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Saad Eddin El-Shazly: A war hero revisited

Long-awaited memoirs by controversial chief-of-staff promise to challenge the official line on Egypt's October War with Israel

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 6 Oct 2011
General Shazly
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His name was deleted from the official story of the 6 October War and so was his picture; his reputation was attacked and his memoirs banned; he was accused by late president Anwar Sadat of failing to meet the challenges of the October War; and he was imprisoned by former president Hosni Mubarak for allegedly revealing military secrets: Saad Eddin El-Shazly, Egyptian Army chief of staff from May 1971 to December 1973, remains a war hero for many Egyptians who lived or read about these critical years.

El-Shazly’s memoirs, says his daughter, Chahdane, are to be released in the first authorised version within the next few days. These memoirs tell the long-censored story of El-Shazly: about his wartime split with Sadat overthe conduct of the military and Sadat's decision to order an advance that later allowed the Israeli army to infiltrate and recoup lost ground.

The memoirs were written by El-Shazly following his fallout with Sadat, who chose to accuse El-Shazly of revealing military secrets - a charge that Egyptian military intelligence at the time did not support.

The memoirs explain why El-Shazly declined to back several of Sadat's operational decisions during the conflict, and why he disagreed with the president on how to handle subsequent infiltrations by the Israeli army.

"Sadat hated the fact that the true story was being told because he wanted to convince the public that he made no mistakes during the war," said Chahdane. “So he retaliated against General El-Shazly by initiating legal action against him.”

Sadat could go no further with his scheme, she recalled, because "there was simply no legal foundation for his accusations.”

Instead, said Chahdane, the president chose to launch an offensive aimed at tarnishing the image of his wartime chief of staff by suggesting that El-Shazly had “collapsed” following the Israeli infiltration, claiming that he had no choice but to sideline El-Shazly to avoid demoralising the troops.

"This was an entirely fabricated story,” said Chahdane. “The accounts of leading generals on this particular incident, as reflected in their memoirs, run counter to Sadat’s version.”

The sidelined chief of staff was hurt by how he had been treated by Sadat, but nevertheless decided to go. He took temporary exile in Algeria, his daughter recalled, where he maintained his composure in the face of all the “unfair and unfounded stories perpetuated against him.”

After Sadat’s death, El-Shazly returned to Egypt.

"He obviously wanted to come back home. That was important to him, despite the fact that he was treated very hospitably during his stay in Algeria,” said Karim Akram, a grandson of El-Shazly. “For him, Egypt was where he belonged; the place he really wanted to be."

The optimistic general was wrong to have thought that Sadat's successor - Hosni Mubarak, head of the air force during the October War - would leave him to his own devices.

"Mubarak raised a case against him [for leaking military secrets] and El-Shazly was slapped with a three-year jail sentence, of which he served one and a half years in solitary confinement at a military hospital," Akram said.

El-Shazly’s family never quite understood why his imprisonment was carried out despite subsequent legal rulings to the contrary. Nor did they ever know why he was subject to solitary confinement.

"Some believe this was on the direct or indirect orders of Mubarak, who wasn’t comfortable with the fact that El-Shazly was still telling his side of the story," said Akram.

According to El-Shazly’s grandson, Mubarak did not want to reopen old files that might cast doubt on his role in the war, which was “fabricated and propagated by the media.” Mubarak, Akram adds, was certainly unhappy about the former chief of staff’s claims that the famous photo of Mubarak standing next to Sadat in the operation room during the war was "basically fabricated.”

Akram points to the generals standing next to Sadat in the photo, in which there is no sign of Mubarak, whose rank as head of the air force would not have allowed him to stand immediately next to the supreme commander of the armed forces and the president.

Akram also points to differences between the wartime uniforms worn by the generals - which carried no decorations - and the decorated uniform worn by Mubarak in the widely circulated picture of the operation room.

El-Shazly’s grandson goes on to point to Mubarak’s shoulders, noting that his military rank in the picture appears to be higher than it actually was during the war.

"They eliminated General El-Shazly and tried to rewrite history," said Akram. “It’s clear that Mubarak wasn’t feeling secure and saw El-Shazly as a potential threat.”

But El-Shazly refused to bow to the will of Mubarak, says Chahdane. "He continued to offer his account of the war because he believed it was the right of the people to know the truth,” she said.

El-Shazly’s insistence on telling the truth, however, was not about getting revenge, according to Akram.

"It was about setting the record straight,” he said. “It was also about explaining the disastrous consequences of taking unilateral decisions during wartime.”

When El-Shazly was finally released from prison and returned to his Heliopolis residence, recalls Chahdane, he was not accorded his due rights - moral or financial - as a hero of the October War. "But he never really complained,” she said.

It was only after a swift decline in El-Shazly’s health that the president dispatched an envoy to the family to offer help. "My grandmother received a call from Field-Marshal Hussein Tantawi - it might have been on his own initiative - to take my grandfather to the military hospital where he was treated," said Akram.

Ironically, it was only one day before Mubarak was forced to step down on 11 February following massive public demonstrations that El-Shazly passed away.

"The funeral was attended by endless masses who never knew General El-Shazly,” said Chahdane. “But they were there to pay their respects to a man whose true story might have been known to some despite the endless defamation."

Following Mubarak’s ouster, said Akram, Tantawi reversed many of the financial injustices to which the wartime chief of staff had been subject.

El-Shalzy’s daughter and grandson are now working to undo these injustices, especially those related to the falsified images of the October War operations room. The family has no intention, however, to sue for damages.

"Mubarak’s fate was poetic justice enough," said Chahdane, in reference to the ousted president’s current confinement to a military hospital while facing charges of inciting the murder of unarmed protesters during the recent revolution.  

Members of El-Shazly’s family, who for decades had been banned from appearing on public television and radio, are today being hosted by numerous TV channels as Egypt marks the 38th anniversary of the October War.

"And we’re planning a series of events for the upcoming book launch,” said Chahdane. “All we want is for the younger generation to know the true story of General El-Shazly. All we’re asking for is justice.”

Akram added: "When Egypt celebrates the war’s 40th anniversary in two years time, we hope El-Shazly’s story will be known to everyone.”

El-Shazly’s family has a Facebook page devoted to the man who lived and died without ever getting the recognition he deserved; the man who co-planned the war that partially undid the humiliating defeat of six year before.

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