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How do we write our military history?

40 years after the 1973 war, Egyptian documents are still hidden. Revealing these documents is the only way to encourage research and make officials realise that people are the ones who hold them accountable

Khaled Fahmy , Sunday 14 Apr 2013
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Views: 1549

Last week, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article about a confidential document written in 1973 recently released by Israel's Ministry of Defense. The document contains intelligence Israel received before the October War started. Along with information sent by agent Ashraf Marwan that Sadat had taken the decision to open fire in coordination with Syria, the article focused on new intelligence in the document originating from the office of Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan.

The new information asserts, according to the article, that Military Intelligence Chief Eliyahu Zeira had confirmed Egypt’s intention to also launch military action. The document states Zeira briefed a meeting of the top brass on the morning of 6 October about Syria moving its forces into attack positions. He also briefed them on a decoded message to Baghdad from Iraq’s ambassador to Moscow in which he said the Syrians are about to attack.

Accordingly, the article challenges the conclusions of the Agranat Commission that was formed after the war to investigate the data and intelligence failures that prevented Israel from anticipating the war. The Commission blamed Israeli military intelligence (AMAN) and held it solely responsible for military disarray during the first days of the war. But the new document clearly shows military intelligence did not fail in its duty and Zeira did not conceal information on purpose from military leaders, as the Agranat Commission had claimed.

It has been 40 years since the October War, and all this time our primary historical source on the war has been Israel. As the Haaretz article shows, Israel regularly releases new political and non-political documents, and even confidential ones. By contrast, our historians have to rely on foreign records when writing about this and any other important war.

Egypt’s Ministry of Defense has not released military documents even though decades have passed. The National Archives, where old documents should be deposited, does not have any military records about our wars with Israel. Accordingly, all our Arabic books – I repeat all our Arabic books – on our wars with Israel do not rely on our own documents but on foreign records, from either the US, USSR, France, Britain or even Israel. The result is that generations of Egyptian and Arab youth have been deriving their information about our conflict with Israel either from unreferenced books (meaning they do not rely on official records) or on books that rely on Israeli documents, while our own Egyptian documents are still locked up in drawers.

Justifying its reasons for keeping historic documents sealed, the Ministry of Defense – and all national security institutions that are dubbed “sovereign agencies” – says that unsealing these historic records would endanger national security.

But how could 40-year-old military information harm national security? Have our military plans, weapons and battle strategies not changed in four decades (or more if we are talking about the June War, Suez War or the Nakba)? If our military strategies have evolved, what is the harm of releasing these old documents? But if our military plans and our combat mentality have not changed in 40 years that would certainly be a catastrophe. Is that why they have not been disclosed? What are sovereign agencies scared of and forces them to keep this old information a secret?

Everywhere in the world the primary role of intelligence agencies is to gather and analyse information, not reveal and publish them. I understand that, but the issue at hand is about archaic military and intelligence data that are only of value for academic research. As Maged Othman put it in an interesting article published in al-Shorouk a few days ago, we as a society must find “a balance between the need for secrecy and the cost of non-disclosure”. The debate on this vital issue should not end as soon as national security is mentioned; instead, it should be the beginning not the end of the discussion.

In all the conversations I’ve had on this matter over many years, representatives of security agencies always charge those who demand the free flow of information of not fully understanding the threats besieging the country. When we respond that we do in fact understand them well, they counter that in that case we must be maverick activists who are unconcerned about the country’s security.

We always reply that we are neither fools nor agents, but we too are concerned about this country’s security and dignity, and our motivation is not infatuation with the West or blindly copying their laws or regulations about disclosing confidential information. Instead, it’s our desire to see this country rise and prosper.

The difference then is not the end but the means. Intelligence agencies believe concealing information forever is the best way to protect security, and we believe it is indeed necessary to seal sensitive information, but for no longer than 20 or 30 years. After that, records should be unsealed and made public. Whether experts or not, people should be allowed to view them.

The main question remains: Why should the public be allowed to view these old military documents? I believe the answer is obvious: to learn from the past and deduce the right lessons. Old war and battle records are like the black boxes on airplanes that take a lot of effort to recover after an accident. Only after the black box is found and its data analysed can one decide the reason for the accident, and thus work to prevent it from reoccurring in the future.

Ironically, in conclusion, I must once again cite Israel. This country is obsessed about its security, but this obsession that often borders on hysteria does not prevent regular disclosure of its military documents after 30 years. In fact, it’s fixation on security is the very reason it publishes these records. Only then, can society debate the mistakes of the past and decide who is responsible and hold them accountable. Only then, can they work to correct these mistakes and prevent them from occurring again. Only then, will those in power realise even if there is no media or parliamentary oversight of their actions for various reason, history will keep a record and future generations will judge them.

That is the most important reason why I am demanding the release of our old military records. Disclosing them would not only encourage scientific research, unveil events in the past and inform the people about our conflict with Israel, but also make officials realise that we, the people, are the ones who make history and read it, too; and that we, the people, will always oversee their actions, and hold them accountable, if not now then further down the road.

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Ha Navi
14-05-2013 09:46pm
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Military history
The fear of revealing and learning from historical mistakes is a sign weakness & incompitance. By hiding the truth from the people you build an artificial wall that protect officials from the truth, their mistakes and being accountable to the true history.
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wjc
17-04-2013 01:27am
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no freedom of information in Egypt!
Good piece! Back in 1997 Ahram Weekly reported the Defense Ministry finished a massively documented history of the 1973 war, but of course it would never be made public due to security considerations. The only good source of Egyptian documents from the 1973 War is a book by the Israelis Dani Asher and Moshe Tlamin, using captured Egyptian documents. I have a feeling that, security and paranoia aside, the state of Egyptian government archives is such that even if they wanted to declassify documents, they'd have a hard time finding them.
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