Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
8 - 14 October 1998
Issue No.398
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

The will to fight

By Nevine Khalil

In the discussion panel on the political aspects of the war, academics and career diplomats detailed the political conditions before, during and after the war, concluding with reflections on the current peace process which was initiated in Madrid in 1991. The eight papers presented dealt with post-1967 conditions, the state of "no peace-no war", preparing the international and regional scenes for October 1973, Egypt's political position during the war, US and USSR policies, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and the Madrid process.

Mohamed Ezzeddin Abdel-Moneim, deputy assistant to the minister of foreign affairs, discussed international diplomatic efforts in the wake of the June 1967 War which were influenced by the competing interests of the US and USSR in the region. After five months of intensive Egyptian diplomacy following the defeat, Cairo finally secured UN Security Council Resolution 242, requiring Israel to give back occupied Arab lands, which has since formed the bedrock of the land-for-peace formula.

Efforts continued to rally support from Africa, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Europe, but the Egyptian leadership eventually realised that this pressure would never be enough to force Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab lands. "Egypt was left with only one choice, to go to war," Abdel-Moneim said, a decision which opened the way for the implementation of Resolution 242.

El-Sayed Amin Shalabi, a career diplomat, speaking on the state of "no peace-no war" that prevailed in the region between 1967 and 1973, said that the October War had had wide ramifications on the international political scene, and was instrumental in recasting the relationship between the two superpowers, the US and USSR.

Shalabi recalled US policies that aimed at neutralising the USSR's nuclear capabilities at a time when Vietnam and the Middle East conflict caused great tensions and divisions throughout the world community. "Washington's policy aimed to coerce the USSR into a more flexible and cooperative position on both issues," Shalabi argued, "in return for economic, scientific and technical cooperation."

Moscow, understanding this strategy, aimed to get the most out of the economic, trade and technological privileges on offer through a stable relationship with the US and a semblance of agreement on the Middle East conflict. The two superpowers agreed on military relaxation in the region, which imposed constraints on Egypt's peace-making abilities and reduced its room for military manoeuvre. "A state of 'no peace-no war' emerged in the region because of Israeli intransigence and the failure to implement Resolution 242," Shalabi said.

Egypt worked to overcome the negative effects of the superpowers' reconciliation and achieve optimal conditions both in the region and internationally in which to set about regaining its territories. To this end, Cairo opened a dialogue with the US and acted to allay Moscow's suspicions following the expulsion of the Soviet military advisers. According to Shalabi, Egypt "clearly" succeeded in achieving both its goals, since the US engaged in shuttle diplomacy in order to end the war while the USSR continued its support for Egypt during the hostilities.

Egypt's former representative at the UN, Ahmed Tawfik Khalil, discussed international political conditions in the years leading up to the October War, focusing on the period that followed President Anwar El-Sadat's rise to power in 1970. "The international arena could not produce sufficient pressure to bring about an acceptable settlement," Khalil said, mainly because of the shared US-Soviet interest in keeping their own bilateral peace by avoiding a confrontation in the region.

While Cairo depended on the USSR for arms and political support, Sadat, according to Khalil, was convinced that the US was the only power which could directly influence Israeli policy. "Undoubtedly Egypt wanted to achieve a peaceful solution," he agreed, "but its actions prior to the October War were designed to pave the way for the deliberate use of force."

Egypt worked on improving its image abroad, especially in Europe and the US, but these attempts failed to produce a peaceful settlement. "After pursuing all peaceful means to reach a settlement and rallying international support for its position, Egypt was incapable of further compromises," Khalil concluded.

Wahid Abdel-Meguid, head of Arab studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, focused on Egypt's policies towards the Arab world prior to the war. Abdel-Meguid analysed Egypt's overtures to various Arab governments in an attempt to build up support in advance of the October War. After taking power, Sadat acted to build up an Arab consensus regardless of the nature of the regimes with which he had to deal or their domestic politics. "Egypt aspired to the highest possible degree of Arab solidarity in preparation for the anticipated military confrontation with Israel," Abdel-Meguid said.

