Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

October War and the angel

Israeli authorities in 1973 couldn’t comprehend that Egyptians were able to outsmart them, and they still can’t, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

اقرأ باللغة العربية

True to custom, the 44th anniversary of the October War this year greeted us with a novelty. As with other major historical events, that war still holds countless secrets and mysteries to reveal. As long as the battle is still ongoing, in one way or another, facts and information are part of the combat, even if all guns are silent.

Without delving into too much detail, that war formed an important part of the collective memory of an entire generation of Egyptians who had experienced the humiliation of defeat in 1967 and the struggle to overcome that through the War of Attrition that culminated in the crossing of the Suez Canal on the morning of 6 October 1973. That experience remained a dominant factor that shaped their lives as soldiers, scholars and writers. I had the great honour to be part of that generation as a soldier (I reached the rank of sergeant), as a student (I chose it as the subject of my doctoral dissertation) and an academic and writer (it remained an important topic in my writings and lectures).

This year, in the firmament of that war and its history, there glimmered The Angel by the Israeli historian Uri Bar-Joseph in its English edition. The original Hebrew version appeared years ago. The book is being adapted into a motion picture that will champion the Israeli point of view, which is that Ashraf Marwan was an Israeli mole planted in the very heart of Egyptian decision-making circles, contrary to the claim of Israeli Military Intelligence leader Eli Zeira that Marwan was an Egyptian Intelligence agent planted in the Israeli path in the course of the confusing events from the summer of 1970 to 1978.

Towards the end of the book, in the chapter entitled “Fallen Angel”, my name appears. The author relates that the producers of the “60 Minutes” programme had been preparing a segment on Marwan and that they had been trying for weeks, in vain, to find answers to questions concerning his work for Mossad. Prior to this, Bar-Joseph writes that Egyptian officials reiterated different versions of the theory that Marwan was an Egyptian Intelligence plant but that they were unwilling to say even that on camera for reasons of secrecy. “In the end, the Egyptian position was presented on camera by Dr Abdel-Moneim Said, the head of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, who claimed that Marwan was a central axis in the Egyptian effort to fool the Israelis, without which the Egyptian army would have had no chance of defeating the IDF. He provided no compelling details to back up his claim, however. Said’s comments, which aired in May 2009, were the closest approximation of an official Egyptian statement about Marwan since Mubarak had declared that he ‘did not spy for any agency.’”

What the author failed to mention, and may not have known, was that my segment in the programme was recorded in a room in Harvard University Library in September 2008. In the course of an 80-minute session I recounted all arguments in defence of my point of view. Only 90 seconds of that whole recording was aired. This brief minute and a half, moreover, stood alone against over a half-hour of quite a few other commentators espousing the claim that Marwan was an Israeli agent.

The integrity of the people who produced that programme is not our concern here. Of more importance to me is the discussion that is taking place here, in Egypt, on the subject, the most recent exchange of which is that between two dear colleagues, Abdallah Al-Sinawi and Ibrahim Al-Bahrawi. After having reread the book in its new edition, I have grown even more convinced of the view I expressed many years ago. This view is closer to that of Al-Bahrawi than to that of Al-Sinawi. Moreover, I will go further to suggest that the book is not necessarily entirely the work of its author. In fact, I posit that it is devised by Mossad, itself, which, in the book, is cast as a lone player in the arena of a war it lost and which, 44 years later, is still confused as to whether or not Israel had been fatally duped.

The notion that the Egyptian authorities meaning General Intelligence — had not furnished sufficient detail or evidence to support their point of view holds little water in the context of any intelligence work since publication, or the lack thereof, is part of the very process. Naturally, in the event that an adversary is nervous and suspicious then the other side has nothing to gain by alleviating that adversary’s anxieties. “Keep them guessing” is a basic part of the world of deception, both tactically and strategically. As for the official Egyptian position that Marwan was an Egyptian national hero, there is much to sustain this, as the Israelis know. He was instrumental in ensuring that the Egyptian army was equipped with sophisticated Western arms. The Mirage deal stands out, although it was not the only one of its kind. The fighter planes played a crucial role in the October War. Marwan’s record in this regard is well known. But it should be borne in mind that concluding essential arms deals for an impending war required the skills of a man who was employed in more dangerous and intricate tasks.

