Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Power TriangleMilitary, Security, and Politics in Regime Change$

Hazem Kandil

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780190239206

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: December 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190239206.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use.  Subscriber: null; date: 23 October 2019

Blood, Folly, and Sandcastles

Blood, Folly, and Sandcastles

June 1967

(p.247) 13 Blood, Folly, and Sandcastles
The Power Triangle

Hazem Kandil

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and its consequences for Egypt. Egypt's new regime under Gamal Abd al-Nasser was a “dictatorship without a dictator”; it was the security aristocracy that ruled. Both Nasser and army chief Abd al-Hakim Amer blamed the country's misfortunes on the “mukhabarat (intelligence) state.” As a matter of fact, what appeared to be a personal battle between the president and his field marshal, between 1956 and 1967, masked a power struggle within the security community. This chapter first provides a background on the Suez War that erupted after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956 and argues that the war was a political triumph for Nasser but exposed Amer's military shortcomings. It then recounts the events leading up to the Arab-Israeli war and considers why the loss to the Israelis did not spark a popular revolt in Egypt.

Keywords:   security, Arab-Israeli war, Egypt, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Abd al-Hakim Amer, Suez War, Suez Canal, military

ONE OF THE REMARKABLE THINGS about Egypt’s new regime was that it was a “dictatorship without a dictator” (Aburish 2004: 56). It was the security aristocracy that ruled. Citizens lived under constant surveillance: phones, offices, and homes were bugged; mail was regularly checked; neighbors, colleagues, even siblings could not be trusted. Suspect behavior invariably invited “dawn visitors,” who could detain people for indefinite periods and force them to confess to whatever crime they fancied through unspeakable torture. Neither Nasser nor Amer could rein in the leviathan they had unleashed. And indeed both blamed Egypt’s misfortunes on the “mukhabarat (intelligence) state.” As a matter of fact, what appeared to be a personal battle between the president and his field marshal, between 1956 and 1967, masked a power struggle within the security community. The security elite, which stood united against Naguib, was now divided into two competing factions: those attached to Nasser’s political apparatus, namely, the Ministry of Interior with its General Investigations Department (GID), and the President’s Bureau of Information (PBI); and those attached to Amer’s military, that is, the Office of the Commander-in-Chief for Political Guidance (OCC), the Military Intelligence Department (MID), and the General Intelligence Service (GIS). It was a struggle for supremacy that ended with disaster on the morning of June 5, 1967. But its first round commenced in October 1956, during the Suez Crisis.

Military Defeat, Political Triumph

The road toward the Suez War did not begin with the nationalization of the Suez Canal in July 1956, but two years earlier over a military-related (p.248) dispute. Since most officers supported the 1952 coup because of their resentment of the army’s unpreparedness, it was only natural that procuring advanced weapons was at the top of Nasser’s agenda. He initially turned to Washington. In October 1954 a meeting was held at security operative Hassan al-Tuhami’s apartment between Nasser and Amer, the CIA’s Miles Copeland, and U.S. Generals Albert Gerhardt and Wilbur Eveland. An agreement was reached to provide Egypt with $20 million worth of weapons. But the following month, Washington only announced an economic aid package of $40 million. America first wanted Egypt to join the Baghdad Pact, a pro-Western regional defense alliance. Nasser refused, warning the CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt that he might negotiate instead with the Eastern bloc (Copeland 1970: 123–33, 148). With Israel stepping up its raids against Palestinians in the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip, Nasser was forced to conclude the famous Czech Arms Deal with Moscow in September 1955. That month, he delivered a speech blaming the West: “When we carried out the revolution we turned to every country … to arm our forces, we turned to England, we turned to France, we turned to America … [but] we only heard demands [that undermine] Egypt’s dignity” (Al-Rafe’i 1989: 199). Before the Americans knew what hit them, Nasser went further by recognizing Red China, in May 1956. The United States retaliated by withdrawing its offer to help build the High Dam, a hydroelectric project that promised to double Egypt’s industrial capacity. A furious Nasser responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal in front of an ecstatic crowd, on July 26, 1956, to boost national revenue to finance the dam and purchase weapons.

Instead of just aggravating the United States, Nasser’s decision provoked three odd partners to invade Egypt, in what became known as the Tripartite Aggression. Britain, France, and Israel had different reasons. Nasser threatened Britain’s conservative Arab allies (Jordan, Iraq, Aden, and the Gulf sheikhdoms), and now his control of the strategic waterway placed a quarter of British imports and three-quarters of its oil needs under his mercy (Johnson 1957: 11–14). France not only resented Cairo’s support of the Algerian revolt, but also the French-run Suez Canal Company was the “last great international stronghold of French capital” (Turner 2006: 187–93). Israel, for its part, wanted to nip in the bud its western neighbor’s drive for military parity, and thus seized on the French invitation for a joint assault (Turner 2006: 260–64). The plan, as set in the Sèvres Protocol, on October 24, 1956, was to topple Nasser and reestablish control over the Suez Canal in three stages. First, Israeli forces would roll into Sinai to draw in Egypt’s army, then British and French paratroopers would occupy the canal under (p.249) the pretext of protecting the international waterway, and finally, a full-fledged invasion would install a new government in Cairo.

As agreed, Israel’s armored brigades stormed across the border, on October 29, 1956. Two days later, a Franco-British airstrike paved the way for an invasion by the “largest amphibious fighting force since the end of the Second World War” (Turner 2006: 1). Egypt’s military command was naturally startled. When Nasser got to GHQ, on October 31, he was asked to surrender to spare the military total destruction. Amer suffered a nervous breakdown, bewailing how the attack “will send the country back a thousand years” (Imam 1996: 53). The president rebuked his top commander’s “unmanly” behavior, and threatened to court martial him if he continued to “mope like an old hag” (Aburish 2004: 119). He then benched Amer and took control: planning a meticulous withdrawal from Sinai; sinking cement tanks to obstruct navigation in the canal; and rallying Egyptians for popular resistance from the pulpit of al-Azhar mosque (Al-Gamasy 1993: 13). However, it was ultimately the Great Powers’ opposition that tipped the scales. Washington could not tolerate a reassertion of European imperialism in a region it had begun to consider its own, and Moscow treated an assault on a country it was courting as an unforgivable insult. The belligerents withdrew under international pressure, and Egypt had to accept a UN peacekeeping force, and allow Israeli navigation in the Red Sea.

