Yom Kippur War: Israel's Tragedy Remembered as Egypt's Triumph

What Israelis remember as the debacle of the Yom Kippur War, Egyptians venerate as the glory of 'October.'

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

While in Israel the Yom Kippur War is synonymous with failure, in Egypt, “October” equals success. Forty years later, Egypt is also seeking more memories – of victory.

An Egyptian company is advertising fine apartments in a neighborhood called “The Crossing” that faces the October War Panorama. The prices are tempting, get one while you can, the ad says. “The Crossing” – “Al-Abur” - is, of course, the crossing of the Suez Canal by the Egpytian army at the start of the Yom Kippur War, and the beginning of what is embedded in Egyptian memory as a huge victory. The October War Panorama is an active museum in which moving models of the war are displayed, and is visited by thousands of Egyptian students every year. As opposed to Israel, where no street is named after the Yom Kippur War, the Egyptian “October” has long stopped being the name of a month. October is a bridge, a school, a neighborhood, a weekly magazine, a sports club, a restaurant, all bearing the memory of this formative event. October is the symbol of the greatness of the Egyptian army, to which every other colossal event in the country’s history is compared.

For example, Egyptian columnists compare the revolution that brought down Mubarak to the October victory; the commander of the Dubai police, Dhahi Khalfan, compared the Egyptian army’s struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood to the October war; a social activist in Sinai, Muna Barhoum, said in a newspaper interview that “the actions of the army in Sinai are the harshest since the October war.” And when the United States informed Egypt that it was cancelling the joint military exercise Bright Star following the takeover of the government in July by the Egyptian army, Mukhtar Kanadil, a military affairs commentator and retired general, said: “Egypt won the October war without Bright Star.”

But how should all the manifestations of memory, the songs, the films, the stories be collected so as not to lose them? That is the question that troubled the prominent Egyptian author and columnist Yusuf al-Kaid a year ago, when he asked “what should we do in the coming year in which we mark the 40th year since the October war?” Kaid, who has published dozens of books and stories, including stories of the Yom Kippur War, wrote that “the Zionists say that not one soldier is left in the Egyptian army who fought in the October war, and they are happy about that. I’m not sure that they are right, but the fact that the enemy makes this claim requires us to focus on and foster the memory of October.” Kaid also called on the public to collect and translate stories and books published in Israel about the war to understand what Israeli society went through as a result of it. Whether or not there is a connection, recent Israeli publications of new evidence from officers who took part in the war have been widely reported in the Egyptian media as if they were part of Egyptian heritage.

Commemoration industry

The collection of memories from the Yom Kippur War is also part of a project undertaken by the Alexandria Library under the heading “Memory of Modern Egypt,” on the home page of its Internet site. It includes maps, photographs and documents that are accumulating, as each year yet another archive and another private collection is discovered containing rare documents from the period of the war. This year, for example, 146 photos of the wartime artillery corps commander, General Mohammad Said el-Mahi, were published. They have already become part of the site’s photo collection alongside the album of Anwar Sadat, “hero of war and peace.” as he was called in the government media after the signing of the Camp David Accords.

Memorial ceremonies and seminars about the war are an inseparable part of the commemoration industry in Egypt, which is now controlled by the army. Its leader, Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, did not take part in the Yom Kippur War because he was too young. He finished his studies in military college four years after the war ended, and so for him the memory is an acquired one. He can certainly augment it if he reads the new edition of the book by Saad el-Shazly, “Memories of the October War,” which was banned for three generations. (It was published in Britain in 1980 and re-released this year by an Egyptian publisher. Shazly, commander in chief of the Egyptian army during the Yom Kippur War, was ousted by Sadat and later, following his harsh criticism of the Camp David Accords, was expelled to Algeria. Sissi can certainly discover in the book how infighting among the Egyptian generals during the war prevented an even greater victory. But that is already another memory, of the kind that will not become part of the Egyptian pantheon.

An Egyptian commando jumping from a helicopter during a military parade in Cairo, Egypt marking the The 34th anniversary of the October Arab-Israeli war in 1973. Credit: AP

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