Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Of bombs and bombast

By Khaled Diab

While the west was discovering new self-confidence and freedom as it basked in its ‘Summer of Love’, the Arab world was waking up to the winter of its humiliation.

Although the eight-year-old Vietnam war was preying on the conscience of western youth, it didn’t spoil the baby boomer party back home. June 1967 saw the world’s first major rock festival, the Monterey Pop Festival. The Beatles released their groundbreaking album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club on 1 June 1967.

Less than a week later, Israel attacked its Arab neighbours. It is said that God made the heavens and the earth in six days and on the seventh he rested. In six days, Israel brought the heavens crashing down around the Arabs’ ears and, on the seventh day, the Arabs were left to sweep away the debris of their shattered pan-Arabist dreams.

It will remain a bone of contention why Israel started that conflict. Israel claims the war was a ‘pre-emptive’ strike. Although the Israeli public were terrified and felt that Israel’s imminent destruction might be at hand, the military’s hawkish top brass had a different idea. The country’s dovish prime minister Levi Eshkol did not want a military confrontation with the Arabs and tried to beat back the warmongers, but the hawks proved tougher than the doves and flew Moshe Dayan in as defence minister to guarantee a standoff.

Then IDF chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, who had not yet been reborn as a dove and was still a hot-headed militarist escalating the confrontation with Syria and threatening to invade it, later admitted that: “Nasser did not want war.”

Even the conservative and Israel-leaning The Economist concluded in its 26 May 2007 issue: “It was a war prompted by a gung-ho [Israeli] military, a misreading of the enemy’s intentions and political expediency”.

It seems that the Israel’s military leaders were convinced that they had to crush the Arabs while Israel still enjoyed massive military supremacy and that any delays could result in a protracted conflict further down the road. In addition, if the war was not about land, resources and ‘strategic depth’ as it later became known as, why are the Israelis still holding on to most of the prime real state they captured four decades ago? If they were only interested in forestalling an Arab attack, why didn’t they pull out once they’d so comprehensively crushed the Arabs?

The catastrophic price of bluster
But the Arabs have their own difficult questions to confront. If Nasser did not want war – as the sorry state of Egypt’s economy and military at the time, as well as government documents and private memoirs reveal – why did he feel compelled in such dangerous and risky brinkmanship?

Israel had bombs to back up the swagger of its generals; Egypt was armed only with bombast. If wars were won and lost on oratory, then Egypt would’ve been a superpower under Nasser.

“Because there was enough information available to Arab governments and the PLO which should have told them that they were not ready to do battle with Israel, it resembled an act of mass suicide,” writes Said Aburish, in his incisive biography of Nasser.

Aburish blames Nasser’s flawed and awful decisions on the ‘Arab street’ which this people’s dictator listened to very closely, and the longing of ordinary Arabs to go to war with Israel and win back some lost pride.

But the malaise ran far deeper. Nasser was Egypt’s first native son to lead her in 2,300 years, who hailed from a small, unprepossessing town in upper Egypt and was raised in Alexandria. He looked and spoke like an ordinary Egyptian, albeit more eloquently. Most importantly, he held out the promise to restore Egyptian – and later Arab – pride.

But that promise was not rooted in any reality or realistic road map; it was an illusion, even a delusion, which the Egyptian and Arab public lapped up gratefully and Nasser and his crew administered liberally. For the first few days of the war, the radio was full of dispatches from the ‘front’ claiming one improbable victory after another.

Ahmed Fouad Negm, who after the defeat would become Egypt’s leading ‘street poet’ and made colloquial Egyptian an acceptable language of poetry, bought into the illusion and was completely thrown asunder by the comprehensive defeat. He penned a biting satire which Sheikh Yassin, his future duet partner, put to music and sang.

Oh people of Egypt guarded by thieves
Cheap food is plenty and everything is okay
Thanks to people who sing to fill their stomach
Sing poems that glorify and appease even traitors
While Abdel-Jabbar is destroying the country

But the Arabs awoke from their collective delusion, the secular pan-Arab dream was dealt its final death blow. Long gone were the heady days of optimism of the 1950s; to a collective sigh of relief in western capitals where Nasser was seen as a bogey man, despite his early pro-western inclinations, because they failed to understand that ‘non-aligned’ did not mean ‘enemy’. Besides, the novelty of a ‘third world’ leader talking back and demanding to be treated as an equal was not something they appreciated. But with secularism slayed, Islamism rushed to fill the void.

The only silver lining for Arabs is that they lost their bluster and now pursue a far more realistic foreign policy. In fact, in the long term, it is Israel that is proving the victim of her own success, falling prey to the arrogance of the victor, it is unwilling to make the compromises needed to reach peace and ensure the country’s long-term sustainability.

©Khaled Diab

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