So while the Egyptian military was defeated, the Suez War was hailed as a political triumph. And while Nasser’s political agility was celebrated, Amer’s military shortcomings were exposed. Amer was supposed to reshuffle his incompetent commanders. But his security associates were eager to safeguard their patronage network within the army, and thus warned him that purging loyal subordinates would weaken his position—especially after the military prowess Nasser displayed during the crisis. In a stormy meeting, on November 15, 1956, an audacious Amer rejected Nasser’s pleas for changes in military leadership, refusing even to transfer the scandalously inept air force commander, Sedqi Mahmoud, because he was his man. In fact, the terribly insecure Amer promoted himself to field marshal (Abu Zikri 1988: 71). A wedge was driven between the longtime comrades.

The Dark Years

The Suez War debacle and the ensuing confrontation convinced the president to remove his friend from military command. This was easier said than done. Amer’s security aides, led by OCC strongmen Salah Nasr and Abbas (p.250) Radwan, placed him at the center of an elaborate patronage network within the corps: distributing honors, granting favors, hosting all-night parties, and keeping the “field marshal’s men” untouchable (Hammad 2010: 1330–40). Soon thereafter, Amer became the army’s Santa Clause. Colonel Muhammad Selim recounted one telling incident: “A junior officer once walked up to Amer as he was about to leave GHQ and complained that he was forced to use public transportation to commute to work everyday. Amer tore the top part of his cigarette packet and wrote on its back: ‘Dear Fiat manager, dispense a car immediately to the bearer of this message.’ The field marshal did not even ask for his name; the fact that he donned the uniform and came to him for help was enough” (Selim 2009).

The president’s security men were also at work. PBI Director Samy Sharaf suggested creating a secret pro-Nasser network within the army. And because the officer corps was effectively sealed off by Amer’s security apparatus, Sharaf decided to focus on the Military Academy, which was headed by a relative of his, future War Minister Muhammad Fawzy. Sharaf recruited six cadets and instructed them to lay low until they graduated. After a few meetings with his sleeping cell, however, the field marshal’s men picked them up. And an embarrassed Nasser had to disclaim them. Another PBI operative, Hassan al-Tuhami, bugged Amer’s phones on his own initiative. Again, the field marshal’s alert security apparatus found out, and Tuhami was exiled to Vienna for a decade (Sharaf 1996: 456).

The two old friends were now embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game. Amer’s military security men wanted to extend their control to the civilian security institutions. OCC Director Salah Nasr lobbied to have himself appointed head of the GIS in May 1957, and his OCC deputy Abbas Radwan as interior minister in October 1958. In return, Nasser employed former GIS Director Aly Sabri at PBI to capitalize on his contacts at the agency to neutralize Nasr. The president also anticipated Nasr’s official takeover in May by appointing two confidants (Amin Huwaidi, and Sha’rawi Gomaa) to senior positions at GIS in February. He then convinced Amer to appoint Shams Badran as new OCC director. Badran had been liaising between the presidency and the military, and Nasser hoped he would deliver the military back to him. Nasser was further reassured by the fact that the loyal Zakaria Muhi al-Din, the architect of the entire security apparatus, was unofficially supervising all civilian security agencies, regardless of who was in charge at GIS or the Interior Ministry. The president’s safeguards, however, came to naught. Sabri clashed with PBI Director Sharaf and had to be reallocated, and the shrewd Nasr isolated GIS from Zakaria, transferred Nasser’s men, Huwaidi and Gomaa, to the PBI, and proceeded to ally GIS with the military-based OCC. Worse still, the (p.251) field marshal won over Badran, Nasser’s spy, through his lavish, laissez-faire management style (Huwaidi 2002: 195). Now, all security organs—except for the president’s own PBI—came under Amer’s control.

When Egypt and Syria merged, in 1958, into a United Arab Republic, the president seized the opportunity to kick his friend-turned-rival upstairs by appointing him governor of Syria. The field marshal agreed, believing he would now have his own country to run. But the union was dissolved in three years. Amer felt particularly responsible because it was his Syrian aide-de-camp (Abd al-Karim al-Nahlawy) who organized the anti-Egyptian coup. In the heat of the moment, he resigned all official positions, to Nasser’s great relief. The president moved quickly, reappointing Muhi al-Din interior minister, demoting Radwan to minister without portfolio, and was about to remove Nasr from the GIS. But in January 1962, Muhi al-Din and PBI’s Sharaf uncovered an OCC coup plot to reinstate Amer, and Nasser thought it wise to beat a tactical retreat and recall his old friend (Fawzy 1990: 33).

The president soon came up with a new ploy to lure Amer away from command. In September 1962 he convinced Amer that they should rule collectively through a presidential council. To ascend to this political position, however, Amer would have to hand over the military to Muhammad Fawzy, the Military Academy director—and Sharaf’s relative (Fawzy 1990: 33). Believing he was being promoted to co-president, Amer went along. During the council’s first meeting, on September 18, Nasser announced the appointed of Aly Sabri, his former security associate, as prime minister, and reminded Amer to submit his resignation as agreed. Instead, OCC Director Shams Badran came to see Nasser the next day to inform him that the field marshal had decided to remain in his position. When Nasser insisted that Amer carry out his part of the deal, Badran returned in a couple of months with the field marshal’s letter of resignation. Skimming through it, the president immediately realized he was being set up. In the letter, which Badran insinuated might leak to the press, Amer accused Nasser of becoming a dictator: “What you should be working for now is democracy… . I cannot imagine that after all this time, after eradicating feudalism and manipulative capitalism, after the masses have placed their trust in you unreservedly you still fear democracy.” That morning, a shocked Nasser saw armed paratroopers demonstrating outside his house. PBI also warned him that Nasr at GIS was plotting something big with military commanders. Soon, Badran conveyed another ominous message: Amer would only resign if Nasser established democracy. A meeting was organized on December 11. The field marshal stressed that the political loyalty of the army depended on him personally, and any attempt to remove him would trigger a coup. Nasser (p.252) again recoiled (Sadat 1978: 208). He thought he extracted a concession from Amer when he pressured him to appoint Fawzy chief of staff, after he had denied him general command. But although the field marshal acquiesced, he ended up restricting Fawzy to administration, and improvised a post in the chain of command (ground forces commander) to carry out the chief of staff’s operational duties (Fawzy 1990: 54).

