The Arab-Israeli war of narratives

 
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By Khaled Diab

On the 40th anniversary of the 1973 war, Egyptians and Israelis still cannot agree on the conflict’s name, date or outcome.

Egyptians crossing the Suez Canal. Source: Military Battles on the Egyptian Front by Gammal Hammad

Egyptians crossing the Suez Canal. Source: Military Battles on the Egyptian Front by Gammal Hammad

Wednesday 9 October 2013

That history is written by the victors is one of those truisms that is actually often untrue. Take the Torah. It hardly paints a flattering picture of the “victor”, Egypt, the regional superpower of the time. In fact, the Biblical narrative comes across as an anti-Egyptian propagandistic diatribe which depicts a very different Egypt to the official pharaonic propaganda.

The modern world, in which the majority of societies are literate, showcases the energetic resilience of competing narratives – and mythologies – of the same event. This is nowhere more apparent than across enemy lines. In the Arab-Israeli context, I have been exposed to the conflicting histories on both sides of the divide.

I am currently reminded of this reality when I consider how both Egyptians and Israelis are (separately) marking the 40th anniversary of the same war, yet are unable to agree on its name nor even its date – let alone its outcome.

Employing the Hebrew calendar, Israel has already commemorated the 1973 Yom Kippur war, while Egypt, using the Gregorian calendar, celebrated the October war on the 6th of the month. To add to the temporal confusion, Egypt also marks, but with much less pomp and ceremony, the anniversary of the war on 10 Ramadan, the date on which the war began according to the Islamic calendar, which shifts back 11 or so days each solar year.

In Egypt, this year’s celebrations were bound to be spectacular. The army released a special jubilee logo and urged Egyptians everywhere to take part in the planned festivities, as well as to fly the Egyptian flag from their windows.

In light of the bloody upheavals of the last couple of months and the massive question marks hanging in the air, rejoicing over a moment of past glory can provide some much-needed feel-good optimism for a population worn down by nearly three years of revolution and counter-revolution.

With Egyptian society more polarised than ever, this symbolically significant anniversary is a golden opportunity for the military to cobble together a semblance of national unity – and to score a propaganda point against the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as secular critics of military rule.

Not to be left out, the pro-Morsi Anti-Coup Alliance urged its supporters to converge on Tahrir Square. Seeking to cut them off at the pass, the pro-military Tamarod movement is mobilising its followers to mount rival demonstrations, also in Tahrir.

This raised the spectre that the commemoration of a landmark war, and the supposed national unity it instilled, could descend into bloody street battles. Given the symbolic importance of this anniversary, the Egyptian authorities warned ominously that they will not allow anyone to spoil their party. In all, at least 50 people died in the protests.

Over the past four decades, both Egypt’s armed forces and its top brass have used the October “victory” as a central plank of their claim to legitimacy – as defenders of Egypt’s borders, reclaimers of its land and restorers of its honour.

Anwar al-Sadat, the president who launched the surprise attack against Israel, never tired of reminding the Egyptian people that he was the architect of that war, and his government went on a naming spree to mark the historic conflict: a political magazine, two of Cairo’s satellite cities, an elevated highway which now spans most of Cairo, and much more.

Sadat was assassinated during a military parade celebrating the very same October war in 1981, and shortly thereafter his vice-president took over the helm. Not to be left out of October’s glorious radiance, Hosni Mubarak, who was commander of the air force at the time, claimed to have flown the first sortie of the 1973 war.

In leaked secret recordings of private conversations between Mubarak and his doctor in prison, the former president talked at length about his “completely secret” airstrike.

In addition, Mubarak’s lawyer has said that the toppled leader was planning to write a book about his and the airforce’s role in the war. An unpublished manuscript on Mubarak’s exploits dating back to the late 1970s is also due out soon.

General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s defence minister who responded to a popular uprising against Mohamed Morsi by removing the president, is widely regarded as the real driving force behind Egypt’s current brutal and bloody “transition.”

With talk of him being the “new Nasser” and “Egypt’s Eisenhower”, not to mention a campaign urging him to run for office, speculation is rife that Sisi might have ambitions to become Egypt’s next president.

