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

Triumph of the will

By Alieddin Hilal *

Alieddin Hilal

Alieddin Hilal

To understand the importance of the October War, we must contrast it to the War of 1967. Our defeat in that war was a devastating blow that shattered a generation's confidence in Egypt's striking power. Western and Israeli intelligence, in a concerted campaign to dispirit the Egyptian army and people, exploited the defeat for all it was worth.

Yet the Egyptians and the Arabs were not so easily manipulated. An Arab summit in Khartoum resolved the problem of Yemen, introduced the concept of economic support for the front-line countries with Israel and initiated the process of compensating Egypt for its losses from the closure of the Suez Canal. Other regional developments also indirectly contributed to rallying the common resolve, notably the changes of government in Sudan, Libya and Syria and the intensification of the activities of the Palestinian resistance.

During this time, President Abdel-Nasser paid numerous visits to several of the smaller Arab nations. The result was a broad Arab front centered around the golden triangle of Cairo, Damascus and Riyadh. At the international level, Egypt gave all possible support to diplomatic initiatives to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. This policy put Israel on the defensive and exposed it to international opinion as inimical to peace. At the same time, Egypt was preparing itself militarily and engaged in continual skirmishes along the front. Within weeks of the defeat came battles at Ras Al-Ish, Eilat and Shadwan. The message was clear. Egypt's military will had not been broken.

We also began a comprehensive national mobilisation. Military and political leaders devised a strategic camouflage plan and drew up a timetable for its implementation. The aim was to mobilise our forces without arousing the enemy's suspicions, so that on the day of the crossing the movements of our troops would not appear unusual. Thus, the week before the war, the newspapers published a filler announcing that 20,000 soldiers had been granted leave. Several days before, special offers had been advertised for officers and soldiers wishing to go on pilgrimage. A third item reported that our destroyers were leaving Egyptian ports to make a tour of friendly nations. Finally, a fourth announcement declared that training sessions for officers had been cancelled and would resume on 7 October.

The political leadership, meanwhile, had cleverly created the impression that Egypt was incapable of mounting an offensive. Sadat had declared 1972 "the year of decision". When that year drew to a close, he justified Egypt's inaction by citing events in India and Pakistan. At home, his proclamation had become the butt of one joke after another. Only days before the October War began, Sadat announced that he was going to Burg Al-Arab for a rest.

So successful was this strategy that Haim Herzog, head of Israeli intelligence, later said the main reason Israel lost in 1973 was not lack of intelligence, but the fact that they viewed Egypt as "a lifeless corpse without a will".

Indeed, when she met with her cabinet on the morning of 6 October, Golda Meir still did not expect war. Israeli intelligence had noted troop movements along the front two days previously, but so strong was their conviction that Egypt was incapable of action, they did not accord any particular significance to this fact.

* Alieddin Hilal is dean of the College of Economics and Political Science.