The Orphaning of the Arabs: A Brief Look Back at Nasser & the End of the Six-Day War

“A Misguided Preacher with No Faith in His Own Sermons”

By Mark Mondalek

The last few years of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s life, he took to repeating a saying over and over again, not silently to himself in prayer, but right out loud for anyone to hear.

“People like me,” he’d tell his compatriots, “do not live long.”

Nasser had curiously reverted to his days of youth again at this time. He was back again to occupying the role of the brooding young man. He didn’t smile his handsome toothy grin like before, making his skinny mustache curl and his teeth shine bright in contrast to his dark skin. He worked 14 hour days. He survived on painkillers, battling black diabetes, diabetic neuritis, arteriosclerosis, and suffered several heartaches before 1967. He had excruciating boils on his back and had taken to dragging his leg: the long, full-body of who was renowned as the “quintessential Arab” now drooping down in his suit coat, the physical pain making his long, scimitarlike nose all the more prominent.

At only 50 years old, he’d worked himself to near-exhaustion; broken down and overly encumbered. He longed for a governmental system that would ease his burden. He wanted Yasser Arafat to take over and assume the said role as the savior of the Palestinians.

He wanted a way out.

On June 9, 1967, the day after the Six-Day War had ended and Egypt accepted a ceasefire, Nasser appeared on television to tender his resignation, something no one saw coming, not even the man he chose to succeed him, Zakaria Mohieddin, who was watching on television in total astonishment like everyone else.

Nasser looked like a man truly forlorn: his once broad shoulders slouched over in his fine suit, leaning into the three microphones in front of him with the backdrop of a plain hinged curtain. His face was wet with exhaustion; guilt; pain; relief. He looked feverish.

“Brethren,” he began, “we became used to gathering together and discussing with open hearts both the good victorious times, as well as the bad and bitter times, and state facts honestly. We believed this was the only way leading us to the right oath no matter how difficult it would become, nor how faint the light at the end of the tunnel might be. It cannot be denied we suffered a dangerous relapse during the last few days, but I am confident that we will overcome our difficulty within a short period of time, though we need a lot of patience, wisdom, courage and dedication to work diligently.”

He spoke low, almost in a whisper. They were the soft, prophetic words of a man who was done. He could not be the savior anymore. He did not even want it to begin with.

Yet by 1967 he had become totally Arab. He had resigned himself to the fate of being a believer in his own words regardless of their unreality. And now here he was: the last man standing left to answer for the dead, of which there were plenty. The Arab armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan lost somewhere between 11,000 and 16,000 lives; 1000 for the Israelis, who dominated the skies, despite possessing far fewer tanks and weapons and artillery. Their sneak attack and precise bombing campaign ten years in the making only took six days. Six days and Israeli forces had occupied the Gaza Strip, all of the Sinai Peninsula to the east bank of the Suez Canal, all of Jordan west of the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights of Syria. All that was accomplished in but six days. Not even a week. Arabs call it the “The Catastrophe,” for indeed this was what they’d suffered. This––in many ways––was something Nasser himself had wrought. His eyes said as much as his somber tone.

He had succeeded in turning popular ideas––such as anti-Israeli sentiments amongst Arabs and Egyptians––into policy. Privately, he believed peace between Israel was impossible, and even his own brand of Arab nationalism––pan-Arabism; Nasserism, as it was sometimes called––was a dream that he himself had stopped believing in by 1958-60, according to his daughter Huda. “Bilad al-Arab lil Arab” or “The Arab countries are for the Arabs,” he used to say. It was his slogan. He fed off the desires of his people, repeating their dreams back to them, but soon came to accept the fact that popular Arab backing alone wasn’t good enough to bring about real change. By 1966 he even stopped using his public radio addresses as a format for drumming up support. He’d already drummed up all of the support that he could desire throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It wasn’t enough.

It was fate that he was up against. He walked a thin line: pro-American, anti-Communist; against the corrupt monarchy and pashas and opposed to political Islamic movements. He believed that you could not run a moderate state on the basis of the Koran. His iron fist came out most strongly when it came to this, imprisoning and executing various members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

By contrast, the United States, rather than having Nasser in power, looked at radical Islam as the safer reality of the two and backed the Islamists against him. The U.S. was afraid that the Soviets would intercede. Nasser was viewed as the Saddam Hussein of his day in the eyes of the West. And here was this complicated man who went on speaking things he no longer believed; a misguided preacher with no faith in his own sermons, still going so far as to write President Lyndon B. Johnson: “I obey the summons of the people.”

And, in truth, he did.

Even in defeat, he spoke like a man of the people, just as he spoke years earlier to a triumphant crowd shortly after he had seized power from King Farouk and established a republic: “I, Gamal Abdel Nasser, am from a poor family and will remain poor until I die in this country.”

In his former speeches his voice lifted upwards with the continuous back and forth of a genius public orator. Quick and slow, repetitious, and then a bite into the air just when the audience demanded it of him. Here, however, he was slow, calculated; foreboding, almost.

"I have taken a decision with which I need your help. I have decided to withdraw totally and for good from any official post or political role and to return to the ranks of the masses, performing my duty in their midst, like any other citizen.” And then later: "In accordance with the text of Article 110 of the interim constitution issued in March 1964, I have assigned my colleague, friend and brother, Zakaria Mohieddin, to take over the post of president, and to act in accordance with the stipulations of the relevant article of the constitution.”

His viewers that evening were too stunned to even react for a brief moment, for he was all they had. There were few other options for them to turn to. It was either ideology or a man. And who else did they have? The backwards but wealthy Saudi Arabian oil kings? To go from poetry to prose? From dreams to blasphemy?

"This is a time for action, not grief....My whole heart is with you, and let your hearts be with me. May God be with us; hope, light and guidance in our hearts," he concluded.

And then it began.

Egyptians launched from their homes in the night: men in their pajamas, women in their nightgowns, everyone weeping in the streets. Two and a half million people came together. They marched onto the capital from the center of the Delta, from Alexandria to Aswan, from the Western Desert to Suez, chanting: “Nasser, Nasser, don’t leave us, we need you!” and “No imperialism, no dollar! No leader but Gamal!”

They didn’t see a man painted in defeat. They saw him just as they always did, this man beaconed of the utmost cleanliness, his handsome, youthful face, always immaculately dressed in a suit and tie; that big barrel chest of a strong man, someone who wouldn’t let them down, even if he practically insisted that he had. They saw the man who had overthrown the King, ended the British occupation, given Egypt full control of the Suez Canal and who had begun to build the High Dam. A man who had given the Arabs more control of their own affairs, damning colonialist enterprises; controlling rents, building more factories and schools, bringing clean water and electricity to villages. To his people, he had restored their dignity, and their gift in return was that they wanted to restore his. Mohieddin himself––the man who Nasser had chosen for his successor and who refused––had driven to Nasser’s house near Heliopolis along with the masses to call on him to stay and lead them. People commandeered buses, taxis, private cars; anything on wheels; thousands of Cairo citizens. It was an act too incredibly impulsive and spontaneous for any of it to be planned outright by the Egyptian government, which was scattered into chaos at the time, anyhow. A match had been set off in the minds of millions and it grew by the hour. It was genuine.

It was also perhaps Nasser’s greatest performance of all, a masterful speech and a brilliant piece of theater. And it was his apology, of all things. It was his genuine sympathies and his voice of regret that had led to such a showing of emotions amongst the masses.

Within 24 hours, he had retracted his statement.

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Comments

  1. ProudPrimate says:

    Very moving and touching account. It will stir me to further investigation. But it is beautiful writing, sir.

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