On 9 March 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser hosted a mini-summit in Cairo, attended by President Shukri al-Quwatli of Syria, King Saud Ibn Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia, and commanders of their armies. General Shawkat Shuqayr of Syria spoke first, saying that his army was ill-prepared for war with Israel, to which his Saudi counterpart Said al-Kurdi replied that the Saudis were short on qualified pilots for their military aircraft.
The details of this meeting were recalled by Abdullah al-Khani, secretary-general of the Syrian Presidency, who was present with Quwatli at the meeting. He passed away in December 2020 and recalled that Abdul Hakim Amer, commander of the Egyptian Army, spoke last, saying: “Your Excellencies, when given the order, I can occupy Tel Aviv in 24 hours.”
Khani looked at Amer in total disbelief, saying, "When the Free Officers came to power in 1952, this man was major in the Egyptian army. Within a year, he had been promoted to Major General, bypassing three entire military ranks, and by the time we met him in 1956, he had reached the rank of Marshall."
"How could this Marshall speak such utter nonsense before two Arab presidents and a king? We expected Abdel Nasser to scold him but unfortunately, all he said was: “That’s very good to hear Hakim.”
Anyone familiar with modern Egyptian history wouldn’t be surprised, given the remarkable bond between Abdel Nasser and Amer, ever since they first met as young cadets at military school. They served together in the Palestine War of 1948 and co-staged the 1952 revolt that toppled King Farouk, after which Amer was installed as commander of the Egyptian army.
Nasser felt that by putting the armed forces under his best friend’s direct command, he could guarantee its ultimate loyalty, never forgetting that soldiers who had rebelled against their king could very much rebel against him in the future.
The trust and respect were mutual, with Amer once saying: “The women of Egypt will continue to bear children, but not in a hundred years will they give birth to somebody like Gamal Abdel Nasser.”
Abdel Nasser was famed for constantly forgiving Abdul Hakim Amer’s many mistakes, starting with the Suez Canal War of 1956 and running during the short-lived union with Syria, which, due to Amer’s wrongdoings, came to a speedy collapse in 1961.
However, his mishandling of the Egyptian Army during the Six-Day War of 1967 was one mistake that Nasser could neither forgive nor ignore.
During that ill-fated war, Egypt lost its entire air force, in addition to the Sinai Peninsula. It left a permanent psychological scar not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world.
Before it started, Abdel Nasser had asked Amer about the readiness of the Egyptian army. Amer replied confidently: “Everything is fully prepared.”
Hours later, it became clear to all that nothing was prepared. Amer was bluffing and very ill-prepared for war.
During the first day of fighting, he lost over 150 warplanes, as Israel mercilessly raided Egyptian airports. In his memoirs, Abdel Nasser’s deputy Abdul Latif al-Baghdadi, recalls visiting Amer at Army Command on Day One of the Six-Day War.
Amer told him, "We don’t know for sure how many planes were destroyed because we don’t know exactly how many we have.”