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

From Suez to shanty towns

By Gihan Shahine

The discussion panel on the social aspects of the October War focused on the role of the state, the media and women in achieving the 1973 victory. Researchers argued that if Egyptians, by scientific planning and creativity, managed to storm the Bar Lev line of fortifications, they should be able to address current social challenges such as illiteracy and the mushrooming shantytowns which disfigure our great cities.

Mrs Suzanne Mubarak spoke about the role of the family and women in times of war and provided a personal account of her own experiences of this period when President Hosni Mubarak was air force commander. Social Affairs Minister Mervat El-Talawi submitted a paper on the ministry's social service efforts before, during and after the war.

Mahmoud Odeh, vice-chairman of the sociology department at Ain Shams University, recalled that the 1967 defeat was a shattering experience for Egyptians and a severe blow to their self-confidence. The Israeli and foreign press and media added to the national feeling of inferiority by propagating a false image of Israel's military and cultural superiority. Much Arab literature of this time reflects the psychological trauma suffered by Arabs in general and Egyptians in particular.

Sawsan Osman, former dean of the social institute at Helwan University, recounted how the Israeli bombardment of the Suez Canal cities -- Port Said, Ismailia and Suez -- resulted in the destruction of infrastructure and the displacement of thousands who had to be evacuated to safe areas. "This had negative effects on the upbringing of the children of those families," she said. "The divorce rate shot up and the number of marriages dropped. These factors brought social development to a near-complete halt."

Others, however, saw much good coming out of these evils. "Egyptians managed to overcome their feelings of frustration in no time, turning them into an impetus for positive action," argued Hamdi El-Kunayessi, director of Radio Cairo. The symbolic moment of this new-found activism was on 9-10 June 1967, Kunayessi said, when the people took to the streets to declare their rejection of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser's resignation. He also cited the Egyptian victory at the battle of Ras Al-Esh and the sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat shortly after the defeat.

"The exaggeration by the Israeli and foreign media of Israel's might began to seem incredible and Egyptians regained their self-confidence and began to work together to liberate their land," Kunayessi said.

In preparing for this war of liberation, the state, the media and women all played significant roles.

El-Talawi explained how the Social Affairs Ministry made great efforts to provide displaced people from the Canal zone areas with shelter and financial, educational and medical support. The ministry also provided financial support to the families of conscripts who had no other sources of income as well as to the families of the killed and wounded.

According to Farouk Abu Zeid, dean of Cairo University's Faculty of Information, the Egyptian media also distinguished itself, regaining much of its damaged credibility by avoiding the exaggerations that had been rife during the 1967 war. It also worked hard to oppose the psychological war waged by the foreign media as they sought to exploit the potential frustration of the Egyptian people and drive a wedge between them and their government. The national media instead exhorted the people to liberate their land and raised public awareness of the necessary behaviour to adopt in times of war. They also helped explain Egypt's position to the world, as well as its right to liberate the occupied lands. Many theatrical and artistic works were produced, urging perseverance and solidarity.

Women, meanwhile, were the silent backbone of the nation. "The role of women in that period was very significant, but there are hardly any records of it, except for two documents by writer Amina El-Said and professor of mass communication Iglal Khalifa," said Sakina Fouad, a writer at Al-Ahram.

According to Fouad, women donated their golden jewelry to raise the funds needed to buy arms and tightened their belts in a patriotic effort to reduce consumption.

They also took the place of men in many fields of work, including industry, agriculture, trade, health, education, tourism and banking. The number of women in paid employment soared to 1.6 million in 1975. In the period between 1967 and 1973, women accounted for 40 per cent of the total labour force and for 13 per cent of those working in industry, Fouad said.

In the medical and pharmaceutical fields, they would work round the clock. They also made crucial contributions to military research and weapons production. Moreover, they were often the only link between the soldiers along the front and their families. Women also helped with relocating evacuees from the Canal zone, Fouad said.

"Women provided great emotional support to their husbands who went to fight, leaving all domestic responsibilities to their wives," Fouad noted. "After the 1973 War, people realised that women's participation was an essential factor in achieving victory. At a time when 78 per cent of women were illiterate, the October War drew attention to the importance of educating women and giving them jobs."

Other lessons were also drawn from the 1973 victory. "The most important is that Egyptians learned that planning, education and creativity are essential for success," maintained Abdel-Salam Abdel-Ghaffar, an education expert. "As a result, Egypt launched long-term giant development projects which required proper planning and education became a high priority on the government's agenda. Since the war, the government has carried out three development plans and is now working on the fourth."

Yet there is much left to be done. "How is it possible that Egyptians who managed to plan and achieve this military victory have failed to solve the problems of illiteracy, shantytowns and poverty?" asked Odeh. "We have to admit that these social problems are the battle of today, which requires proper planning and concerted efforts, as did the October war."

Zeinab Radwan, dean of the Faculty of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Fayoum University, agreed. "If our military forces could break through the Bar Lev line of fortifications by proper planning, creativity and the use of local resources, the same could be done to address current social problems," she said.

A case in point is the eradication of illiteracy. "The percentage of illiteracy is probably in excess of 50 per cent of the population," Radwan said. "To eradicate it, we need to know how and where to start and define the target groups, their age, sex and geographical positions. Then we can deploy the best available local resources. Unemployed young people can do the teaching and classes can be opened in clubs, schools and mosques. The same can be done to solve other problems, such as unemployment and the growing tendency of rural families towards consumption instead of production."

For Ibrahim Gamil Badran, a surgeon, development should focus on human resources, which he described as the main factor behind the 1973 victory. Health and educational services should be improved and scientific research should be encouraged, he said.