At this point, Nasser regretted his neglect of political organization. If he had formed a proper ruling party, he could have riddled the military with political commissars, as in Russia and China. Instead, he chose to control the military through a secret network of loyal officers. Now their loyalty shifted to Amer, and he no longer knew their identities.1 Amer’s security ensemble (OCC and Military Intelligence) had made the military their powerbase, and established beachheads in the civilian security sector (through GIS). And Nasser’s security organs (PBI and the Interior Ministry) were constantly outclassed. But perhaps it was not too late. If Nasser revamped the political apparatus, maybe he could reduce the relative weight of the military in the ruling bloc. The idea of the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) was thus born. PBI Director Sharaf admitted as much, “We suffered an imbalance; the weight of the military was growing beyond control. Nasser created the ASU as a political counter to the army” (Sharaf 1996: 228–29).

Counterweighing the Military

Nasser built on what he had. The chaotic Liberation Rally had given way, by 1958, to the pyramid-shaped National Union (NU). But both were interest networks with no capacity for ideological mobilization. The passing of the socialist laws of 1961, which Nasser used to broaden his mass base, provided the occasion to reorganize the political apparatus. The 1962 National Charter introduced the ASU, an organization meant to embody the popular will. It was structured along two axes: profession, with committees for workers, peasants, intellectuals, soldiers, “patriotic” capitalists, and a socialist youth organization for students; and residence, with branches in cities and villages. The ASU was tasked with producing ministers, parliamentarians, governors, university deans, and the like, as well as driving legislation and policy. In short, it was the seat of political power.

Nasser’s ruling organization was supposed to act as a popular vanguard. In a meeting with ASU executive, in January 1966, the president explained: “We cannot succeed unless we understand the masses. We (p.253) must take their ideas and opinions, study it, organize it, reflect it back to them, and then point them in the right direction” (Abd al-Nasser 1966: 14–16). But the ASU was not equipped for this role. In his enthusiasm to copy the organization of Communist parties, the president overlooked one crucial ingredient: Communism. Nasser did not adhere to any ideology. He was a pragmatist with lofty ideas about social justice. And without ideology there can be no ideological indoctrination. So all the ASU could do was link various groups to the regime through material temptations rather than ideological commitment. This was good enough to achieve Nasser’s overriding goal: to balance the military—a goal sometimes expressed rather crudely, as, for example, when a 1964 ASU summer camp chose the following topic for discussion: “How should ASU youth resist a possible coup?” (Imam 1996: 90).

The absence of ideology and the obsession with neutralizing the army condemned the ASU from the start. The organization regulated rather than mobilized society. And it did so by presenting itself as the fastest road to social mobility and the safest way to alleviate suspicions of dissent. Many of its 6 million members were opportunists who were delighted to learn that one no longer had to be an officer to benefit from the Revolution; a civilian route had just opened up. Worse still, the deeply embedded security character of the regime seized the ASU. The Interior Ministry vetted members and kept them under surveillance. Intelligence officers, such as Abd al-Fatah Abu al-Fadl, were planted at ASU to monitor its performance (Abu al-Fadl 2008: 223). And indeed, the organization itself assumed security tasks; its members not only preached political obedience, but also reported dissidents. By 1966 its archives held more than 30,000 secret reports on military officers alone (Sirrs 2010: 88). Nasser himself encouraged this role. During the same January 1966 meeting, he urged ASU members to act as informers: “You must be courageous enough that when you notice the deviation of another member to bring it to the attention of the office” (Abd al-Nasser 1966: 13). The ASU became so proficient in collecting information that Nasr at GIS complained to Nasser that it was spying on his own spies (Heikal 1990: 401).

This security role reached its zenith with the creation of the Vanguard Organization (VO), a secret body within the ASU designed to help with indoctrination, but that rapidly degenerated into a full-fledged intelligence organ. The idea behind the VO, as Nasser explained during the founding meeting in June 1963, was to form secret cells of carefully selected ASU cadres to penetrate public institutions (Sharaf 1996: 183–91). Nasser hoped the VO would become the political nucleus of his regime—a civilian equivalent to the Free (p.254) Officers. But its 30,000 members were preoccupied with security from the beginning. The VO itself operated in secret (its existence was only revealed in 1966); two of its four founding members were PBI operatives (Sharaf and Sabry); its leader was Interior Minister Sha’rawi Gomaa; and its charter decreed that: “each member is obliged to present [security] reports … to his superiors.” This was not far from what Nasser intended. In a meeting with VO members, in March 1966, he said: “We need supporters within the executive branches and administration … [for] surveillance and oversight” (Ahmed 1993: 764–71). He was specifically worried about the military, adding in that same meeting that “I believe that it would be impossible for the army to prepare for a coup [without political support]” (Ahmed 1993: 786). The VO thus infiltrated universities, factories, unions, the media, and the bureaucracy, to report on suspicious activities. In the words of one member, it had become a “political Gestapo” (Hosni 2007: 20–22).

To the extent that the ASU and VO had a social power base at all, it was the aspiring rural middle class and its urban offshoot in the state bureaucracy. These formed the backbone of Egypt’s ruling party until the end of Mubarak’s rule. The 1952 coup had taken place in a society where 2,500 large landowners (with 147 elite families) and 9,500 middling owners controlled a third of arable land, next to 2.5 million small holders, and 11 million tenant farmers and landless peasants. Though land redistribution granted poor peasant barely enough to subsist on, they were sufficiently grateful to the Revolution to form a solid base for popular mobilization. But the apprehensive Nasser feared their revolutionary enthusiasm might get out of control, and preferred to keep them tied down under village notables. So he placed middling landowners at the apex of the control networks that had been run for decades by rural magnates (Binder 1978: 344; Yunis 2005: 69). In other words, land reform shifted power from large landlords to a class of kulaks. Security considerations were again prioritized over the potential for mass mobilization.