Since Sisi is too young to have played a role in the 1973 war, it is unclear how and whether he will exploit its legacy if he does mount a bid for the top job in the land. But if Sisi decides to go against his promises and assurances, it would not surprise me if he announced it amid the nationalistic euphoria which will accompany the 40th anniversary of the “glorious victory”.

But was it actually a victory?

Now back to thqt other war, Yom Kippur, which took place at the exact same time and place as the October war, but with a different outcome. Although Israel originally described it as a stalemate, and despite the trauma the war caused to the national psyche as reflected in the endless post-mortems, Israel now claims it as a heroic act in which it snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

So who was right? In some ways, both sides were.

In the first phase of the war, Egypt’s spectacular crossing of the Suez Canal, with closely coordinated military backing from Syria on Israel’s northern front, and the Arab oil embargo constituted the most successful example of joint Arab action in the 20th century. Egypt’s ingeniously low-tech breaching of the once-insurmountable Bar-Lev Line and early advances caused such panic among Israeli leaders that Golda Meir’s inner circle may have come perilously close to deploying the “bomb in the basement”.

(As an aside, though Israel does not allow its media to mention with certainty the presence of an “alleged” Israeli nuclear arsenal, I think this episode eloquently underscores the urgent need for Israel to become part of regional efforts to rid the Middle East of WMD.)

But what is not taught in Egyptian school textbooks, rarely shown in its media and totally ignored in the October war panorama in Cairo’s Nasr City district is that the victory turned to stalemate and, within a matter of 10 days, when Israeli troops had crossed to the western side of the canal and got to within a 100km of Cairo, to near defeat.

By the time I was born on 30 October, which some Egyptians I encounter regard as a glorious coincidence, large-scale combat had ended, Israel was in possession of 1,600 square kilometers of land on the Egyptian mainland, but was surrounded by Egyptian forces or natural barriers, while the Egyptian third army was under siege in Sinai, though it maintained its combat integrity and advanced to occupy extra land to the east.

The blanking out of these latter Egyptian losses – which I have mainly learnt about over the years from foreign sources – is dangerous. It encourages a false sense of might among Egyptian and Arab critics of the peace treaty with Israel, who are often under the false impression that Egypt had defeated Israel, while all it had managed was to avoid a defeat as crushing as 1967.

This misapprehension also makes Sadat’s subsequent diplomatic manoeuvres seem more baffling than they actually were. In addition to his strong conviction that diplomacy was the ultimate solution –  similar to his predecessor Nasser’s own private beliefs  – Sadat was faced with a desperate deadlock on the battlefield and growing public pressure to deliver the victorious return of every inch of Egyptian territory he had promised the people.

Although Israel’s assessment of the 1973 war is more honest and it has drawn many lessons from it, most have been of a military nature, such as the need to neutralise its most dangerous neighbour, Egypt, through a treaty to end to hostilities.

Before Israelis rush to congratulate themselves that the Arabs have more bombast than bombs, they should pause to consider that they too possess an arsenal of potent weapons of mass self-deception. Despite Israel’s existential angst which has caused it to be in a constant state of military over-preparedness and often to underestimate its own might, it also entertains destructive mythologies.

In spite of the knock to Israel’s military prestige and sense of security delivered in 1973, the country is still punch-drunk on the stunning 1967 victory. This has lured the Israeli establishment and society to believe that there can be a military solution to Israel’s every problem, and rather than forge a comprehensive peace in the 1970s which included the Palestinians, it settled for removing Egypt from the equation.

But what this overlooks is that the 1967 war did not actually end, like the creation of the world in Genesis, in six days but continued until 1973’s stalemate, that Arab weakness and division were as much or perhaps more of a factor in the victory than Israeli might and prowess, and that Israel’s military dominance is underwritten by a superpower whose continued willingness or ability to support are not guaranteed.

The 40th anniversary of the October/Yom Kippur war should give Egyptians and Israelis pause to reflect on the futility of armed conflict between them, to realise the destructiveness of jingoism and to work on the popular level to enlarge the circle of peace to include the Palestinians.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 6 October 2013.

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