From defeat to disintegration: reflections on 1967 and afterwards

After decades of autocracy, failed governance, the hollowing out of civil society and massive theft of national resources by corrupt ruling elites...

Hisham Melhem

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How should the Arabs circa 2015 reflect on the 48th anniversary of the 1967 defeat in the war with Israel? Maybe the question should be posed differently. Are the Arabs, particularly those in Egypt, the Levant and Mesopotamia, given their current political and cultural dizzying turmoil even capable of seriously reflecting on a calamitous shock that was considered by my generation of Arabs as a historic milestone and a unique disaster that nothing could surpass?

I was 17 years old then, but I remember distinctly the collective pain and humiliation we felt, when tiny Israel in the span of six days routed three Arab armies to occupy Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, Syria’s Golan Heights and what was left of mandated Palestine, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. How most Arabs sought refuge in denial, claiming the defeat was only a ‘setback’, and that Israel would not have won the war without Western machinations, since in the view of many Arab nationalists, leftists and Islamists Israel was an extension of Western Imperialism in the region. Little did we know then, that the enormity of the ‘setback’ more than four decades later, would pale in comparison with the disintegration of the state system in Syria and Iraq and beyond that in Libya and Yemen, the marginalization of Egypt, and Lebanon and the attendant meltdown of most of these societies into fractured, infighting sects, ethnicities, tribes and regions.

Today the Palestine issue, known then as the ‘central cause’ of the Arabs, is left to a hapless Palestinian Authority exercising nominal control over a fraction of the West Bank under the thumb of Israel’s military with the Gaza Strip, besieged by Israel and Egypt, is left to decay further under the harsh rule of the Islamist movement Hamas.

The ‘wounded time’

The 1967 defeat brought in its wake a brief legacy of introspection and soul searching, however it was not wide enough or deep enough to shake or undermine the entrenched political, cultural or religious dogmas and orthodoxies. Few could see then that the 1967 debacle was our window to the horrors awaiting us in subsequent years and decades. Even those poets and writers who eloquently bemoaned the ‘wounded time’ الزمان الجريح or the ‘bad time’ الزمان الرديء ) a combination of bad, awful and foul) that have visited the Arabs in those momentous hot days of June 1967, would not be able to imagine the adjectives that should be attached to the word ‘time’ at this particular time in the modern history of the Arabs.

A brief moment of soul searching

In the aftermath of the war, those searching for meaning in that pivotal moment and asking the endless versions of ‘what went wrong’ came to Beirut, the only Arab sanctuary where they could inquire, ponder, debate, publish and act . Other Arab claimants for such position like Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad were mostly neutralized by autocracy. Searing critical books and essays of Arab society, polity and traditions were published and discussed in Beirut by intellectuals from all over the Arab world, particularly from the Levant; with the Syrians having the pride of place. In their courageous, uncompromising and powerful analysis and diagnosis of the ills of Arab politics, society, cultural and religious traditions, the political philosopher Sadeq Jalal al-Azm, the poet and essayist Adonis, and the playwright Saadallah Wannous cut a large swath of scorched earth into the heart of the deep structures that underpin Arab life, toppling the dominant political, cultural and religious deities of the time. Nothing was spared and everything was criticized; society, Arab nationalism, religious traditions, cultural assumptions, popular myths and symbols, and the poverty of intellectual life. Even that most sacred of Arab cows, the Arabic language itself, and how it has been abused by politicians and their hired intellectuals who brandished its flowery clichés, its worn-out classical and ‘sacred’ phraseology and traditions, to perpetuate an ossified order.

After decades of autocracy, failed governance, the hollowing out of civil society and massive theft of national resources by corrupt ruling elites, the brittle foundations of these nation-states began to fray and disintegrate along sectarian, ethnic, tribal and regional lines