The July 1961 Socialist Laws further enhanced the economic power of the rural middle class by undermining that of the wealthy urban stratum. The laws themselves also had something to do with security. Intelligence czar Zakaria Muhi al-Din reported that a group of thirty senior military officers were courting Egyptian capitalists to help them replace Nasser with Amer. The report highlighted how two-thirds of the economy was still in private hands, and how half of Egypt’s workers were employed by private businesses. A swift move was therefore necessary. In October 1961 Muhi al-Din arrested 40 prominent investors, and in mid-November sequestrated the financial assets of another 767 (Abdel-Malek 1968: 160). The next logical step was to eliminate the private sector in banking, international trade, heavy industry, (p.255) transportation, and the media. Even in medium industries and commercial companies—the last domain of private enterprise—the public sector became a controlling shareholder (McDermott 1988: 121–22).

The expansion of the urban managerial class offered the middling landowners an opportunity to extend their influence to the city. They pushed their offspring to join the bureaucracy and public sector companies. And accordingly, the sons of rural notables dominated the state bourgeoisie, which exceeded 1 million employees in 1967 (Yunis 2005: 66–67). Soon these rural-minded bureaucrats transformed the public sector into a financial fiefdom to supplement the agricultural fiefdoms of their fathers. Strategically placed in the city and the countryside, this new elite became the bulwark of the ASU and VO. To rely on conservative village notables and civil servants seemed much safer to Nasser’s security coterie than to mobilize urban activists or unruly peasants. That is not to say that these strata became a ruling class. Their role was rather to sustain those in power, and therefore represented a “second stratum of the ruling class,” one that mediates between rulers and society (Binder 1978: 13).

The fingerprints of Nasser’s security elite appear all over this power-building process, even when the president aspired for a wider popular base. For example, he pledged that 50 percent of ASU members would be workers and peasants. Yet his security advisors managed to include middling landowners in the peasant category, and public sector employees in the labor one (Abd al-Mo’ty 2002: 78). And when Nasser wanted conservative elements filtered out during the transition from the NU to the ASU, his security men rejected only 1.5 percent of NU applicants to the ASU. In fact, 78 percent of those in charge of NU village units, and 60 percent of those heading NU urban offices occupied the same posts under the ASU (Binder 1978: 309–15). As one intelligence official noted, ASU was not formed of the same social forces as that of the NU, but of actually the same people (Abu al-Fadl 2008: 226).

It is this group of middle-class opportunists that propped the ruling party for the next five decades—although it would have to share the spoils with affluent businessmen after the 1970s. Eventually, this security‒political alliance would marginalize the military, as Nasser had planned. But for the moment the field marshal’s men still hoped to reassert their power. And it was this attempt that set the stage for the final showdown.

The Military Needs a War

For such a brief encounter, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War remains one of history’s most consequential confrontations. In Egypt, the defeat was “so unexpected (p.256) in its totality, stunning in its proportion, and soul-destroying in its impact” (Aburish 2004: 249). How could we explain the astonishing sequence of events that led up to this defeat? How could the politically astute Nasser act so belligerently when he had so little control over his army? Egyptian analysts blame an American plot to destroy Nasser. Israelis claim that he thought he could actually destroy Israel. Others highlight how Arab states (especially Syria and Jordon) dared Nasser to act on his virtuoso rhetoric.2 Perhaps the true motivation will remain hidden forever, but the logic of the intraregime power struggle provides an explanation that best incorporates the available evidence. And this logic points to only one direction: that the effectiveness of Nasser’s counterbalancing strategy convinced Amer’s men that if the military does not accomplish something spectacular soon, it would lose its place at the epicenter of power.

Of course, Amer knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that the army was not prepared for war, even as he pretended to provoke one. In December 1966 he received a report by the military’s high command advising against any confrontation with Israel. The report was based on the disastrous effects of the Yemen War. The Egyptian army had sent instructors to support Yemeni nationalists in 1962. Amer had embraced this opportunity to boost the military’s image in a short and effortless campaign against pro-monarchy bandits (Fawzy 1990: 24–26; Sadat 1978: 211). His plan almost worked, since U.S. President Kennedy supported the Yemeni republicans. However, Britain and Saudi Arabia, who supported the monarchists, persuaded Lyndon Johnson to change sides (Schlesinger 1965: 523). The Egyptian army was now trapped in an unconventional war against Western-funded guerillas. Its few hundred instructors swelled into a 70,000-strong force by 1965 (Vatikiotis 1978: 162). The 1966 report assessed the impact of this regional “Vietnam”: how military discipline suffered from the exigencies of guerilla warfare; how pilots forgot the basics of dogfighting after years of aimless strikes against a country with no air force; and how equipment and ammunition were depleted. Moreover, budget constraints forced the military to discharge thousands of reservists and freeze conscription. And so by May 1967—the month Amer began to agitate for war—the army suffered a 37 percent shortage in manpower, 30 percent shortage in small arms, 24 percent in artillery, 45 percent in tanks, and 70 percent in armored vehicles; and trained pilots were fewer than the available aircraft. Another report described 1966‒1967 as the worse training year in the army’s history (Al-Gamasy 1993: 39–40; Dunstan 2009: 26).

What made this unmistakably bleak picture bleaker still was Nasser’s warning to Amer of an imminent U.S. plot (Fawzy 1990: 10). Washington (p.257) believed that Egypt’s socialist nationalism was as dangerous as Communism. Keen to allay such fear, Nasser responded warmly to Kennedy’s 1961 circular to Arab leaders, triggering a two-year personal correspondence. Relations remained cordial because Kennedy believed a cornered Nasser might be more aggressive (Schlesinger 1965: 522–23). This changed with Johnson, who believed that force was the only language Nasser understood. Being a Texan congressmen also meant he had particularly intimate relations with oil conglomerates and Israel supporters, who both loathed Nasser. Johnson first charged the CIA’s Robert Komer to turn Egypt’s Yemen adventure into a quagmire. Next, he suspended American wheat shipments to Cairo. But something more devastating was underway. Toward the end of 1966, former World Bank President Eugene Black informed Nasser that Washington was planning to “unleash Israel” against him. Nasser’s closest advisor Mohamed Hassanein Heikal confirmed that an American-Israeli committee, under Walt Rostow, was considering plans to remove him from power, via so-called Operation Turkey Shoot (Heikal 1990: 361–74). In fact, on the first day of the 1967 war, Rostow prefaced his report to Johnson as follows: “Herewith the account … of the first day’s turkey shoot” (Dunstan 2009: 72).

