The political economy of the October War

Taha Abdel-Alim
Tuesday 26 Sep 2023

In order to fully understand Egypt’s victory in the October 1973 War, it is necessary to examine the defeat in June 1967.


As we approach the 50th anniversary of Egypt’s triumph in the October 1973 War, let us embark on addressing a pair of pivotal questions from the perspective of political economy. Was the earlier June 1967 War an act of Israeli aggression? Was it an Egyptian defeat?

The relevance of these questions lies in their potential to glean constructive insights from historical events, confront contemporary challenges, and prepare for the future.

First and foremost, we should unequivocally assert that the June 1967 War constituted both an act of aggression and a moment of defeat coexisting in a single historical moment. This compels us to delve into other questions, among the most important of which is whether Israel’s aggression received unwavering support from the US, driven by shared political, economic, and strategic objectives and aiming at the overthrow of the regime led by former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and its domestic and foreign policies.

We must scrutinise how Nasser’s unpredictable actions and decisions on the eve of the war created a window of opportunity for luring the country into Israel’s meticulously orchestrated aggression. Was Egypt’s defeat an inexorable outcome of the war? Does the former Soviet Union bear some of the responsibility for enticing Egypt into the war, and how does its supply of armaments to Egypt compared to the munitions provided by the US to Israel?

This article aims to provide some answers to these questions. Subsequent articles will continue to explore, through the lens of political economy, the multifaceted aspects and contributing factors behind Egypt’s resounding victory in the October 1973 War just six years later.

Second, a rigorous analysis of the contextual factors precipitating the war does not negate the validity of arguments advanced by proponents of conspiracy theories and deliberate targeting.

Egypt’s history provides evidence of a series of pivotal events, commencing with the dissolution of Mohamed Ali’s vision of Egypt’s development and industrialisation in the first half of the 19th century and continuing with the ousting of the Khedive Ismail and the imposition of the British occupation in the second half, that cemented Egypt’s economic stagnation and dependence. This narrative also extends to the failed project for capitalist industrialisation carried out by Talaat Harb in the early 20th century.

Central to understanding the causes of the Israeli aggression, backed by the US, in June 1967 is Egypt’s decision-making following the July 1952 Revolution. The revolution was an extension of the Egyptian national movement that aimed at securing both political and economic independence. These policies and choices gave rise to the Israeli aggression with US support in June 1967.

The July Revolution, although subjected to vilification since, saw the cessation of the seven-decade foreign occupation of Egypt and the reclamation of usurped rights and full sovereignty through the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Nasser refused to yield to US demands, notably by abstaining from joining a Western military alliance that aimed at ensuring Israeli military supremacy.

His decisions to break the arms embargo on Egypt through the Soviet arms deal, to adopt a non-aligned policy in international affairs, and to assume a leadership role in supporting the cause of national-liberation movements, especially in the Arab and African countries, were all purposeful choices. With the assistance of the former Soviet Union, Egypt made substantial strides towards independent development that contributed to industrialisation and the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

Third, Israel’s strategic aim was to eliminate Egypt as the most potent Arab entity and to expand its territorial domination, especially by annexing the West Bank and Jerusalem. The US colluded with Israel, goading it into initiating the aggression in 1967 and subsequently furnishing overt military and political support for Israel’s occupation of Sinai and other Arab territories. This collusion sought to oust Nasser and his regime, terminate the Soviet presence in Egypt and the Arab region, establish US hegemony, and thwart Egypt’s national project for industrialisation.

These objectives became manifest in developments after the October War. However, it should be noted that while Nasser’s accomplishments account for the aggression in 1967, his shortcomings also explain the defeat. He bears the responsibility for promoting military officers of dubious competence whose combat-readiness was unproven. He dispatched Egypt’s elite fighting forces to Yemen at the expense of essential preparations for defence against a lurking adversary. Moreover, he exacerbated the Arab Cold War and burdened Egypt with a leadership role in the global struggle against colonialism, stretching its resources.

Fourth, under Nasser’s stewardship, Egypt’s industrialisation flourished within the framework of a strategy of independent development and a non-capitalist orientation led by the public sector. After the 1956 Tripartite Aggression (the Suez War), Egypt built the Aswan High Dam, shielding the Nile Valley and Delta from the perils of flooding. It created unprecedented opportunities for both horizontal and vertical agricultural development. It also augmented its electricity production to meet the demands of industrialisation, among other achievements.

By the early 1970s, Egypt, supported by the former Soviet Union, stood among the top five industrial nations in the Global South, rivalling South Korea, a model of development backed by the US. However, Nasser’s decisions in 1967, such as closing the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, deploying Egyptian forces in Sinai without adequate preparation, and demanding the removal of the international forces from the Egypt-Israel border, met with reservations from the Soviet Union, which urged restraint. Even so, the Soviet Union armed the Egyptian military in advance of the 1967 aggression, averting a catastrophic defeat.

Various questions remain. What were the economic losses endured by Egypt as a result of the war, and what factors enabled Egypt’s economic resilience following the defeat? What role did Soviet support play in enhancing Egypt’s capabilities, and what role did Arab support play in compensating for the losses incurred due to the 1967 aggression and subsequent Israeli occupation of Sinai and in bolstering the triumph in the 1973 October War?

What role did Egypt’s military victory in the 1973 War play in the Corrective Revolution that rectified oil prices and maximised returns from Arab oil exports?

*The writer is an advisor at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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