He added that it had been impossible to forge effective Arab solidarity in 1967 and that the bonds between the Arab states were still inadequate in the years preceding the 1973 offensive, "but it was impossible to launch a successful war without addressing the principal faults in inter-Arab relations".

To this end, Cairo established strong, centralised coordination with Syria and Saudi Arabia, a pact which Western observers described as the "October Arab Alliance". The endeavour was successful and Arab support came in the form of troops, financial support and the successful oil embargo. "The October War is by far one of the richest examples we have of Arab solidarity," Abdel-Meguid noted. "Egyptian-Syrian-Saudi coordination was at the heart of this solidarity and the source of its strength".

Alieddin Hilal, dean of Cairo University's Faculty of Economics and Political Science, discussed the US and Soviet positions during the war. "Each superpower believed that the outcome on the battlefield would affect its status not only in the Middle East, but also on the international theatre of events," Hilal said. "Each managed the war with an eye on the overall political situation in the region after the cease-fire."

According to Hilal, Washington was in a better position because it could influence Israel and also because it successfully opened communication channels with Egypt. The US also showed greater readiness to take risks and "walk a tight wire" in support of Israel. It vehemently opposed the dispatch of a joint US-Soviet force to the region to monitor the cease-fire so that the USSR might not gain a foothold in the Middle East. The USSR was in a weaker position because of mutual suspicion between the Soviet and Egyptian leaderships and also because Moscow was kept in the dark about the nature of contacts between Cairo and Washington.

"The US managed the crisis in such a way as to ensure that it would have exclusive control of any negotiated or political arrangements after the cease-fire," Hilal said, "and it succeeded in circumventing Soviet influence on the largest Arab state."

Taha El-Magdoub, who headed the Egyptian team at the disengagement talks with Israel, noted that the October War heavily influenced the future direction of the Arab-Israeli conflict. "The war resulted in a rapid and forceful Arab response, especially on the part of the oil-producing countries," El-Magdoub said. "Arab unity became a tangible reality which made the countries of the world recalculate and re-evaluate their positions regarding the conflict."

Intensive diplomatic efforts were launched in the last quarter of 1973 in order to reach a peaceful settlement. El-Magdoub believes that the resulting peace treaty between Egypt and Israel helped prepare the international scene for a Middle East peace process. "The conflict is not over yet," El-Magdoub added, "and will not come to a close until a just and comprehensive peace has been achieved."

Discussing Egypt's diplomatic moves after the war, including Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, political expert Hassan Nafaa analysed the role of the war in achieving a peaceful settlement of the Egyptian-Israeli conflict. Nafaa, who heads the political science department at Cairo University, also looked at the war's effects on the current peace process, contrasting the successful achievements of 1973 with the problems currently facing relations between Israel and the Arab states. He concluded that the war's most important result was that "Egypt regained confidence in its ability to handle precarious situations," making it possible for the nation to confront future instability more calmly, "including the possibility of a collapse in the peace process".

In conclusion, Mohamed Taher Shash, head of the administrative court at the Arab League, discussed the Madrid peace process, arguing that it was the final culmination of the strategic goals of the October War. Although the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty resulted in an Arab boycott of Egypt for 10 years, Shash said that Cairo continued its efforts to bring about a rapprochement between the Israeli and Palestinian viewpoints.

The US-Russian-sponsored 1991 Madrid peace conference came in the wake of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait a year earlier which had caused both "horizontal" and "vertical" ruptures in Arab unity. "The timing of the conference was unfortunate from the point of view of the Arab parties," according to Shash, who acted as an adviser to the Palestinians in the peace talks. "The Arabs, especially the Palestinians, were forced to accept unjust terms."

Shash noted that although the 1993 Oslo Accords resulted in mutual recognition and agreement on some form of Palestinian self-government, they were deeply flawed in the decision to postpone negotiations on sticky issues such as Jerusalem and settlements and in their lack of guarantees for implementation.