Now, if Amer had a clear picture of the dismal state of the army, and if he had been forewarned about the American-Israeli intentions, why did he undertake such an incredible gamble in the summer of 1967? The answer lies in Nasser’s success in counterbalancing the military. The president’s security team decided, in 1962, that it was impossible to depose Amer’s men, and thus shifted from frontal assault to siege warfare. Since access to the military was blocked, they focused on building new political organizations and controlling the executive. The ASU was created in 1962, followed by the VO in 1963, and Nasser’s security loyalists led the cabinet: Sabri between 1962 and 1965, and Muhi al-Din between 1965 and 1967, and the ratio of officers in the cabinet was cut from 52 percent in 1961 to 36 percent in 1964 (Dekmejian 1982: 31).

Driven by insecurity, Amer’s security aides took preventive measures. In the summer of 1966, OCC Director Shams Badran purged 173 officers, and reshuffled another 300 in the most extensive reorganization since 1952. The aim was to advance loyal officers to field commands to oversee troop movements (a hectic job, one they usually snubbed), and recall neutral officers to GHQ under the watchful eye of the OCC (Al-Gamasy 1993: 83; Hammad 2010: 1380–83). And in September 1966, Badran himself was promoted to war minister. Afterward, Amer issued two crucial decrees: one expanding the jurisdiction of the war minister, and the other shrinking the responsibilities of Nasser’s ally, Chief of Staff Muhammad Fawzy (Fawzy 1990: 37–38). Still, they did not (p.258) feel safe. In November 1966 Murad Ghaleb, Egypt’s longtime ambassador to Moscow, overheard Intelligence Director Salah Nasr explaining to Amer’s lieutenants that as long as Nasser controlled the executive, their position would remain vulnerable (Ghaleb 2001: 101). Badran therefore demanded the premiership, which Nasser flatly rejected. Tensions rose and a compromise was reached whereby Sedqi Suleiman, a reputably unaligned officer, replaced the president’s ally, Muhi al-Din, as premier. The field marshal then reversed the declining ratio of officers in the cabinet from 36 percent under Muhi al-Din to 55 percent under Suleiman (Dekmejian 1982: 33). In return, Nasser asked for a neutral officer to head Military Intelligence, and both sides agreed on Muhammad Sadeq, Egypt’s military attaché to Bonn (Sirrs 2010: 95).

Amer’s men, however, believed that these maneuvers only bought them time. If the military did not pull off a dramatic feat soon, its relative weight within the regime would continue to diminish. After the Yemen debacle, the army had to prove itself in the arena that no one else could claim: on the battlefield—for as Hobbes once proclaimed “There is no honour Military but by warre” ([1651] 1968).

“At Dawn We Slept”

It all started in December 1966, when Amer telegrammed Nasser from Pakistan demanding the deployment of his troops into Sinai to silence Arab critics who accused them of hiding behind the United Nations Emergency Forces (UNEF) positioned there since 1956. The president ignored Amer’s plea. But on May 14, 1967, acting on unconfirmed Russians reports that Israel was mobilizing against Syria, the field marshal went ahead with his plan, later justifying his decision to Nasser by citing the Egyptian-Syrian defense pact concluded a year before. The president was frantic. He had specifically instructed Amer the night before to double-check the Soviet report before taking action. Nasser quickly dispatched his trusted Chief of Staff Fawzy to Damascus to check claims of an imminent Israeli attack. The latter reported back to Amer, on May 15, that the Soviet report was baseless. However, as Fawzy recalled: “The field marshal made no reaction… . I began to suspect that the alleged [Israeli] troop concentrations was not the principle reason for his mobilization order” (Fawzy 1990: 72). Moreover, on May 2, the Jordanian monarch had delivered a warning through the future Egyptian chief of staff, General Abd al-Mon’em Riyad, that America and Israel planned to drag Egypt into a devastating war. Riyad submitted a full report to Amer. But the report was concealed from Nasser until the army had crossed into Sinai (Heikal 1990: 439–40). In a desperate attempt (p.259) at damage control, the president asked Amer for the draft letter he intended to send to UNEF. He received Arabic and English versions, and amended the Arabic one to request a redeployment rather than withdrawal of UN troops. But, on May 16, Amer called to apologize: the un-amended English version was mistakenly submitted, requiring a full UN withdrawal. Nasser tried to retract the letter, but UN Under-secretary General Ralph Bunche, possibly under American pressure, refused (Brooks 2008: 90–91).

With the army deployed in Sinai, Amer raised the stakes by demanding, on May 21, a block on Israeli navigation in the Red Sea. Nasser pointed out that this was a casus belli, to which Amer retorted that his men could not sit on their hands as Israeli flags flashed before them, and that if his wish was not granted, they might start shooting Israeli vessels. When Nasser asked him if he was ready for war, Amer famously responded: “My neck is at stake” (Brooks 2008: 92). To silence the president, Badran claimed that during his recent visit to Moscow, the Soviet defense minister pledged to defend Egypt should the Americans come to Israel’s aid—a claim the Soviets vehemently denied after the war, and their denial was corroborated by the Egyptian ambassador to Moscow (Ghaleb 2001: 107). Relying on his own intelligence sources, Nasser rounded up the high command, on June 2, to let them know that Israel was planning to attack from the air in seventy-two hours, and to ask them to fortify air force squadrons in Sinai to prevent a repeat of the Suez War, when jets were destroyed on the ground. The president also advised against striking first, lest Egypt loses international support, which proved crucial in 1956 (Browne 2009: 75). The next day, Nasser reiterated in an interview with British journalist Anthony Nutting that Egypt “planned no further escalation” (Brooks 2008: 65). In a final effort to avert war, he asked Muhi al-Din to travel to Washington, on June 5, to find a way out. It was too late. June 5 was the day Israel attacked.

