Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 June 2003
Issue No. 642
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Master of strategy

Mohamed Abdel-Ghani El-Gamasi (1921-2003)

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From top Mubarak leads the mourners at the funeral; El-Gamasi's coffin draped in the Egyptian flag; with Sadat, overseeing operations during the 1973 October War
Field Marshal Mohamed Abdel-Ghani El-Gamasi, a hero of the 1973 October War and a veteran of other Arab-Israeli wars since 1948, passed away last Saturday. El-Gamasi had suffered several strokes and undergone open-heart surgery over the past few years. Four months ago he fell into a coma, and ended up spending three weeks in the hospital. Afterwards, his doctors advised him to drastically cut down his daily activities and spend most of his time at home.

Despite his failing health, El-Gamasi spent his later years touring the United States, the then-Soviet Union and the Arab world, conducting lectures on military strategies and techniques.

President Hosni Mubarak led the mourners at El-Gamasi's funeral on Sunday. His coffin was draped in the Egyptian flag and mounted on a horse- drawn gun carriage. A number of top officials were in the procession which followed the carriage; amongst them were Prime Minister Atef Ebeid, Shura Council Chairman Mustafa Kamal Helmi, People's Assembly Speaker Fathi Sorour, Al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, Defence Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and other top military commanders.

A number of Arab leaders -- including the United Arab Emirates' Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, his Crown Prince Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat -- sent Mubarak their condolences.

El-Gamasi will always be remembered for the essential role he played in the Egyptian armed forces October 1973 triumphal crossing of the Suez Canal and destruction of the "invincible" Bar Lev Line, constructed by Israeli occupation forces along the eastern bank of the Canal, in then Israeli occupied Sinai.

A thin man, the Israelis nicknamed him "Scary Slim". The Americans, meanwhile, dubbed him the "Master of Strategy". El-Gamasi himself preferred to be known -- first and foremost -- as a professional military man.

At the headquarters of the Armed Forces General Command, El-Gamasi's private notebook -- in which he developed the Egyptian army's plans to cross the Suez Canal -- is preserved along with the official war plans themselves. Referred to by late President Anwar El-Sadat as Kashkoul El-Gamasi, the notebook contains detailed research on the canal itself (its width, depth, and the direction and speed of its water currents), as well as the weather conditions and positioning of the moon on the night of the attack. "Nothing was left to chance," El-Gamasi once recalled. "Even the dates of holidays were taken into account in order to choose an ideal time to catch the Israelis unaware."

El-Gamasi was born in September 1921 in the village of Al-Batanon near Shebin Al-Kom in Menoufiya, where he received his primary and secondary education. At the age of 17 he moved to Cairo where he enrolled as a student at the military academy. Because his father was a mere merchant, the chances of being accepted into the academy were slim. However, as he told me during a series of several interviews over the past year, "I applied anyway because that's what my father wanted me to do. He hadn't told me that he had also asked one of our village's most prominent personalities for a recommendation, and that that had worked."

Amongst his colleagues at the military academy were Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Abdel-Hakim Amer and other members of the Free Officers Movement, who later led a revolution against the monarchy and established the Egyptian republic under their leadership.

El-Gamasi graduated from the academy in 1939, beginning his career as a military officer. He served in the western desert during World War II, where he witnessed battles between British and German troops. He also saw first hand how the army was being managed with little real concern for military excellence or proficiency. "The army was loyal to King Farouq, who only used it for his own interests. In fact, the British troops and their commander controlled the army, which had no real role in defending the country."

Although he was not particularly close to any of the country's new rulers -- his former classmates at the academy -- in the early 1950s, El-Gamasi appreciated the improvements they sought to bring about in the military establishment itself. "We -- the classes of 1938-1940 -- recognised the importance of being professional military officers, modernising the army, and upgrading its capabilities. This was reflected in the way the army was reconstructed in the 1950s and 1960s."

Whenever he was asked why he hadn't joined the Free Officers Movement, El-Gamasi's reply had always been the same -- that the military and political spheres should have remained separate. Many saw this response as having a deeper meaning. Others interpreted it as the key to El-Gamasi's longevity -- that his aversion to playing politics had helped him survive as a top military figure through the turbulent years following the 1952 Revolution, and during Sadat's presidency as well.

According to El-Gamasi, "when the officers tried to become statesmen and politicians, they were only able to lead us towards the 1967 disaster." He believed that the blame for the defeat rested solely on Gamal Abdel-Nasser's shoulders.

Actually, the June 1967 defeat represented one of the main turning points in El-Gamasi's career as a professional officer. He was in charge of land forces operations at the time. "In my 50 years of military experience, those were the worst days I ever served." Unable to bear the tragic collapse of Egypt's troops in Sinai, he submitted his resignation to the commander of the army. It was turned down, and El-Gamasi was appointed Chief of Staff of the Second Army instead. Together with Ahmed Ismail, the commander, El-Gamasi was given the task of rebuilding the unit.

