Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The will to win

Click to view caption
Israeli prisoners of war rounded up by the victorious Egyptian forces

At 2pm on 6 October 1973, more than 220 Egyptian warplanes flew over the Suez Canal and attacked Israeli command centres in the Sinai. "Operation Badr", soon to be known as the October War, had been launched, and a new stage in Egyptian and Arab history was opened.

Thirty-five years later, both the direct effects and the long-term ramifications of the October War, domestically, regionally and internationally, remain subject to debate. Israel's attempts to denigrate the Egyptian victory were described as the product of "ignorance and prejudice". These attempts are belied not only by the facts, but also by the statements Israel's own leaders and commentators made at the time, some of which are reproduced in this supplement.

Other aspects of the fallout from October are less clear. There is little doubt that the war opened the way to the Middle East peace process, which effectively began with disengagement agreements Egypt and Syria concluded with Israel soon after the guns had fallen silent. Anwar El-Sadat, hailed in Egypt as "the hero of war and peace", acted swiftly to try and reap the fruits of the victory and liberate occupied Arab territories. As far as Egypt was concerned, the results were spectacular. By 1982, Egypt had regained sovereignty over all of occupied Sinai, save for Taba, which was returned to the motherland in 1989. Not a single Israeli settlement or installation remained on Egyptian territory.

However, Sadat's optimistic declaration that the October '73 War would be the last Arab-Israeli war had to be qualified; making it the last "major" Arab-Israeli war. Israel invaded Lebanon and wreaked havoc on its capital, Beirut. And a quarter of a century after the October War, the prospects for a comprehensive and just peace in the region appear, if anything, more remote than they were in '73, despite the Madrid peace process, the accords the Palestinians and Jordan have concluded with Israel, and the progress that, not so long ago, seemed to have been achieved in Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.

The October War was, without a doubt, the high point of Arab solidarity. A core axis formed by Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia was able to mobilise the Arab world as never before. But international and regional conditions have changed, possibly beyond recognition, since 1973, and it is an open question whether the three allies today could muster even a semblance of the Arab solidarity they were able to enlist during the war and in its immediate aftermath.

One fundamental aspect of the war, however, cannot be dissipated by a fast-changing world. The shattering defeat of June '67 failed to break the Egyptians. After five years of resolve, sound planning and hard work, they were able to do what even they, not to mention the whole world, had believed was impossible. It all came together in a moment of great heroism, national unity and self-sacrifice -- the "uncrossable" Suez Canal was crossed, the "invincible" Bar Lev line was destroyed, Sinai was returned.

This, ultimately, is the lesson of October '73 and it is this, above all, that Egyptians were celebrating this week.

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