The October 1973 War was one of the major wars Egypt has fought to liberate its occupied territory. Its success revived Egyptian and Arab morale, pride and dignity, which had been sapped by the defeat in the 1967 War even as the October War and its course took all by surprise.
The Egyptian military command’s plans were highly complex and minutely calculated. The tactics employed changed modern military strategic thinking after throwing into relief the importance of tactical deception in troop and equipment mobilisation and deployment. The war also changed the political and military map of the Middle East and underscored the geopolitical and economic importance of this strategically located and oil-rich region.
The October 1973 War was the first time the Arabs had deployed the oil weapon as a means to put pressure on the West. Its impact was reflected in subsequent Western political and strategic literature on the “new Middle East” and how to bend it to the service of the West and Israel.
The October War bore testimony to many positive Egyptian character traits. Huge reserves of grit, determination, selflessness and self-sacrifice were unleashed by the resolve to redress the pains inflicted in 1967. The war revealed the latent strength and fortitude of the Egyptian people, which surface in the face of hardship and grave challenges.
It also demonstrated our fighting forces’ ability to master modern military technology and endure gruelling training under conditions simulating the ones they would face in the theatre of war. They received training in crossing the Suez Canal, infiltrating enemy units, inflicting losses on enemy lines, planting mines targeting Israeli patrols, storming fortified sites, engaging with the enemy using various types of light to heavy weaponry, destroying earthen ramparts using water cannons, and other crucial tasks.
These exercises served not just to hone combat skills, but also to overcome any fear barrier created by the myth of an invincible Israeli army. Egyptian troops destroyed that myth, proving that it had been nothing but an instrument of psychological warfare aided by the general sense of defeat after 1967. The training instilled in our soldiers a spirit of initiative and a willingness to take the offensive, both of which had been shown to be necessary in the light of the experiences of 1948, 1956 and 1967, when the policy was to react, rather than to act.
The War of Attrition after 1967 was effectively a real-life training ground, and it worked to “immunise” our troops before the October 1973 battles. Egyptian forces inflicted such heavy losses on the enemy during the War of Attrition that Tel Aviv was forced to appeal to Washington to mediate a ceasefire, which took the form of the Rogers Plan.
Although military and security commands often formulate concepts of national security, numerous factors enter into shaping them. Political geography, historical background, good powers of foresight and the ability to translate understandings of political geography and history in terms of the needs of the present moment in order to forge attainable visions for the future are just some of these. In the light of such factors, concepts of national security naturally vary from one country to the next, from one region to the next, and from one era to the next. National security is thus a flexible concept and one that can change quickly to accommodate changing threats, challenges and interests. There are no absolutes where national security is concerned.
Any discussion of national security involves identifying potential sources of threat. These can come from state actors or non-state actors, such as extremist religious groups, powerful economic organisations or other entities that have hostile ideological, political or economic agendas. One of the gravest threats to national security is foreign intervention in domestic affairs. This can vary from military interventions (both direct and indirect) and political measures, such as imposing sanctions, to clandestine and covert operations designed to foment domestic turmoil and uprisings, support coups, support opposition and insurrectionist groups, and engineer coups or other forms of regime change.
Such interventions may also include sheltering and training opposition forces and offering refuge and political platforms to terrorist groups, or surreptitiously manipulating public opinion through targeted psychological warfare. Some types of intelligence interventions have become more effective as a result of the great advances in science and technology that have recently taken place, especially in communications and fifth-generation technology.
Intervening parties are scrambling to possess these technologies and bend them to the advancement of their aims and interests. The new technologies have the advantage that they are more cost-effective than military interventions and incur fewer criticisms from the international community because they are largely invisible and those responsible are difficult to identify.
At the time of the 1973 War, the Egyptian and Arab concept of national security was shaped by the foreign military occupation of Arab territory. The concept was largely limited to military and economic strength, and the aim was to acquire such strength in order to overcome the threat and the sense of weakness that had set in after 1967.
In 1973, the concept of national security was also closely connected to the bipolar nature of the then world order and the parity between the western and eastern camps that created a relative equilibrium in international relations. After the collapse of the former Soviet Union after 1989, the US wielded its new powers of uncontested global hegemony in ways that exacerbated disparities in the world order and worked to multiply threats and challenges and alter perceptions of national interest. Concepts of Arab national security changed accordingly, and even more so as other types of power came to be factored in alongside military and economic power in national security equations.
After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Arabs saw the implanted Zionist entity as the ultimate national threat. They feared that the colonialist Zionist settler project would undermine the pan-Arab nationalist project. The Arab defeat and the Israeli occupation of Arab land in 1967 proved this, and subsequent Arab-Israeli peace agreements failed to put a stop to Israel’s colonialist and expansionist ambitions.
But there are significant differences between the wars that Egypt has fought against Israel in the past and the wars it has been involved in since the Arab Spring Revolutions. In the past, the Israeli enemy was clear and visible, and it was easy to identify its backers. The warfare was also conventional: two standing armies typically faced each other in identifiable battle arenas on land, sea and air using familiar and similar types of military hardware.
Today’s wars in the Arab region, by contrast, are asymmetrical, and much unfolds beneath the surface. It can be hard to identify the boundaries of battle arenas and sometimes even the players themselves. It is often hard to tell who is friend or foe. The major world powers may be involved, but now the prime players are regional ones like Israel, Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia that may harbour expansionist ambitions targeting their Arab neighbours, share a strong hatred and condescension towards the Arabs, and thirst for Arab mineral wealth and water resources.
Unfortunately, some Arab countries have colluded with these powers, Qatar being a prime example. Another characteristic of today’s wars in the Arab region is that they are generally proxy wars, in which the combatants include terrorist groups, militias, mercenaries and thugs.
These wars have frayed the Arab national fabric and weakened Arab and Egyptian national security. Battle arenas have long since moved beyond the land, sea and air to include space (in the form of satellites, for example), cyberspace, and the realm of artificial intelligence. A successful cyberattack can decimate a country’s information and communications infrastructure, for example, wreaking untold economic damage. Cyber-warfare can also target the Arab people’s minds, using electronically transmitted psychological operations to destroy morale, break people’s will, sow depression and foster political alienation.
The writer is an expert in national security affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly