Codeword: Defeating defeat

17-10-2013 09:19 PM

Ikhlass Atallah

As Egypt celebrates 40 years on the 1973 October War in which the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal into the Israeli-occupied Sinai, and which brought on a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 and regained Sinai, one very important book has hit the shelves. It details the memoirs of non other than Hosni Mubarak, Commander in Chief of the Egyptian Air Force during the October War

Codeword – Memoirs of Muhammad Hosni Mubarak – June 1967 to October 1973 is the title of a new book published by Nahdet Misr with an introduction by political analyst Abdullah Kamal. 
So why has a book written in the 1970s hit the shelves now, amidst the turmoil that has dogged Egypt since the 25 January Revolution? Is it meant to polish the image of former president Mubarak, currently under house arrest in a Maadi military hospital? The publication also coincides with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, which lasted for a year and under which Egypt suffered a total setback on all levels. 
One may agree or disagree with Mubarak’s politics, but history is not selective in documenting the events that shape the destiny of a nation. Sooner or later, the truth will out. Codeword covers events from Egypt’s defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967 to the victory of 1973, one of the most critical periods in Egypt’s history. 
No ‘defeat’
Whereas mainstream Egyptians, together with the entire world, saw the Six-Day War as a crushing defeat, the Egyptian military—as it has repeatedly said—refused to take it as such. Their argument was that they had never had the chance to engage in battle; the Israeli air strike at the outset of the war had practically crippled Egypt’s military. There was no ‘fighting’; merely a humiliating withdrawal of Egyptian troops from the Sinai which then fell into Israeli hands. The military claimed the defeat was not because of inadequacy on their part, but owed to defective polities by Egypt’s ruling regime.
The aftermath of the Six-Day War led to changes in Egypt’s military leaderships, and steeled the will of the army, navy and air force to avenge themselves of their humiliating defeat; the result was the October 1973 War six years later.
The recent book was written during the 1970s post-October War years, and aimed to reveal the accomplishments of the Egyptian military, including the pivotal role that Mubarak played as Commander of the Egyptian Air Force.
A handwritten note by Mubarak graces the introduction to the book. “The October 1973 War,” he wrote, “Was a test in expertise and the capacity to plan and fight. We were victorious by the grace of God, and through the dedication of those of us who wholeheartedly offered their blood and souls for the homeland…I had the honour of leading the Air Force whose role in that war was pivotal. The heroism and achievement of its men will remain the pride of generations of Egyptians to come. The strategy and planning for that war will be cited in military textbooks.” Mubarak wrote these words back in the 1970s when he was vice president to Egypt’s president Anwar al-Sadat who had planned for and led the war.  
Spearheading victory
In these memoirs Mubarak gives his account of the huge setback that the Egyptian Air Force experienced in 1967 and the long journey to rebuild it to become the spearhead of the October 1973 victory.
The memoirs do not show Mubarak’s personal side, but rather focus on the military commander who analysed the defeat of 1967 and the plans of the Israeli Air Force and repeatedly confirmed the excellence and uniqueness of the Egyptian strike in October 1973. 
Codeword’s foreword by Kamal unveils the circumstances under which the memoirs were written and how they finally found their way into print. 
President Sadat’s appointment of Lieutenant-General Muhammad Hosni Mubarak vice-president in 1975 was a controversial decision at the time. Why was Mubarak chosen ahead of other veteran officers, many of whom surpassed him in seniority? Sadat’s decision reflected his conviction of Mubarak’s capabilities and his appreciation of the role he had played in the war. Sadat, whose younger brother, a fighter pilot, lost his life in the 1973 War, unquestionably acknowledged the effect of the airstrike on the course of the war; it was a war that Egyptians fought to regain their dignity and liberate their soil from the oppressive Israeli occupation. 
It was President Sadat’s idea to compile the memoirs of the airstrike commander who had become vice-president. Sadat commissioned Dr Rashad Rushdy, the ghost-writer of his own memoirs Al-Bahs Aan al-Zaat (In Search of Identity), to tell the story of the years between the setback of 1967 and the victory of 1973. Rushdy, however, declined the offer to avoid replicating the style of Sadat’s own book, and nominated another writer, Mohamed al-Shennawi, for the job.
Commander’s account
Shennawi was a renowned drama writer and radio presenter. He held a master’s degree in psychology and taught at the Higher Institute of Theatrical Arts and the Police Academy. His son Hazem al-Shennawi recalls that his father met Mubarak dozens of times to learn the smallest details of the six years that he spent rebuilding the Air Force. Mubarak gave an account of his experience as a commanding officer hit by the setback of the 1967 Six-Day War when he was commander of Beni-Sweif airbase up to when he became head of the Air Force Academy and afterwards Commander of the Egyptian Air Force, giving Egypt the most important air victory in its history.
Shennawi’s original text was handwritten on 500 foolscap pages, some of which were annotated in red ink by Mubarak himself with details of delicate technical and military information. These papers are vital to tracing these years, and the military force in particular. Almost no other document matches them in precision, comprehensiveness and organisation, especially in that they were written by Mubarak himself, who played a major part in this history-making event.
Kamal writes in his introduction that it is not known why the document was not published at the time of writing; possibly because Sadat’s assassination at the hands of the Islamists in 1981 brought in Mubarak as president, and the memoirs were no longer a priority. Shennawi also died, and the memoirs remained with his family. It was pure chance that gathered Kamal with Shennawi’s son who happened to mention the memoirs. Kamal realised their value, and last year moved to contact Mubarak for permission to publish them. Mubarak remembered the memoirs and gave his authorisation to publish. 
 Codeword and the facts
