Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Picking up the pieces

In the immediate aftermath of the June war, Amin Howeidi was appointed both minister of defence and chief of General Intelligence. Commissioned by Nasser to rebuild the armed forces, his may be the most informed account of events during and following the war. Howeidi was also responsible for investigating the causes of defeat, and was directly involved in events leading to Amer's forced resignation

"Actually, nobody knew anything about the true level of military preparedness of the armed forces, not even the political leadership. Had it known, the assumption is that something would have been done to avert the crisis and matters on the political side would not have gone as far as direct confrontation.

"Prior to June 1967, the armed forces were a grey area that no one could penetrate. The commander of the armed forces was not accountable to any authority in the state.

"In terms of organisation, we had no Ministry of Defence in the proper sense of the word. The office of minister of defence is political; he is responsible for preparing the state for war, including the armed forces. The military leadership, on the other hand, represented by the chief of general staff, or the commanding general, is responsible for military readiness during peacetime and only takes responsibility for the war if the political situation so dictates. Confusion between these responsibilities is a violation of the constitutional legitimacy of the state, and makes the state's monitoring and control functions over the armed forces meaningless.

"In 1967, Field Marshal Amer was, as many would admit, lacking in experience. He was appointed to his post at the beginning of the revolution, simply to safeguard it, but he should not have remained, let alone been promoted for political reasons to become commander-in-chief. Chief of General Staff Fawzi, who had no powers, was accused by his colleagues of ignorance, and even said the same about himself in 1967. His role was nonexistent, yet was made to rival the commander of the ground forces, Lieutenant- General Mortagi, who was at the time the secretary of one of the sporting clubs! Lieutenant-General Sidqi Mahmoud, who was the commander of the air force, had performed badly in 1956, causing the destruction of his forces, but was retained, performing even more disastrously in 1967. The same may be said of Admiral Suleiman Ezzat.

"The supreme military commander also had other occupations. Amer was vice-commander in chief, chairman of the High Dam Authority, the Public Transportation Authority, and chairman of the committees for the liquidation of feudalism. The other high-ranking military officials were secretaries of sporting clubs.

"Another factor in the defeat of 1967 is that the military high brass had held their posts since 1952. By comparison, in Israel, no chief of general staff maintains his post for more than three years, or four at most.

"As a result of this policy, the military command in Egypt felt themselves to be above and beyond the framework of the state. Amer's case is one example: when he was asked to relinquish his military functions and act as vice-president (the proposal was another mistake), he refused! Thereupon Nasser was compelled to force him to resign, placing him under house arrest in Giza, where he remained until he committed suicide. It may well be said that the military command conducted the war in 1967 with the same mentality as they did in 1948.

"Nasser, however, was totally detached from all that went on within the army. When Nasser asked Amer about the condition of the army, Amer swore on his own life that it was in perfect condition. The Egyptian military command firmly believed that it possessed the largest military force in the Middle East. This gross error generated pretentious and groundless self- confidence. This mood was fanned by a stupid media campaign which some have justified on grounds of its effect in intimidating and possibly deterring the enemy. But we knew that Israel was not deceived by our propaganda. It possessed accurate and precise information about the true condition of our armed forces.

"It is astonishing that we went into war without a plan. Al-Qaher was a plan in the sense that it showed the distribution of the forces on the ground, but that doesn't mean anything in terms of training the troops to allow them to perform their tasks effectively. Would anybody believe that the Egyptian forces had not conducted a single manoeuvre since 1954 when the manoeuvre known as 'Intisar' was conducted on the Cairo- Alexandria desert road? No trenches, defence fortifications or any such facilities to simulate a battlefield had been set up. Fuelling and preparing aircraft for each sortie required 45 minutes on average for the Egyptians. The Israelis completed the task in five minutes. In other words, one Israeli plane was worth nine Egyptian planes.

"Training also requires information. Troops should be trained with some target in mind. Unfortunately, when I was appointed to the general and military intelligence services, I found no information that was confirmed or valid. The proof is that the information available had set the range of Israeli planes no further than the Suez Canal. But when the war began, these planes easily reached Beni Sweif. Even the air force attempted no reconnaissance of any Israeli positions. The only time photos were taken, they were supposedly of Bir Sheeba, but we discovered later that they were photos of Aqaba!

