A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, October 4, 2013

October 6: "The Crossing" After 40 Years

This Sunday marks the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (the October War, Yom Kippur War, or Ramadan War). Although Syria also participated in the surprise attack, the date of October 6 has become iconic particularly in Egypt, where "the crossing" (al-‘ubur) of the Suez Canal was the defining moment of Anwar Sadat's Presidency, making possible his later visit to Jerusalem and peace with Israel. This will be the first of several posts on the anniversary of that war.

Sadat had succeeded Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 and defeated an effort by hardline Nasserites to oust him in 1971 (the "Corrective Revolution"); but he had not fully emerged from the shadow of Nasser, whose standing up to the British, nationalization of the Suez Canal, and role as leader of the Arab World were so influential. But there was one great blot on Nasser's record was the devastating defeat in the 1967 War, which left Egypt without an Air Force, without Sinai, and with the Suez Canal closed. The War of Attrition across the Canal from 1967 to 1970 left the Canal Cities (Port Said, Ismailia, Suez) destroyed and abandoned.

Unlike the heated rhetoric Nasser had used in the 1967 war, in 1973 the war was not presented as aimed at destroying Israel, but at recovering lost territory.

Though by the end of the war Israel had recovered and recrossed the Canal, the shock of the surprise destroyed the myth of Israeli invulnerability, and of the "impenetrable" Bar-Lev line along the Canal. And it led to negotiations, first at Kilometer 101.

Though by the end of the war Israel's Deversoir salient on the west bank of the Canal cut off supply lines to the Egyptian Third Field Army ("Bonjour, al-‘ubur; bonsoir, Deversoir" went a joke of the time), for Egyptians it was a very different result from 1967, and within a decade Israel and Egypt were ay peace and Sinai had been fully returned.

Sadat and the High Command
October 6 became Egypt's military day. Ironically, it was while watching a Military Day parade at Egypt's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,  that Sadat was assassinated, giving the day a double and double-edged significance. (And I first met my future wife at an Egyptian Military Day reception.)

Nor did its role as an iconic symbol die with Sadat; Husni Mubarak had been Air Force Commander during what was essentially a return of Egypt's Air Force from the destruction of 1967. Mubarak's role in 1973 was emphasized throughout his Presidency, to the point where Sadat's was actually downplayed. And the habit of seeing the President as the hero of October 6 carried over to the point where last year, one union magazine actually congratulated "President Muhammad Morsi, Leader of the Great October Victory." (Morsi never served in the military and was still in school in 1973. But old habits die hard.)


David Mack said...

At the National War College in the mid-1990s, we taught Sadat's leadership in the 1973 War as an outstanding example of a successful grand strategy to attain national political objectives by combined use of diplomacy, military force and other tools of national security. by contrast, Sadat did not always fare so well with his own countrymen. During the bread riots which preceded his assassination, the chant on the street was "Ya batil 'uburna, wayn futurna?" ("Oh hero of the crossing, where is our breakfast?"

Anonymous said...

If you look closely at the picture, you can see Sissy.

Hint: He's the Egyptian flag.