As mainstream Egyptians celebrate 40 years on the 1973 October War victory, the Islamists insist on souring the celebration
It was a celebration of sorts.
As Egypt revelled in the 40-year memory of the ‘War of Dignity’, the war in which Egyptians broke the taboo of Israeli invincibility and their own impotence, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)-led Islamists waged street wars against the celebrating civilians. Some 59 lost their lives and scores were injured as the public and the police confronted the Islamist demonstrations. In many places in Egypt clashes rose to the point of firing live rounds and tear gas; the police had warned beforehand that no violent demonstrations would be tolerated.
Darling of the people
Predictably, it was the military that was toasted as the star of the show, which may in part explain the Islamist bitterness against the celebration.
The Islamists insist on seeing the overthrow of their president Muhammad Mursi on 3 July as a military coup, as though the more than 30 million Egyptians who took to the streets on 30 June demanding his ouster count for nothing. On 1 July, the military issued a 48-hour military ultimatum to Mursi to accommodate the anger of the masses, which was then primarily directed at the president and Islamists for monopolising power, killing the democracy that brought them to power, and waiving national and economic interests in favour of wider pan-world Islamist interests. When Mursi rejected the ultimatum, he was ousted on 3 July and a civilian interim president—Adly Mansour, the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court—installed, and Egypt seriously embarked on the road to democracy.
With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the majority of Egyptians, who are non-Islamists despite their Muslim faith, are opposed to the Islamists among them where the military are concerned. Whereas the army is the Islamist ‘enemy’ seeing that it ousted their regime and has strongly supported the crackdown against them; it is for mainstream Egyptians the saviour who delivered them not once but twice. In October 1973 it had, in a legendary operation crossed the Suez Canal and used water cannons to breach the ‘invincible’ Israeli Bar Lev Line fortification on the East bank of the Canal and thus crossed over into Sinai, and defeated the Israeli enemy that had occupied Sinai since the humiliating Egyptian defeat in the 1967 Six Day War. And in July 2013, the military backed the Egyptian people and ousted the Islamist Mursi, and became the darling of the people.
Church bells ring
Saturday 5 October saw President Adly Mansour and army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, flanked by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar and Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church place wreaths of flowers at the 6 October 1973 War Memorial. All the leaders of Egypt’s Churches, political parties and movements, and various civic institutions sent messages of congratulations to the President to commemorate the occasion.
Sunday 6 October was a national holiday and started calmly, with military planes soaring the skies dropping gifts to the public. At 2:00pm, zero hour on the same date back in 1973, church bells peeled all over Egypt, and Islamic azaan was heard through minaret microphones.
Rival demonstrations roamed the streets. Mainstream Egyptians marched on Tahrir Square in central Cairo, which was subject to tight security measures, to celebrate with songs and flags. Islamists also held protests in several spots in Cairo, but were confronted by the public and local residents before the police interfered with tear gas and bullets. Watani’s Tereza Hanna says that in the Minya town of Beni-Mazaar the locals attempted to disperse the Islamists by aiming water hoses at them or throwing water at them from home balconies.
Nubian code language
This year’s anniversary, being the 40th of that highly emotional national event, saw an abundance of reminiscences by veterans hosted by TV talk shows, and publications of war memoirs. Even though the basic facts about the war are well known, some details were bound to be first-time revelations. Antoun Milad of Watani talked to Ahmed Idriss, a Nubian who served in the army from 1954 to 1994, and who was behind using the Nubian language as an unbreakable code in the October War in 1973. Idriss told Milad that the Egyptian army then had a problem with using code language since the Israelis were adept at breaking the code. Since the Nubian language is an aural not a written language, Idriss directly thought it should lend itself perfectly to using as code. His idea was put into action through 172 native Nubians who used two different Nubian dialects.
But the highlight of the celebrations was a star-studded musical show held in the evening at the Air Defence Stadium, in which celebrities and pop singers extolled Egypt’s history and the 1973 war in a televised extravaganza complete with dancers and an elaborate fireworks display.
Colonel General Sisi sat next to President Mansour and Jihan Sadat, the widow of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat who was also the army chief during the 1973 war. Sadat exploited the October 1973 victory to push for regaining the Sinai Peninsula from Israeli hands, which he achieved through the peace treaty he signed with Israel in 1979. But he paid for that peace with his life when Islamists, who disapproved of peace with ‘the enemy’ [Israel], shot him to death as he watched a military parade on 6 October 1981.
Sisi gave an unrehearsed speech in which he emotionally engaged Egyptians. He spoke of the special bond of compassion between Egyptians and their army, and assured that the army’s resolve is as “strong and unbreakable as the Pyramid because the great Egyptian people are on its side.” His good humour and affection captivated Egyptians. The army will forever remain grateful and indebted to Egypt’s great people, he said. He used his popularity to ask Egyptians to work hard and be patient, “because for Egypt to become great again we must all pay a price.” He also honoured Arab support to Egypt both during the 1973 war and in Egypt’s current situation and prayed for “Arab unity.”
Egypt the victorious
The show on Sunday evening came under the title “Egypt is the mother of the world, and is worthy of being so”. Mahmoud Yassin, a leading man from Egypt’s cinema in the 1970s and 1980s, famous for his full, expressive voice acted as part narrator part poetry reciter. Joining him were other actors and singers of the younger generations: Ahmed Bedeir, Walid Tawfiq, Hakim, and several others. The female singers Angham and Amal Maher had the audience in thrall with their singing, and Nancy Ajram, a Lebanese pop star wildly popular with Egyptians, blew kisses to the crowd and sang a patriotic hit with the lyrics: “Watch out, this isn’t any Egypt. This is Egypt the victorious, the Egypt we carry in our hearts and minds.” Behind her were dancers wearing Egypt’s State seal on their chests.
The show harped on the feat of the canal crossing and the breaching of the Bar Lev line through the use of water canons, an idea which was the brainchild of Major General Baqi Youssef, a Copt, who was also the force behind successfully fulfilling it. The show focused on the Israeli arrogance and absolute assurance that, short of an atomic bomb, nothing can overcome the Bar Lev fortification.
The show included an emotional poetic episode which invoked the Biblical visit of the Holy Family to Egypt, with the picture of the Holy Virgin carrying the Baby Jesus hanging along the length of the Pyramid. The poem asked the Virgin to bless the land whose air she had breathed and water she drank.
A long way!
The finale was a song that played on the Egyptian phrase Sisi frequently uses: “Egypt is the mother of the world and is worthy of being so.” Some of the lyrics were lit in flames in a section of the stadium.
Many Egyptians couldn’t help compare between this year’s celebration which extolled Egypt and its military triumph; and last year’s Islamist celebration which was graced by members of the extremist group which assassinated the October War hero, President Sadat. What a long way for Egypt to have come in the space of a single year!
9 October 2013