Around dawn, an Israeli armada of 196 fighter-bombers (approximately 95 percent of the Israeli Air Force) headed toward Egypt. Before noon, 85 percent of the Egyptian air force (304 planes) was destroyed. Over the next six days, Egypt lost 700 tanks, 450 field guns, 17,500 soldiers (11,500 killed and the rest injured or captured), and out of its 300,000 men in arms, only half remained in formation. Yet the “volume of the losses,” as future War Minister Abd al-Ghany al-Gamasy bitterly noted, “betrays the immensity of the disaster” (Al-Gamasy 1993: 79). Amer was bluffing, and Israel called his bluff.

All the evidence suggests that the field marshal’s men never imagined that their grandstanding would trigger a war. Indeed, when Amer’s frantic chief of operations told him that the army was in no condition to engage Israel, he responded nonchalantly: “There is no need to worry. This is nothing but (p.260) a military demonstration” (Al-Gamasy 1993: 22). GIS director Salah Nasr admitted after the war that the troops were mobilized for a “political purpose, which was to demonstrate military strength [at home]” (Imam 1996: 159). The “demonstration” aspect of the whole episode was clear enough when Amer marched his troops through the streets of Cairo, parading their weapons and chanting patriotic songs, even though 80 percent of his force in Sinai was undrilled reservists, hastily marshaled to the front in their civilian garments. Although the size of the fully mobilized army never exceeded 130,000, Amer claimed he commanded 2 million. Also, a whole squadron of planes, as well as dozens of tanks, and hundreds of boxes of small arms and ammunition remained locked in warehouses until the end of the war (Huwaidi 2002: 191). Moreover, despite threats to attack, Egypt’s only military plan (Plan Qaher) was purely defensive (Brooks 2008: 86).

The high command’s actions after their final meeting with Nasser show how dismissive they were of the possibility of war. To start with, they ignored his warning of an Israeli air strike in three days. Soon-to-be War Minister Amin Huwaidi attested: “Our fighter jets remained exposed on the front, even though rudimentary concrete shelters could have been built in a couple of days” (Huwaidi 2002: 191). The commander of the air force in Sinai only learned of Nasser’s warning after the defeat (Imam 1996: 143). Even more incredible was the fact that, after the meeting, Military Intelligence sent a circular to units in Sinai affirming that Israel would never attack. One day before the war, a lieutenant crossed the peninsula to deliver anti-tank ammunition to a forward border post. The post commander was surprised: “We don’t need any ammunition. There isn’t going to be a war” (Dunstan 2009: 15). Then came Amer’s disastrous decision to fly with his staff to the front in an unarmed transport on June 5, the very day Nasser predicted Israel would attack. So when the war started, Egypt’s entire high command was divided between those suspended in midair with Amer, and those who were either seeing him off in Cairo or waiting to receive him at the airport in Sinai. Naturally, air defense units were ordered to hold their fire until the field marshal’s plane landed safely, and Amer could not revoke these orders once the attack began because if he had broken radio silence, he might have been shot down (Al-Gamasy 1993: 50).

Next came the ultimate testimony to Amer’s unpreparedness for battle: his demand for a Soviet-endorsed ceasefire one hour after the commencement of hostilities, followed by his tragic order of a general retreat from Sinai (Sadat 1978: 228). The ground forces had been offering considerable resistance. Egyptian troops performed best when entrenched in defensive strong points; this was the tactic that required the least training—only bravery. The soldiers stalled Israel’s advance to allow the high command to overcome the (p.261) shock and take charge. The sensible thing to do was to fall back to Sinai’s naturally fortified Mitla and Gidi Passes, block the Israeli ground invasion, and then counter-attack (Dunstan 2009). This was Nasser’s advice when he dropped by GHQ on the afternoon of June 5: to dig-in around the passes (Sadat 1978: 229). But on the second day of the war, Amer gave Chief of Staff Fawzy twenty minutes to draft a withdrawal plan. “I was astounded… . The field marshal was psychologically worn out and seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown… . The land forces … were holding out steadily, and there seemed to be no reason whatsoever to consider a withdrawal.” Nonetheless, Fawzy prepared a rough plan for a four-day pullout with enough delaying tactics to keep the army intact. Amer stared at him blankly and said he had already issued an order to withdraw in twenty-four hours (Fawzy 1990: 151–52). Catastrophe followed: tens of thousands of soldiers abandoned their equipment and withdrew in chaos only to find themselves stranded in the scorching desert under the mercy of marauding Israeli fire power. Amer’s unilateral decision to withdraw was doubtlessly the single most important cause of the 1967 defeat. Gamasy summed up what he saw at the front:

I watched a heavy flow of troops move westward [away from Sinai]. It was completely disorganized… . Could a retreat take place in this manner, when it normally required extreme discipline and precision and, according to the doctrine of war, should take place while the fighting still continued… . The [high] command had given up control of its forces at the most critical time… . [T]‌he situation can neither be explained nor excused … troops withdraw[ing] in the most pathetic way … under continuous enemy air attacks … an enormous graveyard of scattered corpses, burning equipment, and exploding ammunition.

(Al-Gamasy 1993: 64–65)

A rather conclusive piece of evidence of how military mobilization that fateful summer was plainly a bluff comes from Badran’s confession during his trial, in February 1968: “We were 100 percent sure that Israel would not dare to attack” (Al-Gamasy 1993: 76). Clearly, the field marshal’s men thought that they could wipe out the effects of the Suez War (by removing UN observers, and reestablishing Egypt’s control over Red Sea navigation) by simply intimidating Israel. All the military needed was to appear formidable. And that it did. With all eyes fixed on the army’s gallant march into Sinai, Amer could “return to the center stage of … politics after he thought he was so close to the exit” (Heikal 1990: 818). Little did he suspect that the exit door had just opened up. The defeat finally provided Nasser with the opportunity to reclaim the military.