He often said that the 1967 defeat allowed him to progress as a professional soldier, and indeed, soon thereafter, El- Gamasi found himself rapidly moving up in the military ranks. He was named military intelligence deputy in 1968, chief of the armed forces training department in 1971, and chief of operations in 1972. This last position, El- Gamasi said, represented his career's second turning point.

From its vantage he was able to control virtually the entire army's training and planning. Only then did El-Gamasi begin to try and use his lifetime's worth of professional military experience to prepare the 1973 October War plan. He always placed much importance on the fact that his generation -- "the defeated commanders and officers of the 1967 war -- were themselves able to achieve victory over the same enemy".

But it was not all glory -- the Israelis obtained additional equipment and sophisticated arms from the United States and managed to regain control of both the Golan Heights as well as a pocket on the west bank of the Suez Canal. The achievement that remained, however, was certainly significant: the myth of an invincible Israel had been shattered, and self-confidence in the Egyptian armed forces had been restored.

Following the war, in 1974, El- Gamasi was appointed Armed Forces chief of staff. It was in this role that he conducted cease-fire negotiations with Israeli military commanders, with Egypt regaining sovereignty over some oil wells in the Sinai Peninsula as a result. Soon enough, he replaced the late Ahmed Ismail as defence minister, and in 1975 was also named deputy prime minister.

At this point, disputes began to arise between El-Gamasi and President Sadat. In January 1977, after the government dropped subsidies that resulted in price increases on basic commodities, serious riots broke out in Cairo and across the country. Sadat and his family were vacationing in Aswan at the time; they found themselves in danger of being besieged by rebels.

El-Gamasi supervised a rescue operation and was able to successfully transfer Sadat and his family back to Cairo in secret. At the same time, however, El- Gamasi refused to comply with the interior minister's request to use the army to crush demonstrators, and protect police units from the riots.

"I refused to send my forces in to protect the police because my priority was securing the military units first," El- Gamasi said. The decision was used against him in intelligence reports that were subsequently presented to Sadat, warning the president of a possible coup d'etat attempt led by El-Gamasi.

El-Gamasi said opposition parties had indeed been encouraging him to use the army to demolish Sadat, "but I refused. I feared the mess that could have taken place and I did not trust their intentions."

El-Gamasi was also certain that Sadat had received intelligence from the Americans claiming much the same thing. "I could feel it," he said. "Sadat was worried, and he knew that -- as the general commander of the armed forces -- I could do it."

In 1978, El-Gamasi took part in four months of negotiations with his Israeli counterpart, Ezer Weizman, during which another confrontation with Sadat took place. El-Gamasi -- who had always been averse to Sadat's intervention in managing the army's affairs -- did not agree with the president's decision to accept troop reductions in Sinai and change the army's strategic points.

Although Sadat was the commander in chief of the armed forces, he was well aware that his military qualifications paled in comparison with El-Gamasi's. Sadat had limited military experience as a battalion commander, and was dismissed from the army in the 1940s. Whether it was jealousy -- a desire to monopolise the heroism of the October victory -- or a combination of different factors, Sadat soon got rid of El-Gamasi (even though he had once told the press that El-Gamasi would be a military commander for life).

El-Gamasi never forgot the offensive manner with which Sadat stripped him of his command. Two weeks after the Camp David Accords were signed, Sadat ordered a major cabinet reshuffle, with Kamal Hasan Ali replacing El- Gamasi. On 5 October 1978, El-Gamasi was putting the final touches on the annual army parade when he was informed that he would not be attending them, and that Ali would be there with the president instead.

El-Gamasi was named military advisor to the president. In November 1980, he resigned, and his military career came to an end -- but not before he had witnessed the hoisting of the Egyptian flag over Sinai in a ceremony during which he was given the title of Field Marshal.

Despite his stature as a strategic analyst and lecturer, El-Gamasi was never able to make financial use of his talents after leaving the armed forces. He was also one of the very few military retired military commanders who were not given a top civilian position after retirement. Sadat had promised to put him in charge of a major national project, "but he never did", El-Gamasi said.

He lived in a small, moderate flat, purchased as part of an armed forces housing project 20 years ago. After his retirement, his first wife, and the mother of his three children -- his daughters Magda and Maha, and son Medhat -- passed away. El-Gamasi re-married, but the union did not last.

For the past decade, El-Gamasi tended to spend most of his time at the Heliopolis Sporting Club, where he used to sit for hours near the cricket grounds reading and writing. He was elected president of the club in 1993.

El-Gamasi authored a number of strategic and military tomes, including a book of memoirs entitled The October 1973 War. Just before he died he had started writing a book called Whither The Arab-Israeli Conflict? in which, he said, he was trying to explore how the US was aiming to shape the Arab region's future. He planned to finish it within a year of the end of US operations in Iraq, but this time, time was not on his side.

By Amira Ibrahim

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