For Egypt, this month October 2023 marks a very special anniversary: 50 years on the war that saw the Egyptian army achieve an epic crossing from the western to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal and on into Sinai, to battle Israeli forces that had occupied the Peninsula for six years. Following 18 days of battle a truce was reached; the talks that ensued led to a final peace agreement in 1979 between Egypt and Israel, according to which Egypt regained its Sinai Peninsula in full.
Every October ever since, Watani has allocated space for content titled “October topics”, to commemorate the October 1973 War. It is an effort to document events and report on recollections or conduct interviews related to first-hand experiences of that war. In October 1973, Egypt’s political leadership and armed forces recovered the Egyptian dignity and self-esteem that had been severely wounded during the years of defeat by Israeli forces since 1967.
As Egypt celebrates the great jubilee of the October War, I feel it is the responsibility of my generation, which lived through the triumphal war that brought to an end to the bitter years of humiliating defeat, to highlight the pain, challenges, hard work and sacrifice that paved the way for the Suez Canal crossing and the battles that made history and that have come to be taught in military academies the world over.
Despite the vast number of documents and books that document the October 1973 War, I find myself frequently going back to paper clippings I had cut out of the Cairo daily al-Ahram because they offered a vivid, true-to-life, first-hand experience of the war. This experience was related in a series of articles written in 2021 by Ibrahim Hegazy (1954 – 2022) who was sports editor at al-Ahram, and who wrote his story of not only participating in the October 1973 War, but also in the years of preparation that led to it; the years of bitterness, attrition battles and, finally, victory. I believe the 50th anniversary of the war to be the perfect time to remind my readers of what Mr Hegazy wrote, offering a glimpse of it to those who had not read it and to the younger generations for whom the war is “history”. Today, I introduce excerpts of three articles printed in al-Ahram on 30 April, 28 May, and 9 June 2021.
The Egyptian people’s appreciation of Egypt’s army is a firm, indisputable fact, Mr Hegazy wrote. Yet, far too little is known of the epic valour, self-denial, and sacrifice offered by Egyptian soldiers throughout the years preceding and during the October 1973 War. It is of eminent significance that Egyptians should be made aware of these heroisms and sacrifices, and that such stories should remain etched in their collective memory as sources of national dignity and pride.
All events related to the October 1973 War should serve to remind us of our faith that God indeed works to protect Egypt. We believe, Mr Hegazy wrote, that her army is divinely assigned to guard her land, the land which hosted the fathers and prophets Abraham, Joseph, and Moses; and which the Lord shone His light upon, honoured and blessed when, together with His Holy Family [St Mary and St Joseph], He took refuge there. In 1973, the Egyptian army set out to liberate part of that blessed land: the Sinai Peninsula.
Mr Hegazy makes it clear that even though Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1967 in the Six Dar War led to the occupation of Sinai by the Israelis, leaving us Egyptians in horrified shock and pain, it served as a rude wake-up to the reality on the ground. Egypt realised it needed a strong, intelligent, well-equipped army. The six-year period from the 1967 defeat to the 1973 victory saw the Egyptian army on the West Bank of the Suez Canal engage in a war of attrition with the Israelis on the eastern bank of the Canal, even as Egypt prepared for the seemingly impossible task of crossing the Canal, fighting the Israelis, and regaining Sinai. Preparations began in 1968 from point zero, with Egyptian morale at rock bottom, and the army possessing no military equipment or arms to allow it to win a war; those it had lost in the war went back to WWII and would never have served to win anyway. Egyptian soldiers stood on the West Bank of the Suez Canal their great grandfathers had dug; it became a monstrous barrier impossible to cross given that the hills and mountains on its eastern bank allowed the Israelis to station themselves at eminently advantageous points; any attempt at crossing spelt sure death and defeat.
According to Mr Hegazy, the Egyptian army used the six-year period from 1967 to 1973 to conduct gruelling training for the day that was sure to come when their men would cross the Canal into Sinai. The arms owned by Egypt’s military were by far inferior to those owned by Israel—there was consensus among world powers that it should be so—yet Egypt relentlessly conducted for its young warriors grinding, advanced training so that the deciding factor in the war to come would be the men not the arms. So much so that, according to Mr Hegazy, once the crossing was finally made, the young men found it much easier than what they had trained for. They were able to achieve not the impossible but the unimaginable, near miraculous feat of crossing the Canal, exceeding by far their opponents’ prowess and capabilities.
To sum it up in Mr Hegazy’s words, “Egypt was able in 1973 to deliver the greatest triumph out of the womb of the most debilitating defeat in 1967. That was thanks to the most capable warriors ever, and to a battle creed built on exceptional vision and impeccable planning.”
I promise my readers more of Ibrahim Hegazy’s account of “Witness to a near miraculous feat” in upcoming Watani issues.
29 September 2023