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Looking for victories amid defeat
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 10 - 2016

All Arab regimes celebrate national or Arab national days and religious holidays, but each has its own way of utilising such occasions to serve their particular interests. This is evident in the way that the Egyptian regime celebrates the 1973 October war, the 43rd anniversary of which was recently commemorated. Although the bare historical facts inform us that that victory was a consummately Arab national achievement, Egypt has appeared determined to “Egyptianise” it according to the requirements of the prevailing regime at whatever time.
In Anwar Al-Sadat's time, the October War was abbreviated to the “Battle of the Crossing” (of the Suez Canal). The man responsible who conceived the decision to wage that battle became the “Hero of the War”. He would go on to acquire the official title of “Hero of War and Peace” after his visit to Israel and decision to conclude a separate peace with that country.
Although Sadat was assassinated during the celebrations of the 8th anniversary of the October victory, the attempts to manipulate that occasion continued. In Mubarak's time, that war was abridged to “the first aerial attack” (against Israeli forces in the Sinai) and the Egyptian media attributed that achievement to the air force commander who ordered that strike. After the fall of Mubarak, the tune would change again. Today, the Egyptian army, which is “one hand” with the people, is billed with the credit.
If such toying with history tells us anything it is that the ruling regimes in the Arab world are addicted to self-deception and that they are still bent on the same mode of behaviour that brought the Arab peoples to their current state of disgrace, degradation and vulnerability.
The victory that was achieved during the 1973 war was not a stroke of good luck. Nor was it the fruit of the individual effort of a particular commander or leader, or even of any one Arab army or people. It was the product of a combination of great individual and collective efforts that contributed to ensuring all the necessary conditions and ingredients for success in the battle for revenge and the recuperation of dignity. The political leadership that was defeated in the 1967 war and which the Egyptian people insisted remain in power as their way of expressing their refusal to admit defeat, armed itself with a clear vision and firm will, and it became more determined to use systematic planning and follow-through as an approach and mode of operation at diverse levels. At the same time, all the Arab peoples were prepared to make the highest sacrifices in blood, money and sweat in order to efface the humiliating stain of defeat. Accordingly, we can say that the October achievement was the culmination of a long process, the most important landmarks of which were the following:
- The mass turnout of the Egyptian people on 9 and 10 June 1967 to persuade Gamal Abdel-Nasser to retract his decision to step down. That actions reflected the mass's readiness to accept the challenge.
- The restructuring and modernisation of the Egyptian army, which involved relying on university graduates as the basis for combat formations.
- The Khartoum Summit famed for its “Three No's” (No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel) and for the commitment on the part of Arab oil producing countries to give generous financial support to the frontline countries.
- The war of attrition that became a laboratory for breeding seasoned fighters and created the opportunity for combat units from many Arab armies to establish a presence on the combat fronts.
- Continuous military coordination between Egypt and Syria, which was crowned by the agreement to wage a simultaneous battle on two fronts.
- The use of oil as a weapon in the battle by means of an oil embargo against the countries that supported or were aligned with Israel.
The abovementioned facts confirm that the October 1973 war was a collective Arab effort par excellence. True, President Sadat and President Hafez Al-Assad took the decision to declare war and to bear the enormous political and psychological consequences. However, that decision would never have been taken to begin with and the war would never have achieved its results had it not been preceded by and characterised by a collective Arab drive and a degree of Arab solidarity unprecedented even in Nasser's times.
Let's be frank with ourselves. Let's acknowledge that the October War did not end with a total military victory or a definitive defeat for Israel. This said, it is undeniable that the achievements in the fields of combat on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts, in spite of all mistakes, were sufficient to erase the shame of the 1967 defeat and to destroy the myth of the invincibility of the Israeli army. It has been established beyond a shadow of a doubt that Israel was on the point of defeat until it appealed to Washington for help. The US not only furnished it with the most modern military equipment but also with fighters who were dual nationals. Had it not been for the American assistance, Israel would not have been able to create the breach that eventually forced the Arabs to accept, again, a resolution that did not compel Israel to withdraw from all Arab territories occupied in 1967.
If we add to the foregoing that the Arab world at the time emerged as a world power that needed to be taken into account, we can appreciate that the October War produced a genuine shift in the balances of regional forces. That shift was sufficient to realise an equitable settlement that would have met the minimum level of Arab legitimate rights had the political battle that followed the October War been waged with the same spirit of Arab solidarity that had prevailed before and during the war. However, Sadat preferred to manage that political battle independently after having ventured to place all his eggs in the American basket.
Sadat had no justification for relying on a sole American role in the settlement process. That he did so reflected a large quantity of misplaced trust which, in turn, would inevitably result in a large squandering of rights, not just Palestinian or Arab rights but also the rights of the Egyptian people. Nothing can possibly explain that rush into the American embrace apart from that “leader complex” that I believe afflicted Sadat in the post-October War period. In all events, Sadat's decision would have catastrophic results at home and abroad.
Domestically, it brought an unprecedented degree of US involvement in Egypt's domestic affairs leading to a distorted economic development process (the utter confusion of the open door policy and privatisation of the public sector), a distorted social development process (the growth of the marginalised sectors of society, the broadening gap between rich and poor, and the increasing political role and influence of business magnates), a distorted cultural development process (the debasement of values and vulgarisation of the arts), the distortion of the democratisation process (the release of the Muslim Brothers from prison and the use of Islamists to counter the left wing trends that Sadat regarded as his chief enemies in the framework of restricted and token political plurality). With regard to foreign policy, the dependency on a sole US role resulted in the erosion of Egyptian autonomy, the decline in its influence abroad and its reduction to a dependency affiliated to the Western camp. I do not think it an exaggeration to state that the move of the Arab League headquarters away from Cairo marked the actual beginning of the decline of the Arab order toward disintegration and collapse.
Some believe that it is excessive to blame Sadat entirely for the collapse of the Arab order. This is true to a certain extent, especially since the narcissistic condition that overcame Sadat soon spread to many other Arab leaders, propelling them to commit far more disastrous mistakes than those committed by Sadat. Saddam Hussein is a case in point, with his declaration of war against Iran followed by his invasion of Kuwait at the outset of the 1990s. Nevertheless, I believe that Sadat is the person chiefly responsibility for setting the Arab order on its course to disintegration and collapse. There are many reasons for this. Perhaps the most important is that he deliberately dismantled the collective mobilisation mechanism, the creative energies of which he succeeded in unleashing in the aftermath of the 1967 defeat, energies that remained powerful and vibrant until the end of the October War. I, personally, have no doubt that the period from the 1967 defeat to the end of the October War was one of the most fertile periods in the life of Egypt and the Arab nation. It was the period that was most capable of forging a better future for all. However, Sadat was bent on laying the foundations for his own project and building a new legitimacy for himself. Therefore, perhaps also motivated by a deep-seated “Nasser complex”, he applied himself to razing the Nasserist project to the ground instead of working to reform its flaws. He thus steered Egypt in an opposite direction, plunging it into a labyrinth in which the country wandered for yet another 30 years under Mubarak.
Sadat's move to “Egyptianise” the October War and to link its achievements with his person led the way to that victory being tailored to his successors, even if they had never taken any part in the war. This to me is a sign of bankruptcy. As forty years have passed since the October War with no accomplishments of note, at either the Egyptian or the Arab level, it appears that conjuring up and celebrating the victory of the October War has become the only way to compensate of the sense of total defeat that everyone feels these days.
I believe that the time has come to put an end to that flagrant abuse of history and to adopt a new discourse in addressing the Egyptian and Arab peoples. Transparency is in order and it needs to answer the following pressing question: How did the victory that was won in October 1973, if only partial or limited, turn into a comprehensive defeat of the sort we see today? In these times it is wrong to commemorate that victory unless the point is to identify the real reasons why it was turned into a defeat. This is the only way to revive the spirit of October, which the Arabs most direly need today.
The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

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