(p.262) The Showdown

After Israel occupied Sinai, Nasser told Amer he was announcing their collective resignation in a televised speech. Amer conceded, provided that his faithful security man (and current war minister) Shams Badran became president. But on June 9, Nasser’s primetime speech only mentioned his own resignation and named security czar Zakaria Muhi al-Din as his successor (Sadat 1978: 232). Hundreds of thousands immediately flooded the streets, protesting Nasser’s decision and pledging to fight Israel under his banner. Their spontaneity was contested since ASU had the capacity to spark mass demonstrations with great speed. In February 1967 Aly Sabri used the ASU to mobilize 100,000 people in ten hours. A later experiment mobilized 40,000 people in three hours (Yunis 2005: 7–8). The fact that these drills took place three months before the June 9 demonstrations makes it clear that regardless of the spontaneity of some, ASU was the mastermind. It also helped that the police did nothing to repress them. In fact, Interior Minister Sha’rawi Gomaa warned Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, Nasser’s confidant, that unless the president retracted his resignation, his men would not hold back the crowds (Heikal 1990: 851). Amer’s resignation was only announced at the late-night news bulletin after the masses had already taken to the streets to prove that they only wanted Nasser’s return. The choice of Zakaria Muhi al-Din as successor seems to have been also well calculated. As Amer rightly noted: “A fetus in his mother’s womb was bound to reject Zakaria,” the feared security baron (Ahmed 1993: 913).

The field marshal’s main security ally, GIS Chief Salah Nasr, carried to Nasser the military’s rejection of any changes in the high command. Nasser rejected this veiled threat. On June 11 he returned to office and put Fawzy in charge of the military. Four days later, he invited Amer to his house to let him know he would not be reinstated (Heikal 1990: 875–86). The field marshal’s men responded with a fierce defamation campaign among the ranks, blaming Nasser—an egoistic and obsessive adventurer—for all the military setbacks in Syria, Yemen, and Sinai (Al-Gamasy 1993: 35). The message, in the words of one field commander, was that the president keeps “throwing an army that cannot swim into the sea, and then punishing it for drowning” (Abu Zikri 1988: 380–97). Some even claimed that Nasser engineered his army’s defeat to rein it in—like a merchant who burns his shop in the hope of a fresh start (Al-Sanhouri 2005: 314; Ghaleb 2001: 124). Security officials distributed Amer’s 1962 letter of resignation to show how the field marshal had implored his friend to renounce dictatorship before it ruined the country (Sharaf 1996: 160–61).

(p.263) Compared to this efficient pro-Amer offensive, Nasser’s associates seemed at a loss, partly because the latter hoped to appease Amer, Badran, and Nasr, “the unholy trio who ran a government within the government in Egypt without his knowledge or approval,” with ceremonial posts—in Amer’s case: the vice presidency (Aburish 2004: 267). The president’s hesitance encouraged Amer’s faction to move from slander to action. The field marshal’s security wizards (Badran, Nasr, and Abbas Radwan) plotted a coup to restore their patron. The paratroopers’ commander, General Osman Nassar, summarized their motive: “We implore you [Amer] not to give this man [Nasser] power over us… . [H]‌e will not shrink from humiliating and destroying us” (Hosni 2008: 155). On June 10 Nasr hid Amer in an intelligence safe house until Badran and Radwan had turned his Cairo residence into a fortress guarded by two platoons with artillery guns, and 300 militiamen from Amer’s hometown in Upper Egypt. On June 11, 600 officers (among whom were fifty brigadiers and generals) drove twelve armored vehicles into GHQ, chanting “There is no leader but the field marshal!” before turning to Amer’s house to pledge their allegiance (Fawzy 1990: 166–68). And on June 26, Nasr sought the CIA’s blessing for his plan to topple Nasser (Sirrs 2010: 105). The plan was to sneak Amer to the Suez Canal, where the army was mostly concentrated, while paratroopers neutralized the Republican Guard, and GIS operatives rounded up Nasser and his associates. Amer would then address the nation, detailing the president’s responsibility for the defeat, and declaring war under his command to liberate Sinai (Hammad 2010: 1345; Ahmed 1993: 925–33). The plan was sound, but the field marshal delayed its execution upon receiving Nasser’s invitation for a meeting to reach an accord. Against the advice of his security men, Amer accepted. After missing his chance to act, it was now Nasser’s turn.

It was days before the plot was scheduled to unfold that Nasser’s security men got wind of it. The president’s PBI was tipped off by a GIS operative, four officers, and Amer’s cook. To plan a counterattack, Zakaria Muhi al-Din formed a taskforce composed of PBI Director Samy Sharaf, Interior Minister Sha’rawi Gomaa, and former intelligence operative Amin Huwaidi. Meetings were held after midnight at a sporting club to avoid GIS surveillance, and soon Nasser was presented with Operation Johnson. Amer was to be lured out of his stronghold and detained. Republican Guard forces would storm into his house to allow Interior Ministry officers to arrest the conspirators. Huwaidi would then take over both the War Ministry and the GIS to administer a sweeping purge of military and intelligence personnel. The end goal was to depoliticize the military and redirect intelligence from domestic to external espionage (Sharaf 1996: 160–75).

(p.264) The plan was implemented successfully. Amer arrived at the presidential residence, on the night of August 24, 1967. Muhi al-Din escorted him to an undisclosed location. The field marshal’s villa was occupied after a four-hour siege and a brief skirmish. His followers were shortly apprehended. At dawn, Huwaidi reached GIS headquarters, and immediately issued orders to place 148 military officers and 18 intelligence operatives (including the agency’s chief Nasr) in custody. On September 13 Amer supposedly committed suicide (Fawzy 1990: 175–74; Huwaidi 2002: 249–275).

