I originally planned to document the details of the memorable 1973 October victory, the golden jubilee of which we celebrate this year, throughout the five Sundays of October 2023, in keeping with the Watani tradition of commemorating the great victory during the month of October. Yet the remarkable testimony of the late Ibrahim Hegazy (1954 – 2022), regarding this epic feat, and which I have been reviewing in this series captivated me, and exceeded the space I had estimated; hence this additional final episode.
Mr Hegazy who was sports editor at the Cairo daily al-Ahram, wrote his vivid, true-to-life, extensively detailed first-hand experience of the October 1973 War that took Egyptians from the bitter humiliation of defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War to the regained self-esteem and honour of victory in the October 1973 War. The October 1973 War was in itself the outcome of the historic crossing of the Suez Canal, but the ‘Crossing’ was not merely a geographic one that served to regain Egypt’s Sinai, but was a psychological crossing from bitter defeat to singular Egyptian political and military triumph.
Mr Hegazy’s story was printed in a series of articles in al-Ahram in 2020 and 2021. I reprint here excerpts of them to offer an on-the-ground report of that epic feat, legendary in planning and in execution, to our younger generations for whom the war is “history” that is celebrated but not sensed. My five previous articles detailed the lead-up to Zero Hour, 2:00pm on Saturday 6 October 1973; the events that took place on 6 October, and the ensuing developments until Monday 8 October 1973 which came to be known in Israel as “Sad Monday”. Also the days and weeks that followed until 17 January 1974 when Egypt and Israel reached an agreement to disengage their forces under supervision of the UN, and started negotiations. The last article concluded with the start of negotiations between Israel and Egypt; Israel played for time claiming, based on the Gap it had achieved, to be on the same footing as Egypt regarding who had won the war. But US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger realised that Israel was in a truly unenviable position and that, even with the Gap, Egypt had already won the battle.
This final article tackles the aftermath of the October 1973 War. Given Israel’s claims about their “winning Gap”, let me print here Mr Hegazy’s refutation of these claims, basing on international expert military opinion.
In October 2009, Israeli military historian Uri Milstein said to New Jerusalem Radio that the Gap was a military show that did not change the outcome of the Israeli defeat, nor did it diminish in any way the value of the Egyptian victory. British military historian Edgar O’Ballance said that there are those who described the Defersoir Gap west of the Suez Canal as a “television battle”; an accurate description, “although I prefer to describe it as a ‘propaganda battle’.”
Trevor Dupuy, head of the Historical Evaluation Research Organisation (HERO) in Washington, said that from a political and strategic standpoint there was no doubt that Egypt had won the war. In a seminar on the October War held in Jerusalem on 16 September 1974, Aharon Yariv, former director of Israeli Intelligence, said that there was no doubt that the Arabs had come out victorious, while “we were the ones who came out torn and weak”.
In his book “The Gun and the Olive Branch”, British journalist David Hirst compared the October War to an earthquake. For the first time in the history of Zionism, the Arabs attempted and succeeded in imposing an order by force of arms. The setback was not just a military one, Mr Hirst writes, but a blow to all the psychological, diplomatic, and economic elements that make up the Israeli nation.
General Anthony Farrar-Hockley, Director of Combat Development in the British Army in the 1970s, addressed the International Seminar on the October War which was held in Cairo in 1975, saying that the lessons learnt from the October War speak more to the men and their capabilities than to the machines they used. The tremendous achievement made by Egyptians, Sir Anthony said, was due to the genius and skill of the leaders and officers who planned, trained, and took the other party by complete surprise. The soldiers also showed motivation and audacity that had previously been considered impossible, he said.
