that the army is too heavily involved in the economy at a time when it is very clear that the army is incapable of controlling Egypt’s international borders — the primary duty of any army in the world? The situation is so dire in Sinai that we could completely lose control in the peninsula.
One of the main obstacles to understanding the June defeat is the resistance of the army to release documents pertaining to the defeat to allow researchers and historians to study them. Historian Khaled Fahmy has relentlessly demanded that these files should be released to historians, but his requests have fallen on deaf ears. The problem, it seems, is that the army is on the defensive regarding the June defeat and feels that it was unjustly blamed for it.
The quote by Hassanein Heikal sums up the accusation: “Arms failed politics in 1967, while in 1973 politics failed arms.” But in reality, what betrayed Egypt in 1967 was not weapons or the army, but the political regime that placed adventurers at the helm and pitted the army in an unfair battle. What failed Egypt was the country’s poor education system that supplied the army with weak ranks who grew up taking orders without taking initiative, while Israel’s education system supplied the army there with well-educated soldiers who were taught to debate and take initiative.
Any objective scientific approach to investigating the 1967 defeat must arrive at a fundamental conclusion that it was as much a defeat for Egypt’s civilians as for its army.
Army leaders should not fear delving into the chronicles of the defeat: your defeat is our defeat; the archives of your defeat are the annals of our defeat. Release them, for they would serve as a good tool in discovering Egypt’s ailments.
(Samer Soliman is a columnist at Ahram Online, where this article was forst published Sept. 26, 2012)