It is no mystery why the military did nothing to save its beloved leader and his men. A colonel, who served at the front in 1967, captured the general mood within the ranks, “Soldiers abandon their leaders [in peace] when their leaders abandon them in war” (Al-Beteshty 2006: 17). A brigade commander in 1967 and future war minister, Kamal Hassan Aly, described how he and his comrades regarded Amer’s men less as fellow officers than as “security agents similar to the political commissars of the Soviet army … a new ruling class within the army” (Aly 1994: 117). So even though Amer’s security elite bought off the loyalty of many officers, a critical mass within the armed forces saw clearly how the politicization (and straightforward corruption) of the military had hurled their institution to the abyss.

Now, it was Nasser’s chance to reverse the military politicization trend he had in 1952 ushered in. Acting in his dual capacity as war minister and GIS director, Huwaidi launched an investigation into the cause of defeat, and concluded that it was “the political leadership’s loss of control over the military and security agencies” (Huwaidi 2002: 190–91). Between November 1967 and February 1968, Muhi al-Din supervised a comprehensive purge of Amer loyalists: 1,000 officers and 300 intelligence operatives were discharged, and 90 conspirators, including Nasr, Badran, and Radwan, and Amer’s supreme commanders were handed long prison sentences (Hosni 2008: 143, 151). The percentage of officers in the cabinet decreased from 66 percent in 1967 to 21 percent, and those in the ASU from 75 percent in 1962 to 43 percent (Hammad 1990: 35–36). The number of generals was cut in half. Service chiefs were asked to report directly to the president. The OCC—the nerve center of Amer’s security network—was dissolved. And the National Defense Council, composed of the president and his top ministers and security advisors, was formed in 1969 to take over the responsibility of determining Egypt’s national security interests from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Finally, Huwaidi devoted a special section within GIS to carry out the role of the now-dissolved OCC in monitoring political trends within the armed forces (Huwaidi 2002: 305, 438–51).

(p.265) The president followed this dramatic restructuring with the March 30 Manifesto, which blamed the 1967 defeat on the military‒intelligence complex, and vowed to open up the political system through a new permanent constitution, which was drafted in 1970, and ratified the following year. But—good intentions aside—Egypt’s institutional set-up barred this option. It is true that military-based security organs were either dissolved (the OCC) or redirected toward external enemies (Military Intelligence). It is also true that the civilian intelligence (GIS) was now restricted to counter-intelligence and foreign espionage. But the security shakeup left three formidable institutions standing: the Interior Ministry with its dreaded General Investigations Department (GID), the president’s homegrown intelligence agency (PBI), and the security-oriented ASU, and its secret VO. After a brief soul-searching journey, Nasser was swayed by his security advisors toward maintaining authoritarianism, and only substituting military protection for that of a devastatingly effective civilian security system. The president took a huge step in that direction by creating the Central Security Forces (CSF) at the beginning of 1969. These anti-riot shock units (numbering 100,000 in 1970) were composed of military conscripts placed under the control of the Interior Ministry—a most unusual arrangement. If GID and PBI were now solely responsible for surveillance and investigations, neither of them had the capacity to repress demonstrations, a task previously handled by the military. Nasser therefore supplied them with a paramilitary police force to do the job. The CSF, in other words, was specifically designed to “obviate military involvement in riot control” (Springborg 1989: 101).

There was also a geopolitical element to the continued dominance of security men. The military launched a war of attrition against Israeli forces in Sinai between July 1967 and August 1970. These intermittent battles, as well as the preparation for the upcoming war of liberation, required foreign aid. Convinced that what happened in 1967 was “an Israeli execution of an American war,” Nasser abandoned his balancing strategy and aligned himself with Moscow (Heikal 1990: 914). The Soviets provided advanced weapons (T-62 tanks, Tu-16 bombers, MiG-21 fight bombers), and an air defense system (centered on SAM-6 missiles) without which Egypt could not have entered another war, and—in “an unequivocal military gesture”—sent their own pilots, technicians, and instructors to help rebuild the army and handle its defense (Al-Gamasy 1993: 117). The Soviets promoted the rise of Egypt’s new security triumvirate: Sharaf, Gomaa, and Sabri—whom citizens now referred to as the “centers of power” (Hammad 2008: 1). Of course, Moscow was typically obsessed with security control, but the three men also advanced (p.266) themselves as guarantors of a continued Soviet alliance against the vacillation of democratic (i.e., pro-Western) forces within and outside the regime.

The question one must confront at this point is why the defeat did not spur a popular revolt, perhaps supplemented by a few mutinous regiments, as happened in Russia and Prussia following the Great War? The part concerning the military is relatively easy to answer. For one thing, the army was in a state of shock. After all, it was defeated in six short days, rather than four years of drawn out battles. Also, unlike the war-hardened soldiers of Europe’s two great land powers, Egyptian soldiers scarcely saw combat during these days. Finally, a decade of politicization and security control—something without parallel in the armies of the tsar or the kaiser—kept them loyal. As for the people, they did, in fact, revolt in two waves of massive student and worker uprisings, in February and November 1968—for the first time since 1954. Military tanks surrounded the protesters and helicopters hovered over their heads, but they were only present to intimidate. It was the Ministry of Interior that was now expected to restore order, and it did so with a vengeance: the police used live ammunition, killing 21 people, injuring 772, and detaining 1,100 (Abdallah 1997: 27–45, 149–53). Again, almost two decades of security control prevented university and labor activists from developing the organizations necessary for a full-scale revolt—a phenomenon replicated in 2011. But as ineffective as the 1968 demonstrators were, they legitimized the security branch’s anti-democracy campaign—as re-occurred in 2013. Opposition cannot be tolerated in times of national crisis. Once more, the opportunity to open up the political system had come and gone. The first time, in 1954, it was demanded by officers concerned about the negative effects of immersing the military in politics. In 1967 their fear were vindicated, and the demand for democracy should have been even more resounding. In both cases, however, security forces won the day.


(1.) The 1967 trials revealed how OCC Director Badran had charged members of his cohort in the class of 1948 with managing these cells (Sharaf 1996: 359–60).

(2.) For Egyptian interpretations, see Abu Zikri (1988) and Heikal (1990); for Israeli ones, see Eban (1992), Oren (2002), and Segev (2007); and for Western analysis, see Kerr (1969), Nutting (1972), Brecher (1974), Parker (1993), Boyne (2002), and Brooks (2008).