October War Legacy Fades in Troubled Modern Egypt

In Brief

October War Legacy Fades in Troubled Modern Egypt

Half a century later, Egypt regards its brief war with Israel as an important military milestone that initially bolstered its leaders, though in recent years, Egypt has weakened under repressive, ineffective rule.

In the mid-afternoon of October 6, 1973, Egyptian bombers and fighter aircraft flew low across the Suez Canal and into the Sinai Peninsula, attacking Israeli airbases and command posts. Not long after, waves of Egyptian infantry began their assault on Israel’s massive fortifications along the canal. Because it was Yom Kippur—the holiest of Jewish holidays—and Israeli intelligence assessments had cast doubt on Egypt’s intentions to go to war, Israel’s forces in the area were thin. By the next morning, ninety thousand Egyptian soldiers and their equipment had crossed the canal and were advancing under the protection of a thicket of surface-to-air missiles that kept the Israeli Air Force at bay. The liberation of the Sinai Peninsula, which Egyptians had craved since their army’s crushing defeat by Israel in June 1967, had begun with an extraordinary battlefield success.

Heroes of ‘the Crossing’

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When a cease-fire finally took hold on October 24, the Israelis were victorious but bloodied. The disastrous early days of the October War—or to Israel, the Yom Kippur War—shook the Israeli populace’s confidence in both the military and political leadership. For their part, after accomplishing the country’s greatest modern military achievement, known in Egypt simply as “the Crossing,” President Anwar al-Sadat and the Egyptian high command had made a number of mistakes that allowed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to regain the initiative and threaten the destruction of the Egyptian army in Sinai even as the IDF maintained a toehold in the Sinai Peninsula. The war’s outcome “ripened the conflict” between Egypt and Israel, providing new opportunities for diplomacy that led to Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem four years later, the Camp David Accords [PDF], and finally the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in March 1979. In 1982, after Israel’s phased withdrawal from Sinai, Egypt’s flag finally flew over the peninsula, though the peace treaty placed limits on the location and number of Egyptian military forces in the region.

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There were also important domestic political implications in both countries. Israel underwent a political reckoning not over the outcome of the war, but rather because the prime minister, defense minister, and Israeli generals had so badly underestimated the Egyptian threat, leading to Prime Minister Golda Meir’s resignation the following spring and the fall of her government.

In Egypt, the war had the opposite effect. Sadat had come to power in 1970 after the death of his charismatic predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The new president immediately found himself in a political struggle with Nasser supporters who remained in influential positions within the armed forces and Egypt’s single political party, the Arab Socialist Union. Sadat outmaneuvered these power centers in 1971, but he was forced to confront still other political challenges. In early 1972, university students in Cairo, Alexandria, Asyut, and Mansoura staged large protests against the Egyptian president in large part over his perceived reluctance to launch a war of liberation against Israel, which by then was firmly entrenched on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. When war came the following year, and with both the stunning success of the Egypt’s initial push into Sinai and Israel’s inability to push Egyptian forces back to the western side of the canal, Sadat could finally consolidate his power, after which he took up the mantle “Hero of the Crossing.”

Assassination, Stabilization, Coup

Of course, opposition to Sadat’s rule would come first in January 1977, when Egypt erupted in demonstrations over a plan recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that called on the country to alter some food subsidies. It resurfaced in the summer of 1981, when Sadat engaged in the mass repression of his adversaries (both real and imagined). But following the Crossing, Sadat’s presidential authority was not contested. After extremists assassinated Sadat on October 6, 1981, as he was reviewing a military parade celebrating the Crossing, his successor, Hosni Mubarak, pursued a middle path between the nationalist fervor espoused by Nasser and ideological zeal of the Sadat years. As he sought to depoliticize Egypt with his emphasis on “stability for the sake of development,” Mubarak—who had commanded Egypt’s air forces during the 1973 October War—leaned on the Crossing as a pillar of his legitimacy. Decades after the fact, the Egyptian government and Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party produced a steady stream of October War publicity, explicitly linking the president to Egypt’s military triumph. He was portrayed as a steady hand who would guide Egypt’s “crossing into the future.”

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Egyptians view  a recreated war scene at museum and memorial of the October War in Cairo.
Egyptians view a recreated war scene at museum and memorial of the October War in Cairo. Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

As time has passed and many of the generals and political figures of the war have died, the Crossing has had diminishing political returns. Mubarak could not conjure this glorious history to steady his rule in 2011, when Egyptians rose up against him, forcing the army to remove the president from power. The crossing of the Suez Canal remains an important marker in Egypt’s modern history, of course, but current President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who was a senior military commander before taking power in a 2013 coup d’état, is two generations removed from the officers who accomplished the Crossing.

As Egypt confronts a spiraling economic crisis that has left the country debt-ridden and Egyptians facing record levels of inflation, Sisi cannot conjure the October War to help sustain his rule. While this may not be a fatal vulnerability to his continued leadership, the Egyptian president is bereft of both a glorious personal history and a positive vision for the future. Even though the outcome of December’s presidential election is not in doubt, the lack of both contribute to Sisi’s political weakness.

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