Hisham Melhem

Sadeq al-Azm’s book Self-Criticism after the defeat , was the most powerful secular deconstruction of the prevailing values of Arab society and polity. The poet Adonis turned his pioneering literary journal Mawaqif into a powerful vehicle for the new critical voices in the Arab world who published merciless indictments of their decaying world. Adonis was particularly obsessed with the notion of demystifying and deconstructing Islamic and cultural traditions. He wanted to liberate his culture from the clutches of an oppressive and supposedly ‘sacred’ past and to embrace a modern, progressive and secular sensibility. Adonis’ poems and essays in Mawaqif were magnificently powerful, and prescient; they were the stuff that underpins a civilization. Saadallah Wannous` gripping play An evening party for June fifth, first published in Mawaqif then produced to critical and popular acclaim in Beirut was merciless in criticizing the underlying political and social causes of the defeat. The play in which some actors sat among the audience, (I remember how surprised we were) helped revolutionize theatre in the Arab world. That play and subsequent works by Wannous along with the writings of Adonis were the most influential literary works to emerge following the 1967 defeat. It was in the publishing houses of Beirut, its newspapers and magazines, its literary clubs and theatres that most of this political, cultural and artistic ferment were taking place. It was my misfortune to meet Wannous only once in Damascus, shortly before his death in 1997, but I was lucky to have met Adonis and Sadeq al-Azm in my youth in those heady days in Beirut; their work left a lasting impact on my life.

Arab autocracy’s second act

Not only the Arab secularists and leftists saw the 1967 as more than a military debacle, but something that reflects deeper cultural and even moral maladies, this was also the view of some of the Islamist critics, who agreed with the leftists that the defeat was an indictment of Arab nationalism in both of its incarnations, Ba’athisim in Syria and Nasserism in Egypt. It was in the aftermath of 1967, that the Islamists, who were suppressed in Egypt and Syria during the heydays of Arab nationalism, began to reassert themselves intellectually and politically project themselves as the ‘authentic’ alternative to Arab nationalism.

The 1973 war, in which the Egyptian and Syrian armies breached Israeli fortifications and performed relatively well, at least in the early stages of the fighting, allowed these regimes after they regained some of their territories following American mediations, and after receiving financial and political cover from the Arab Gulf states, to claim that they have restored their credibility. The failure of the Palestinian national movement, represented then by the Palestine Liberation Organization, supported by the left to live up to its claim, to represent the ‘secular’ alternative to the humiliated Arab nationalists, and finally the civil war in Lebanon, put an end to that fleeting moment of enthusiasm and promise that I lived through in the years that followed the 1967 defeat. The forces of autocracy and tradition were back in control, and they bargained successfully for another lease on life. But the reassertion of the status quo and tradition, even when it looked resilient behind a shining veneer of stability, could not totally hide the fact that there was something rotten in the world of the Arabs. From the middle 1970’s until the beginning of the Tunisian uprising in late 2010, there were occasional spasms of violence, limited and aborted uprisings in some states, both peaceful (Egypt and Jordan) and armed (Syria, Algeria and Iraq), and both types of protests were suppressed or brutally crushed.

A world of constant sorrows

In 1979 the Islamic Revolution in Iran was another milestone that has changed, and still changing Iran and the region, and its reverberations are now being felt in the ongoing nihilistic war of attrition between the Shiites and the Sunnis. Iran is an old country with civilizational heft. Its pre-Islamic as well as its Islamic eras is rich and distinct. Such a state, with such history, regardless of whether its ruler wears a crown, a turban or a three piece suit will act on what it sees as its natural right to be a regional hegemon. Egypt is the only Arab state with somewhat similar history to Iran; distinguished pharaonic and Islamic histories. But what the Islamic Republic has in some abundance and Egypt lacks demonstrably, is the political will and means to act on its ambitions and the willingness to pay a price. Of course, Iran’s ability to use its Arab satraps in its ongoing conflicts with and within some Arab states gives Tehran a tremendous advantage.

In September 1980, Saddam Hussein began Iraq’s slow descent into the three circles of the inferno by invading Revolutionary Iran, totally oblivious to history’s lessons that those outsiders who meddle with revolutions (the European invasions of revolutionary France and Russia) end up being burned by them. Borrowing from Dante’s Inferno, the first circle was the invasion of Iran, the second was the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the third was the (American) invasion of Iraq itself in 2003. One Iraqi observer described this series of invasions as one war giving birth to another, and another.

After decades of autocracy, failed governance, the hollowing out of civil society, massive theft of national resources by corrupt ruling elites, the brittle foundations of those heterogeneous and relatively new nation-states, like Syria and Libya, and later Iraq, began to fray and disintegrate along sectarian, ethnic, tribal and regional lines. Even homogenous and old states with clear cultural identities and a sense of permanency like Egypt, and to a lesser extent Tunisia could not escape the season of discontent that swept the region in the second decade of the 21st century, plunging a brittle world into what looks like a long era of constant sorrows and bloodshed.

