By Ramadan A. Kader
These days 51 years ago, his voice dominated the airwaves, announcing the downing of dozens of Israeli jets by the Egyptian army in the 1967 Middle East War. Ahmed Said, the first director and main announcer for Sout Al-Arab, sent Arabs’ expectations soaring as he made fiery statements based on military communiques on Egypt’s state Sout Al-Arab radio about purportedly stunning advances against «the enemy» on the battlefield.
The prevalent conclusion at the time was that the Egyptian army was on the threshold of Tel Aviv. Soon, the news was proved fake as Egypt suffered its most ignoble defeat in modern history that prompted then president Gamal Abdul Nasser to declare his resignation.
Tens of thousands of shocked and disenchanted Egyptians poured into the streets, demanding Nasser to stay in power and avenge what came to be known as the naksa – Arabic for setback.
The iconic nationalist bowed to the popular demand and underwent soul-searching for what went wrong. Shortly afterwards, Said quit as the head of Sout Al-Arab, a broadcaster founded in 1953 in order to rally Arab support for Egypt’s regional policy.
Said was probably the most famous Arab radio host in the 20th century. Since the 1967 debacle, detractors have disparagingly called him the “announcer of the naksa”. He died last week, ironically on June 5, aged 92.
His death has conjured up in the minds of the older generation across the Arab world the bitter memories of the defeat that gripped Arabs’ minds and hearts until the 1973 victory over Israel.
Said’s departure has also ignited debate over the job of the radio and television anchors in wartime and if they should speak their minds under such circumstances.
For one thing, the Sout Al-Arab is credited with espousing Arab liberation movements and independence efforts in the 1950s and 60s. At the time, the radio was the dominant medium of information in the Arab region. Said’s influence on the audience was so
strong that radios in most cafes across the Arab world was often tuned to Sout Al-Arab.
The theme song of the Cairo-based broadcaster summed up its message. “Glories, oh Arabs, glories. We are dignified and masters in our countries,” its lyrics go.
In 1956, the broadcaster mobilised Arabs’ support for Egypt as the country was subjected to attacks by Britain, France and Israel in what came to be known as the Suez Crisis.
The three countries decided to act militarily against Egypt after Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in order to use its revenues in financing the construction of the High Dam, a giant hydroelectric facility, in South Egypt.
In an attempt to silence the rallying voice, the Western jets bombarded a transmission station of Sout Al-Arab east north of Cairo. The facility survived the bombing. The broadcaster and primarily Nasser emerged stronger and more influential than before.
Nasser’s prominent role in supporting Algeria’s struggle for independence, Egypt’s short-lived unity with Syria and Yemen’s military involvement in Yemen were among the milestone events in the popular radio’s coverage.
It was the 1967 rout that dealt a crushing blow to both Nasser and Said. Nasser remained in the limelight until his death five years later. His charismatic leadership retains its allure more than 46 years after his departure.
This was not the case for Said, though. He has kept a low profile since he left Sout Al-Arab in disgrace in the aftermath of the 1967 defeat. The demeaning nickname the “announcer of the naksa” continued to haunt him, with detractors portraying him as a propagandist. He attempted to vindicate his image, but with little success.
“I did not make the defeat. I was not the one who made up the naksa statements,” he said in his memoirs. “Was I supposed to announce the statement that I only like and brush aside the others? Only ignorant people imagine that the presenter has the right to improvise in times of war.”