Shennawi’s original title was Codeword: Confrontation (Sidaam), June 1967 to October 1973, but Kamal changed it to the present title. The book’s significance lies in the credibility and historic and strategic value of its content. The abundant details about the different forces, divisions, individuals and commanders, in addition to the records of individual acts of heroism, reflect a trait of personality of the Air Force Commander. Mubarak was not writing a personal memoir but was giving an account of the six years that witnessed the development and modernisation of the Egyptian Air Force paving the road to the October victory. 
Mubarak was a distinguished professor at the Air Force Academy before becoming commander of the Beni Sweif air base. After the 1967 war he was appointed Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Air Force. 
In the memoirs Mubarak draws a parallel between two scenarios: the defeated soldiers of 1967 who felt extreme bitterness because they were not given the chance to fight back versus the victory of 1973 when, using the latest advances in military arts and tactics, they proved their merit and succeeded in avenging themselves and their nation. Mubarak was convinced that the airstrike was neither a miracle nor a legendary event. On the contrary, he wished to prove throughout his memoirs that Sidaam was the result of thorough planning, assessment, research, training, will and determination.
Israeli claims
Mubarak pays special attention to Israel’s account of the military operations and the reports it gave in books and official statements. All these were documented by the Egyptian military institution, which had long been recording and following the accounts and presenting them to the different leaders of the military.
Sections of Mubarak’s memoirs are written as an escalating mental duel against the claims of Israeli commander Mordechai Hod, mastermind of the Israeli airstrike that caused the Egyptian defeat of 1967. This confrontation helped destroy Hod’s claims of the superiority of the Israeli soldiers versus the incompetence of the Egyptians.
Mubarak cunningly used this argumentation method to highlight the skill and modernity of the airstrike which he masterminded and executed, underlining that its ingenuity and creativity were the fruit of the Egyptian mind. He also compared the performance of the Israeli forces in 1967 to the Egyptian forces in the 1973 airstrike, considered a breakthrough in the history of air operations.
Any memoir of the October victory can never be complete without accompanying Mubarak back in time to a sad Monday 5 June 1967. Mubarak writes: “On this day, the saddest in my entire life, I experienced the greatest defeat on both a national and personal level. My weaponry and planes were destroyed before my eyes, and my country lost its entire Air Force and incurred a major military defeat. Nevertheless, on that same day, despite the agonising pain, we took the first step to October 1973: we defeated our sense of defeat; we vowed revenge.”
Destruction on runway
“War is a scathing operation, so different in reality from anything that can be gleaned from books or films. I lived this bitter reality on that gloomy morning of 5 June when I saw my five-fighter aircraft torn into pieces on the runway while I stood helpless, unable to save them from destruction. At that dreadful moment I felt my heart being torn out, just like the aircraft was… The pain turned into raging anger, and I vowed revenge. The burning of our aircraft in front of our eyes was a humiliation that only cowardice can forgive and revenge can erase. We swore to give the Israelis a taste of their own medicine. No matter how long it took, we vowed to destroy the Israeli aircraft in the same way they had destroyed ours: on the runway before the pilots were able to escape their fate, blown away in a massive air strike. As much as it was painful, the blow affected the Egyptian pilots in a different manner from that the Israelis had anticipated. They believed that it would fill the hearts of the Egyptians with sufficient fear and despair to make them think a thousand times before engaging in military operations against Israel.
“But on 5 June 1967,” Mubarak goes on, “While shelling our airports, the Israelis also bombarded the old system of military air operations and paved the road for the introduction of modern combat skills and a new generation of combat fighters with modern strategies and tactics.” 
The airstrike was codenamed in Israeli intelligence records ‘The Dove’s Collar’, and its success rested on the psychological shock that hit the Egyptians and the entire Arab nation who witnessed the greatest Air Force in the Middle East disintegrating in no more than two hours.
Masterful fighters
The memoirs highlight the accomplishments of Egyptian fighters, rejecting criticisms that accused them of neglect and carelessness. One such act of heroism was the story of a fighter pilot by the name of Naguib. By the end of the first week of fighting, on Friday 12 October, Egyptian reconnaissance units spotted an Israeli supply line loaded with missiles advancing towards the frontline. Orders were immediately issued to an air combat formation led by Naguib to attack the Israeli supply line and destroy it before it reached its destination.  The formation bombarded the enemy supply line until it destroyed it completely, but in the process ran out of ammunition. Heading back to base, the Egyptian air formation was attacked by Israeli aircraft. Naguib resorted to a risky tactic to achieve a firing position: manoeuvering behind the enemy aircraft while avoiding the threat of enemy guns, a tactic known as getting on the aircraft’s six o’clock or tail. Unaware of the Egyptians’ lack of ammunition, the Israelis panicked and drew a retreat. 
 Historical injustice
The importance of Codeword lies in the fact that it is an objective document of historical and strategic value that can bridge the gap between an entire generation that fought and won and another that was not fully aware of the momentous scale of that war and its lasting implications. 
The October War is not about the accomplishment of a specific person, but rather about the heroism of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians. History has been unfair in not giving the war its rightful share of attention and failing to underline its value and worth. This can be due to the fact that war records are usually considered as secret and classified information. As the years passed books about this period ceased to be written, and nowadays Arab and Egyptian libraries include only a small number of documents that study and analyse the war. Publishing such memoirs at this juncture is like watering the soil of the nation’s memory after a long period of drought.
WATANI International
18 October 2013
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