The great unwinding

Unlike the1967 war, when three Arab states lost territories to another state, and their existence was not in danger, today’s conflicts are within states, with regional and international powers involved directly or by proxy in various ways and on multiplicity of levels. In these protracted wars, the very existence of some of the states born out of the great violence of the Great War a century ago is in jeopardy. We are currently watching the great unwinding of Syria and Iraq the way we have known them for almost a century. The train of Kurdish independence has already left the station in Baghdad carrying between 5 and 6 million people toward the final station of statehood in Erbil. The current Kurdish leadership in Iraq is the last leadership that speaks Arabic. The majority of Kurds who are under the age of 30 speak rudimentary Arabic or none. The ugly, and at times systematic, religious and ethnic cleansing that Iraq witnessed in recent years in which governments in Baghdad (beginning with Saddam’s regime) and later with the Shiite governments installed with U.S. help, as well as Sunni and Shiite militias, including the Islamic State ISIS, have finally destroyed any semblance of communal coexistence. Baghdad, which a century ago boasted large communities of indigenous Christians and Jews as well as Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds is now about 80 percent Shiite city, and constantly losing its urban soul with rural populations and values smothering its once vibrant cultural life.

The same maladies afflict Syria, and its once great diverse and cosmopolitan cities of Aleppo and Damascus. What was not undone by sectarian cleansing, committed mostly by the Assad regime, but also by ISIS and other radical and Jihadi Islamist groups, was physically destroyed by the regime’s heavy artillery and barrel bombs. Syria’s refugee population is now more than 4 million, the largest in this new century; the number of uprooted Syrians is more than 11 million. The longer the conflict continues the worse are the prospects of saving Syria as a unitary state. The whirlpool of Syria’s unraveling can only drag with it a brittle and fractured Lebanon and possibly Jordan. Even Israel, cannot totally escape the ill winds from Syria, with the possibility of another frightening war between Israel and Hezbollah, (and indirectly Iran) a likely outcome. Libya’s future as a unitary state is not assured. A fractured Libya in war with itself is likely to continue for years, like other African conflicts in the old Sudan and Angola. Yemen’s wars (which never really stopped in recent decades) will continue to fester in the foreseeable future, with the assured involvement of regional powers.

The shadow of the Ayatollah

Almost a half century after the 1967 defeat, the Egyptian army is still fighting in the Sinai; only the enemy this time is from within. There is a low intensity counter insurgency being waged by the Egyptian armed forces against a small but stubborn fanatical Islamist groups benefitting from the chaos in Libya. The Syria army however, is acting again like the Praetorian Guard it was intended to be, and has been waging the most brutal attacks in its history against its own people, including the use of Chemical Weapons and in the process leveling whole cities like Homs. Almost a half century after the 1967 defeat and with the unwinding of Syria and Iraq, the marginalization of Egypt, the Arab East finds itself forced to live in the shadows of its more powerful neighbors; Iran, Turkey and Israel. In the midst of the current unwinding in the Levant, Iraq and Yemen, the shadow of the Ayatollah looms very large and menacing.

A sanctuary named Beirut

The brief intellectual ferment we have seen following the 1967 defeat was possible in part because of the existence of an open and liberal Arab city; Beirut. No such city exists today in the Arab world that would welcome or tolerate the cultural ferment and output that Beirut brought to the fore between the wars of 1967 and 1973. The truly Arab liberals and secularists who are still active openly in the region (outside Tunisia) can probably fill out a large movie theatre; although you could still find liberals and secularists in some cities in the Arab East, but most of them are disillusioned, silenced or opted to lead non-political lives.

The Beirut of 1967 is mostly gone; Today, Hezbollah is trying with Iranian largess, to turn Beirut into a Tehran on the Mediterranean, just as some Sunni Jihadist groups have been trying to turn Tripoli, Lebanon second largest city into a Kandahar on the Mediterranean. I am writing these words on the tenth anniversary of the assassination of my colleague Samir Kassir, an intellectual and activist who embodied the values of liberal democracy, and paid the ultimate price for opposing Syria’s murderous regime and its Hezbollah ally. And while the values of liberal democracy and political diversity have not been fully extinguished, the dominant sectarian discourse and polarization, the diminishing space of political and cultural diversity, the unraveling of society and the political bankruptcy of a parochial political class, could also doom Beirut. Civilizations and cultures are created in vibrant, open cities. Egypt has yet to recover from the loss of its cosmopolitan and creative centers in Alexandria and Cairo. After the twilight of Damascus and Baghdad, if Beirut goes the way of Alexandria, darkness will descent at noon and engulf a world of sorrows, tears and rage.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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