Although the 1973 Arab-Israeli war is widely regarded as a military victory in Egypt, it ended in a stalemate and near defeat. Nevertheless, it ultimately led to the return of all occupied Egyptian territory and saved Egypt's ruling junta from popular discontent.
On 6 October 2023, Egypt will celebrate, undoubtedly with considerable pomp and ceremony, the 50th anniversary of the most significant “victory” against Israel in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This triumphal attitude was reiterated by Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi during last year's celebration. He described the war as “the glorious October victory, a day of pride and dignity, a day that represented proof of the capabilities of Egyptians in overcoming the toughest moments of the nation's history”.
“This day was designed to be eternally carved not only in the consciousness of the Egyptian people but also in the consciousness of the entire Arab nation and all peace-loving peoples in the world,” he insisted.
Did Egypt win the October war?
The reality is not as straightforward as the glorified mainstream Egyptian narrative implies.
It is true that the joint Arab surprise attack so caught Israel on the backfoot that many of its top brass feared that the annihilation of their young state was afoot, and some even considered deploying the nuclear “bomb in the basement”. It is also true that Egypt's crossing of the Suez Canal was spectacular and that the young officer Baki Zaki Youssef's inspired idea of using simple water cannons to penetrate the “impenetrable” Bar Lev defensive line displayed a genius of low-tech resourcefulness.
However, as the war progressed, the situation grew increasingly dire for Egypt. By 24 October 1973, Israeli forces had not only managed to encircle Egypt's Third Army but had taken positions on the west bank of the Suez Canal that were a mere100km from Cairo.
When faced with this inconvenient twist in the tale, Egyptian patriots tend to counter that this was not a fair fight – Egypt was not fighting Israel but the United States, which airlifted emergency supplies to Israel and restocked its arsenals. While this is true, it overlooks that the Soviet Union did the same for Egypt and Syria, and that the Arab allies started the war with more tanks and aircraft than Israel.
Nevertheless, the October war was a relative military victory compared with the Arab-Israeli confrontations that had preceded it. The military outcome was far better than the catastrophic defeat that Israel had inflicted on the Arabs six years earlier, in just six days. What followed was a long, drawn-out War of Attrition.
The 1973 war helped heal some of the deep psychological scars and humiliation in the Arab psyche left by the wars of 1948 and 1967. It also helped restore some measure of Arab confidence and pride.
Most importantly, Egypt managed to claw political victory from the jaws of military stalemate. The spectacular and highly controversial visit by then President Anwar el-Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977, where he addressed the Israeli Knesset, led Egypt to regain its lost territory in the Sinai in 1979 after years of prolonged negotiations.
Sadat, faced with Israeli intransigence and Arab rejectionism, decided to forge a bilateral peace with Israel, despite this discrediting him in Arab eyes.
On the domestic front, the gains were significant for the regime, if not for the populus. The 1967 defeat and preceding fiasco of Egypt's disastrous involvement in Yemen, had almost toppled the country's ruling junta. Sadat, who had struggled under the supersized shadow of his predecessor Gamal Abdel-Nasser, was now able to profile himself as a statesman in his own right.
Sadat lacked Nasser's charisma and was believed to be Nasser's ‘spare wheel' – chosen as vice president because he was the weakest and most pliable of the Free Officers. The only way for him to cling to power was through massive purges of Nasserist loyalists and other opposition figures.
The 1973 war and the subsequent Camp David accords threw Sadat and his regime a lifeline, allowing him to portray himself as a president who could both wage war and broker peace. The subsequent “peace dividend”, which came partially in the form of generous US military and civilian aid, helped keep the regime afloat and shored up its patronage network. Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, also leaned heavily on the October war, during which he commanded the air force.
But official mythmaking around the 1973 war has also come at a price. By airbrushing out the setbacks in the latter battles of the war, a distorted picture emerged of Egypt in a position of unassailable strength. In this light, the need for Egypt to negotiate the return of its territory and to offer peace in return for land appears baffling, even treacherous, to many.
The October war has also warped perceptions among hawks of what can be achieved on the battlefield, akin to the effect of the 6 Day War on Israeli perception. Egypt's “victory” has kept alive the conviction that ‘what was taken by force can only be returned by force' despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary provided by the Arabs' dismal war record against Israel.
Just as Israel will never force the Palestinians to accept subjugation at the point of a gun, the Arab world will never liberate Palestine through force of arms – the best they can hope for is to liberate the Palestinian people.
As the post-Camp David era has clearly demonstrated to anyone willing to see, there can be no durable or just Arab-Israeli peace until the Palestinian issue is resolved and justice is done.
However, the once rejectionist Arab countries that recently entered the Abraham Accords with Israel have also drawn the wrong lessons from Egypt's experience. Not only have they left the Palestinians in the lurch, they, unlike Egypt, gained no concessions from Israel whatsoever.
This arrangement of convenience between repressive governments to tolerate, aid and abet one another's abuses and to profit economically is a dangerous deceit that will haunt the region for years to come.
This article first appeared on Plus61J Media on 21 September 2023.