“Praise be to God who overturns situations!” Mr Hegazy writes. For over six years, from June 1967 until October 1973, during which Israel had occupied Sinai, the US turned a blind eye to Israel’s expansionist policy and its declarations of seizing the lands it occupied in 1967. Israel claimed that it was fulfilling its dream of the “Promised Land”, and would not give up a single inch of it. It rejected Security Council resolutions and ignored “land for peace” initiatives that called on Israel to give up occupied land in exchange for peace with the Arabs. Yet, in the span of the 10 days between 9 to 18 January 1974, Mr Hegazy writes, the US made a 180 degrees turn in its position, in search for a peace long forgotten. It only remembered the need for peace after aerial images showed that Egyptian forces besieging the Gap were much larger than had been imagined and that the Israeli army in the Gap was hostage to the Egyptian army and would be eradicated if Egypt carried out its Operation “Shamil”—literally comprehensive— to liquidate the Gap. As Mr Hegazy writes, the US swiftly called off the negotiations that had been ongoing under UN supervision; Mr Kissinger took over the negotiations in person, suggesting, dialoguing, pressuring, and even threatening that the US would wage the war if Egypt proceeds with its “Shamil” Operation. All that mattered to Mr Kissinger, Mr Hegazy writes, was the safety of the Israeli forces trapped in the Gap, caught in a war of attrition that extended over 80 days. Israeli forces were just steps away from eradication, as a man-to-man battle awaited them if forces again engaged in that difficult terrain. “This is what we hoped for and what they feared,” Mr Hegazy writes.
So it was that Egypt and Israel initialled the Camp David negotiations which later developed into the 1979 peace agreement, Mr Hegazy writes, an agreement which would never have seen light had it not been for the Egyptian genius that planned and executed the October War, an epic war of unprecedented size, a model of initiative and surprise through the greatest deception plan known. The concepts and events of the October War are documented by military institutes around the world, discussed and analysed.
According to Mr Hegazy, the journey of the October War began where the 1948 and 1967 wars had ended with defeat. The Egyptians learned the previously ignored lesson of “know your enemy”; they studied everything about their enemy militarily, economically and socially. Due study, analyses, and comparisons were applied to all the battles that had taken place with the Israelis, starting with the Battle of Ras al-Ash days after the 1967 defeat, to the War of Attrition which extended over some 500 days and witnessed about a thousand military operations in Sinai. All of these battles were meticulously studied for combat, administrative and psychological lessons.
The October War took the initiative of surprise. The enemy who was only used to attack, was surprised to be coerced into a defensive war to which it was not accustomed and had not fought before; it was devoid of experience in it, knew not its tenets, Mr Hegazy writes. Genius Egyptian planning was based on surprising the enemy, confusing it, and forcing it to flee. The enemy had never been exposed to that. Add to this that, in the first place, the enemy had erroneously assessed the strength of the Egyptian army. Mr Hegazy recalls Moshe Dayan’s statement directly after start of the battle: “We have 48 hours of mobilisation and 48 hours of fighting, after which we will annihilate the Egyptian and Syrian armies, and 48 hours in which we will occupy Cairo and Damascus.”
“But battle fire never stopped for a moment on our side from 6 October 1973 to 17 January 1974,” Mr Hegazy recalls. “They did not stop for 104 days: 26 days in October, 30 days in November, 31 days in December, and 17 days in January.” The Gap was what made them [the Israelis], for the first time in their history, relinquish land they had occupied; they left before this land would become their grave. Ceasefire was achieved on 17 January 1974, together with disengagement of forces. According to Mr Hegazy, this decision was never the result of negotiations, rather “we reached it and imposed it by force of arms from the moment the Suez Canal was stormed until the end of 104 days of fighting”, he writes. “We achieved this thanks to the magnitude of our victories and magnitude of their losses. We reached it through the outstanding mental capacity of our highly courageous military leaders, and remarkable success in managing and providing supply lines for a 104-day war. We taught the enemy that death is the destiny of anyone who occupies our land.”
May your soul rest in peace, Mr Hegazy, you who enthralled us with a meticulous documentation of the 1973 October War. I cannot better conclude than with your words: “This is the October War .. I hope every father and every mother tell their sons and daughters about the heroism, sacrifices and triumphs of the Egyptian army in that war so that its memory remains entrenched as an edifice of Egyptian will.”
To you dear readers I hope you excuse me for writing six articles in which I heavily borrowed what another man’s pen wrote; he was a man overflowing with patriotism, candour, and dignity.
3 November 2023