MACLEAN'S REPORTS

Will Nasser be the war’s last casualty?

Beneath the lies, the UAR is beaten, abandoned and broke. Can Nasser survive?

BLAIR FRASER August 1 1967
MACLEAN'S REPORTS

Will Nasser be the war’s last casualty?

Beneath the lies, the UAR is beaten, abandoned and broke. Can Nasser survive?

BLAIR FRASER August 1 1967

Will Nasser be the war’s last casualty?

Backstage in Egypt

Beneath the lies, the UAR is beaten, abandoned and broke. Can Nasser survive?

CAIRO

EACH NIGHT five Egyptian soldiers dossed down in scruffy grey blankets beneath the ornate bridgehead between Shepheard’s Hotel and the Nile Hilton, tired from a hard day of “guarding” the bridge in 100-degree heat beside their sandbag-encircled machine guns. The guard duty was taken over at midnight by two small, earnest Cairo policemen, who would stop any European on the sidewalk and demand to see a passport which (because it was not written in Arabic) they did not know how to read.

The war had been over for much longer than the six days it had lasted, and the foreign visitor might well wonder why, and against whom, the Nile bridges were being guarded. It might of course have been merely the reflex action of a nation still in shock, gradually recovering consciousness but not yet capable of rational behavior. Or was it possible that army and police had been alerted against a real enemy, not external but internal, still invisible but known to exist? And if so, which side will police and army take when the coup d’état comes?

Foreigners who live in Egypt agree that the regime is much weaker, and much more profoundly shaken, than the controlled press and official spokesmen make it appear. Even before the war, Nasser’s economic plight was desperate. He owed money to everybody, even India, and his creditors (including Canada) were unable to collect the most trivial debts. He was in urgent need of foreign exchange, with no prospective lenders in sight. Some factories were already closed for lack of parts or raw materials. Leaf-worm plague threatened the cotton crop, which in any case was mortgaged to the Soviet Union in payment for tanks and MIGs. Food shortages were imminent. The hope of diverting attention from these domestic emergencies was probably one of Nasser’s motives for the gestures of belligerency that seemed so attractively inexpensive, but that started the war.

Now his financial situation is more hopeless than ever. Current income from foreign sources has dwindled catastrophically. The tourist trade has vanished almost as totally as the Suez Canal tolls that used to bring him $600,000 a day. Foreign debts can be repudiated or ignored, but this makes further borrowing difficult.

Lenders would be hard to find in any case. The lip service at the UN is no index of the real feeling between Egypt and the Soviet Union. Egyptians in their search for scapegoats have not overlooked their Soviet allies, against whom the case is much stronger than the half-abandoned lie about “AngloAmerican intervention.” The Russians did not come to the Arabs’ rescue in the six-day war. They did not even pretend to believe Nasser’s story about Anglo - American aid to Israel, but Nasser having broadcast this lie had to stand by it — and it made the Soviet failure to act even harder to explain to the Egyptian people.

On their side the Russians had reason to reproach the Egyptians. Some weeks before war broke out, a Soviet military mission visited Sinai to see what the Egyptians were doing with their new Russian hardware. The Russians were appalled by what they saw— tanks wrongly deployed, radar maladjusted, MIGs lined up wing to wing on plainly visible airstrips. But when the Russians urged them to disperse their aircraft, the Egyptians explained that this was quite impossible: “It would make the problems of maintenance too difficult.”

Ever since the calamities of early June, Nasser has been trying to divert the blame for the disaster on other people at home and abroad. With the Egyptian populace he may have succeeded, though even that grows more and more doubtful as the survivors return with their horror stories. But that the higher officials and army officers should be equally deceived is inconceivable — and they, too, are looking for scapegoats. Foreign residents would not be surprised if one scapegoat turns out to be Nasser himself.

BLAIR FRASER