The Israeli dilemma with the subject of Marwan is that Israel does not want to admit that the Egyptians had the ingenuity to conceive of a strategic plan of deception that was essentially built around structural flaws in Israeli strategic thinking. The Egyptian plan took advantage of these flaws in many ways, only one of which was Marwan. Another was Refaat Al-Gammal (aka Raafat Al-Haggan) who also worked for Egyptian Intelligence during the same period. The structural flaw in Israeli thinking was manifested in the fact that Israel had actually been informed of the time of the Egyptian offensive by an Arab monarch during a meeting with Golda Meir several days before the war. Then, at 10pm GMT on Thursday, 5 October, Marwan told them that the offensive was set for 6pm the following day, as opposed to 2pm, the actual time. Based on this information, Israel only initiated a nationwide mobilisation at 9am on 6 October, and this in spite of Moshe Dayan’s objections. The Israeli defence minister at the time was still not convinced that Egypt would wage war. He also believed that an emergency mobilisation would arouse suspicions that Israel had started the war, if a war did, in fact, begin. So, he thought it would be better to let Egypt do it and then destroy it afterwards.

The Egyptian plan was composed of many details, many of which we know today. But the crux was that the best deceptions occur when the adversary thinks that the intelligence he obtained is of a quality that is “too good to be true”.

In the book and in the Israeli public record it is clear that the Israelis failed to appreciate the enormous change in the Egyptian Armed Forces that took place in the years that followed the June 1967 defeat. They — perhaps to our good fortune — undertook no serious evaluation of the battle of Ras Al-Eish, or the sinking of the Eilat warship with Egyptian naval missiles, or the War of Attrition as a whole. They failed to comprehend the changes in the human resources component of the Armed Forces and in the nature of its armaments system so as to render it commensurate to a “limited war” with unlimited strategic impact towards the ultimate realisation of the goal of liberating the whole of the occupied Sinai. Perhaps no less important was the fact that Israel, probably due to a superiority complex that grew more inflated than ever after the 1967 War, continued to look down at the Egyptian soldier and was unable to grasp how Egyptian society worked. For such reasons, in purely practical terms, the movements and activities of Marwan could only take place under the full supervision of Egyptian Intelligence. It is noteworthy in this regard that Israel interpreted the fact that Marwan was driven to the fateful meeting by a driver from the Egyptian embassy was an indication of his skilfulness. It did not suspect the possibility that the driver was there to protect him. In like manner, in what has become known as the “Rome Operation”, that Marwan succeeded in doing the impossible by packing a couple of anti-aircraft missiles into diplomatic luggage and flying them out of Cairo International Airport on an EgyptAir flight to Rome, was interpreted by the Israelis as another sign of his extraordinary talents. It did not occur to them that all this took place with cognisance of Egyptian Intelligence, which made this possible and which gave him the opportunity to travel to Rome, thereby winning Mossad’s confidence and trust in Marwan.

The Israelis thought that only they had connections with Italian Intelligence, even though they know our man also had connections with numerous intelligence networks. They failed to appreciate that all this was part of the deep Egyptian Intelligence network laid out in order to ensure the success of forthcoming operations and that Marwan could never have tapped into that network without assistance from the relevant authorities.

The October 1973 War will remain the source of pride to an entire generation of Egyptians. More chapters of this epic will be revealed every year. Egyptians will discuss the details when they find it necessary to do so, regardless of how Israelis might try to force it on us. Every topic has its proper place and time. I salute the heroes of the war, both those who sacrificed their lives and those who are still alive. 

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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