Magdi Bishara: 'I was just an Egyptian soldier'

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 23 Jul 2019

Magdi Bishara (Photo: Mai Shaheen)
Magdi Bishara (Photo: Mai Shaheen)
*This article was first published on 21 October, 2012. Ahram Online has republished it to celebrate his life; Bishara died on 23 July, 2019.
He has numerous medals to testify to his heroism during Egypt's War of Attrition and October War; he has handwritten notes and letters from the nation’s most prominent ministers of defence; he has photos with fellow soldiers, both those who survived and those who fell; and, above all, he has memories – both joyous and painful – that make him and his wife Nagat smile and cry.

Magdi Bishara, a retired army officer, is indeed one of the heroes of Egypt whose names are not often, if at all, celebrated.

Well into his sixties, and having looked death in the eye, Bishara is not at all a man without enthusiasm or energy, especially when the subject of conversation is Egypt and its wars to free its land from Israeli occupation.

Bishara's name is most associated in the history of Egypt's military with the 'Battle of the Green Island' – an Island situated in the middle of the Suez Gulf that was left under Egyptian control after Israel had occupied the Sinai Peninsula during the 1967 defeat.

On that day in July 1969, at the head of a small and humbly-armed force, Bishara – an air-defence fighter by training – managed to wage a tough and costly battle with much better equipped Israeli soldiers and ultimately save the small island from occupation.

"It was hard; it was tough; I saw brave and determined soldiers fall as martyrs, but we managed to do it," Bishara recalled. "We kept the green island and denied the Israelis a victory in the middle of the War of Attrition."

Bishara's recollections of the battle are many: the fearless men who wanted to go into battle even though they knew their chances of survival were close to zero; the civil volunteers who took the soldiers in small boats across the Suez Canal; the selflessness of soldiers who were willing to die; and the pain that Bishara felt – and still feels – when Abdel-Hamid was so badly injured he almost died; the wounded man whose arm had to be amputated by Bishara himself; and the scattered body parts that were buried at sea after Muslim and Coptic prayers when it was impossible to determine what was who.

Indeed, tears came to Bishara’s eyes when he remembered how, in the middle of operations, he demanded that the Island be bombarded from the Egyptian side to flush out Israeli troops – even if a huge cost was paid in the lives of Egyptian soldiers. He did this knowing that the bombardment would inevitably come from a unit in which his own brother Wassef – "who had known that I was taking part in the island operation" – was serving.

"I knew something that very few people knew: that we had an excellent hiding place that was built on this island by the British Army during World War II, and that I had no choice but to ask for this bombardment since I knew the Israelis would retreat," he recalled. "I knew that if I was killed it would have been very hard for Wassef, but I had no choice – when you're a soldier you don’t think of anything except of the call of duty".

After all, this was not the first time the Bisharas had been engaged against one another during the war. Also during the War of Attrition, Magdi Bishara nearly killed another brother, Kamal Bishara, a jet fighter, whose plane was mistaken for an Israeli jet as it tried to land at a military base after sunset.

"I couldn't believe my eyes when the plane finally landed and he came out and waved at me," Bishara recalls.

Bishara himself was once thought dead during the green island battle.

Bishara’s father was listening to the news – but not to the Egyptian broadcasts, since he had lost faith in Egyptian wartime reporting since the bitter experience of the 1967 defeat, when the radio had reported a magnificent victory – when he heard that the Israeli army had destroyed a group of Egyptian soldiers exactly where Bishara was serving.

"It was a shock, a total shock. I thought I had lost him forever. I dressed in black and we began accepting condolences," Nagat recalled. This went on for some three days before Nagat received a phone call from a military intelligence officer who broke the good news: Magdi was alive. 

"Only when he called did I believe it," she remembers with a smile. "I rushed to my bedroom, threw away my mourning clothes and put on a nice dress."

Bishara, who in 1956 joined volunteer fighters at the age of 14 to chase out the soldiers of the tripartite aggression in his city of Port Said, joined Egypt's Military Academy a few years later and was there through both the good days and the bad.

He survived the bitterness of the 1967 defeat – for which he blames Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer far more than Nasser – and experienced the joy the October War. He described the latter conflict as "the best thing that Anwar Sadat ever did, although the original plan for the war – along with all the planning and training involved for it – was done under Gamal Abdel-Nasser."

Throughout his sojourn in the Egyptian Armed Forces, Bishara never felt that he was a Coptic-Christian as opposed to an Egyptian – a sentiment that he continues to feel.

"I just saw myself as a soldier – an Egyptian soldier and that was all," he said.

When Bishara joined the armed forces, his identity as an Egyptian was what got him through it. "It was unheard of at the time that someone might be rejected [from military service] due to a limit on the number of Copts allowed into the army," he said.

When Bishara was promoted, it was his Muslim superiors who supported him. And when his plans to develop modules for air-defence training were ripped off, he received the sympathy of officers and soldiers – both Muslims and Copts alike.

For Bishara, it is very sad that the country – under whose flag he served and was willing to die – is now falling into the pit of civic discrimination. "I would never have thought that we would see a day in which Egyptians were divided, at least in the minds of some, on religious lines," he lamented.

But of all the pain that he has endured in his life, it was 9 October 2011 – when army vehicles attacked and killed Coptic demonstrators in what has since become known as the 'Maspero Massacre' – that he found most traumatising.

"I couldn't believe my ears when I heard Egyptian television presenters asking people to defend the army against Copts," a tearful Bishara recalled. "Who are the Copts? Are they not Egyptians? Were we not in the army? Did we not fight for Egypt?"

"I'm a Copt and so are my two brothers," he added. "And the three of us almost died – on numerous occasions – for our country."

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