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

"Nobody is going to fight for us"

By Galal Nassar

Strategic seminar
To mark the silver jubilee of the October 1973 War, a three-day "strategic seminar" was opened by President Hosni Mubarak on Saturday. In the military section, military commanders, strategists and experts looked back at the war's various aspects from the perspective of a quarter of a century later, analysing the strategies adopted and their implications for the post-war period.

In a paper entitled From the War of Attrition to the October War, Maj. Gen. [retr'd] Taha El-Magdoub, chief of military planning during the 1973 War, said the Egyptian armed forces felt a great sense of injustice as a result of the 1967 defeat. They were not the cause of the defeat, rather they were its victim.

It was this feeling of injustice, he argued, which made the 1968-69 War of Attrition. It was necessary to affirm a number of political and military principles: to reject the status quo and continue activity on the military front so that the political situation would not become frozen; to give Egyptian soldiers the opportunity to engage in combat with the enemy so that they could regain their self-confidence and raise their morale; to prove to Israel that it would have to pay an exorbitant price for its occupation of Egyptian territory by inflicting upon it great losses, both human and material; and to act by all methods possible -- military, political and diplomatic -- to reactivate the stagnant political situation and open the way to a political settlement.

In a second paper entitled Planning for the October War, Field Marshal [retr'd] Abdel-Ghani El-Gamassi, chief of operations and later chief of staff during the war, said the war's target was to launch a strategic offensive in the Sinai and the Golan Heights in cooperation with Syrian forces. The Egyptian objective was to storm across the Suez Canal, inflict defeat on Israeli occupation forces and advance to the Sinai mountain passes. The Syrian objective was to defeat the Israeli occupation forces and liberate the Golan Heights.

The war plan, code-named Badr, called for the Egyptian and Syrian air forces to deliver simultaneous strikes against Israeli positions in the Sinai and the Golan. This would be followed by artillery bombardment of the same positions and then Egyptian troops would storm across the Suez Canal and Syrian forces would advance into the Golan Heights.

More precisely, this meant that the Egyptian second and third armies would attack along the entire 170 km length of the Canal and establish beachheads 15-20 km deep within the Sinai. Following a tactical pause, if necessary, the forces would advance eastward until they reached the Sinai mountain passes. As a result, the Israeli forces would be left in the open in central Sinai unable, for topographical reasons, to establish new lines of defence. In the meantime, the Egyptian navy would close the Bab Al-Mandab Straits, the southern gateway to the Red Sea, thus bringing maritime traffic to and from Eilat to a halt and cutting off Israel's oil supplies from Iran.

According to Gamassi, the first step toward the war was the expulsion of Soviet military advisers in July 1972. Relations with Moscow were strained at the time as a result of Russian reluctance to provide Egypt with the required weapons. Gamassi quoted President Anwar El-Sadat as telling the Soviets: "You have made us lag not just one step but two behind Israel. We are the victims of aggression. And yet, we are not demanding to be militarily superior to Israel; we are simply demanding equality."

The second step toward the war, Gamassi said, was Sadat's decision to fight with the available weapons. According to Gamassi, Sadat told the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces: "I am not prepared to accept solutions of surrender. I will not sit at the negotiating table with Israel while I am in this humiliating situation because it would mean surrender. We have to struggle, make sacrifices and act on the situation with what means we have.... Nobody is going to fight our battle for us or give us what we want. We have to push the Russians so that they may give us [the necessary weapons] and we have to push the Americans to work for a solution. We are the propelling force. By God's will, we are not going to lose. The outcome of the war cannot be worse than the current situation."

The third step toward the war, Gamassi said, was the appointment of Gen. Ahmed Ismail, who shared Sadat's views, as war minister and commander in chief of the armed forces on 26 July 1972. During his visits to the armed forces, Ismail affirmed the necessity of making preparations for war as soon as possible. There was to be no more waiting for new weapons; the tasks assigned to the various units would be on a par with their capabilities.

The fourth step toward the war, Gamassi said, was forging close military cooperation with Syria.

Maj. Gen. Salah El-Manawi, chief of air operations during the war, said the war plan called for the Egyptian air force to deliver a major strike against Israeli positions in Sinai. The task of confronting the Israeli air force inside Israel was left to the Syrians because Egyptian warplanes did not have the range to reach Israel and return. The plan was for 220 warplanes to attack simultaneously all Israeli airports in Sinai, anti-aircraft missile positions and command and control centres. The warplanes were to fly at low altitudes to avoid being intercepted by Israeli jet fighters and would all reach their targets at the same time. The plan was carried out successfully, with the warplanes inflicting heavy losses on the Israeli positions. Although the Russians had estimated that the attacking Egyptian force would lose 25 per cent of its warplanes, only a minimal number of planes was in fact lost. Because of the success of this first air strike, a second strike was called off.

The air force again played a decisive role in dealing with the beachhead which the Israelis established on the canal's western bank, shortly before the war ended, Manawi said. The air force delivered strikes against this beachhead on an almost daily basis, he added.

Maj. Gen. [retr'd] Mohamed Yossri Qandil, chief of naval reconnaissance during the war, said the navy also played a key role in the victory. Because the sea is Israel's only foreign trade outlet, the Egyptian navy was assigned the task of disrupting Israel's maritime shipping lines in the Mediterranean and Red Seas. The aim was to prevent supplies, particularly oil, from reaching Israel. In addition to closing the Bab Al-Mandab Straits, which completely disrupted maritime traffic in and out of Eilat, the navy also destroyed a number of Israeli oil tankers, Qandil said.

Maj. Gen. Abdel-Sattar Amin, a professor of military strategy, spoke about the war's political consequences. These included a pledge by the two superpowers to guarantee a cease-fire and to work to solve the problem on the basis of the UN Security Council's Resolution 242 of 1967. Two Egyptian-Israeli, and one Syrian-Israeli, military disengagement agreements followed. Then came Sadat's visit to Jerusalem that opened the way to a peace treaty between the two countries.

The Egyptian military strategy following the war was to build up a defence force capable of achieving strategic deterrence, preserving Egyptian and Arab security and making maximum use of American military assistance, Amin said. By contrast, Israel insisted on achieving superiority by acquiring both conventional and mass destruction weapons.