"Israel claims that the war began on 18 May, the day the Gulf of Aqaba was closed. This was in keeping with Israel's previous confirmations that it would consider the war declared in any of three conditions: the closing of the gulf, an Arab assault on Jordan, or a direct attack on Israel. We, on the other hand, declared that the war had started at 8.45am on 5 June with the air strike. Israel was careful to exonerate itself from the aggressor's role. It claimed it was engaged in a defensive war and thus, as Begin said, had the right to keep territory it had seized in the process.

"Arguments which ascribe the defeat to the fact that the forces were in Yemen are false. I admit that it is not the best situation to be fighting on two fronts, but the forces in Egypt were quite sufficient to implement the Al-Qaher plan. I was responsible for the forces in Yemen, which became one of the excuses for the bitter defeat of the generals. The mistake to be acknowledged is that the offensive force was in Cairo, not in Sinai, which may not have been all bad, since the planes, tanks and air force defence forces which were in Cairo were saved, and we had some infrastructure with which to resume the fighting.

"In his resignation speech, Nasser said that no war in the proper sense had taken place. Weapons were not used but were lost in the withdrawal. When the airfields were struck, he said, we abandoned 13,000 trucks, hundreds of tanks, armed vehicles and artillery.

"The basic, self-evident truth which we seem to have overlooked is that the command is the head, the soldiers are the body, and the facilities are the tail. If the mind dies, the head is damaged and ceases to function, then the body and the facilities necessarily became useless.

"We may have entered the war in what seemed like a paradoxical condition, but why was the withdrawal so disastrous? The problem is that nobody objected or gave advice concerning the withdrawal, but merely made statements and boasted. The executive authority (the Council of Ministers and the Executive Committee) did not object, nor did the legislative authority, or the Committee for National Defence and Security. Instead, they endorsed the decision. None of the Arabs I visited with Zakaria Mohieddin in Kuwait, Iraq, Syria and Algeria objected, which only reflects the fragility of those regimes.

"As a result, two important matters became evident. The defeat did not involve Egypt and the frontline states alone, but all the Arabs, and it was inconceivable that a state like Israel would defeat the entire Arab nation. The defeat in 1967 led to the occupation of Arab territory and the loss of our strategic position (which we are still unable to retrieve). Israel is using demilitarised zones, joint security patrols, and the confusion between political and security zones so that, in time, the strategic advantages of the pre-1967 years will never be recovered.

"After the defeat, I was entrusted with the function of changing the military commanders and rebuilding the armed forces. I found the struggle at the top military levels as strong as ever. The commanders who had been responsible for the defeat had been discharged, and those who remained fought fiercely to deny responsibility. I asked them to present me with written statements about their role.

"Among the generals were Mortagi, Salah Mohsen, and Hassan and Hussein Mutawe. At this point, I became convinced that all those who had been responsible for the outcome of the war had to resign. I introduced some changes, whereby the chief of general staff would be given the powers of the commander- general, a post that was cancelled. Lieutenant-General Abdel-Moneim Riyad was appointed to the two positions. I then turned my attention to establishing the defensive line west of the Canal. The air force was to be rebuilt by Lieutenant-General Madkour Abul-Ezz. The western defence line was ready in March 1968. Defensive and offensive operations continued until I left the Ministry of Defence to lead the intelligence service again, and devoted all my time to this work.

"As chief of the Military Intelligence, I had to rely primarily on information, not news. Secondly, I focussed on the state of the combating forces, not in terms of weapons but the efficiency of the troops on the battlefield. It must be remembered that, in the October War, it was the quality of the soldiers that won the war.

"Moreover, there should be no declaration of any intended movements. On 7 October, Sadat wrote to Kissinger asserting that Egypt had no intention to move deeper into Sinai. Kissinger took the message to the members of the US National Security Council, who had been confused about the intentions of the Egyptian troops until Sadat gave them this assurance."

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