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Baki Zaki Youssef, the Egyptian military engineer behind destruction of Israel's Bar Lev line, dies at 88

Ahram Online republishes this interview from 2013 with one of Egypt's Coptic Christian war heroes who risked life and limb in defence of their homeland

Dina Ezzat, Saturday 23 Jun 2018
Zaki Youssef (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

A peaceful and jovial man is the first impression visitors have of Baki Zaki Youssef, a retired military engineer whose name is forever associated with one of Egypt’s moments of glory: the fall of the Israeli Bar Lev Line defences on the first day of the 1973 6 October War.

From his festively decorated Heliopolis home, where he lives with his equally vibrant spouse Awatef (or Toufi as he affectionately calls her) the sharp eighty year old closely follows the complex political developments in Egypt with an analytical eye.

Youssef has dedicated the best years of his life to two of this nation’s most significant events: the construction of Aswan's High Dam in the 1960s and the liberation of Sinai in the 1973 war with Israel.

It was his years working as an engineer using powerful jets of water to remove blocks of sand during the construction of the dam that inspired his genius, explosive-free and cost-effective plan to use water to break the invincible "Bar Lev Line" sand wall.

The 100km fortification was built by Israel on the Eastern side of the Suez Canal after the 1967 war and prevented Egyptian tanks from entering Israeli-occupied Sinai for six years.

Youssef starts by summing up the last two tumultuous years in Egypt.

“There was a revolution that ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak who was very good in his early years - I served with him in the army so I know he started as a good man at heart. After that the only plausible powers that could have taken over was the military."

The Egyptian Armed Forces, he continues, put up with their increased responsibilities, then came the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood who had been oppressed since they fell out with former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser following the July 1952 Revolution.

“Now the Brotherhood is in power; they are being tried by a people who are looking for change but they are not proving to be a very good alternative. Not because they are offering an Islamic, or what people call now an Islamist, solution but rather because they are not offering any solution at all to so many problems that this country is suffering from."

A lack of vision, Youssef pontificates, is always a problem for any individual but it is catastrophic issue for a country's leader.

“The trouble with the Muslim Brotherhood today is that they are not of the same calibre as those members of the Muslim Brotherhood of the past," he continues, "before members of the Brotherhood had their heart at the right place; you don’t have to agree with them but you have to give them credit for being much more intelligent and more principled than this generation of the Muslim Brotherhood." Toufi nodds approvingly.

Together, the Youssefs shared memories of the individuals that they have met, including the spouses and siblings of friends, who joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s.

“They had faith and they had a vision; they were not violent and they were not aggressive even if, and this was not always the case, they were reserved and not sociable,” Youssef states.

Today, Youssef says it would take someone from within the Muslim Brotherhood with a serious strength of character to speak up and amend the path that the Islamist organisation has taken so far.

However, Youssef clarifies, he is not calling for people to confront the Brotherhood about their way of governing the country but instead, to reason with the group.

“Sometimes people think that they know everything they need to know. When you tell them something different, at first they reject your suggestion, but after a while they make sense of what you've said – provided you are saying something meaningful,” he says.

This was exactly the approach that a younger Youssef used to propagate his idea of pumping water from the Suez Canal and using it to blast the Bar Lev Line into the canal.

“I remember when I first mentioned the idea at a meeting which I was attending with my head of division in 1968. Those sitting in the meeting looked at me with a great deal of surprise but eventually listened as I outlined the technical details behind my plan," Youssef continues, "then the suggestion was put to the army’s top commanders before it went to Nasser who decided to turn the idea into practice. The army was trained to finally execute it on 6 October 1973."

For this modest man it was clearly the way he proffered his idea that made the commanders sit up and listen, however, Youssef maintains “it was the vision that Nasser had that prompted the army to work on this otherwise too simple plan."

“This is what I mean when I say that leaders have to have a vision," he continues, "I don’t mean that they need to come up with ideas to solve all the problems themselves but they need to have the imagination to see a good idea and to make the best out of it."

Nasser had his short-comings, admits Youssef but hastens to adds (with the support of Toufi) that “he was a great leader for a great country like Egypt and all this nonsense about the public support for him after the 1967 defeat being fictitious is not true at all."

Youssef also believes that Nasser's successor the late Anwar El-Sadat was “different than Nasser for sure but a leader in his own way."

The plan for the October War, Youssef says, was almost complete when Nasser passed away in 1971: “most of the training had been completed too but still it took leadership to take the decision to go to war."

Later, Youssef adds, it took further vision and "courage to pursue peace and allow for the full liberation of our territories through negotiations after having gone through war."

It was Mubarak who lacked vision, Youssef affirms, and so "he was no leader."

Egypt's ousted president also ruled far too long, Youssef says, “up to a point where he got too isolated to see what was going on in the country."

Hence, Youssef says, the people took to the streets on 25 January, 2011.

As for the incumbent President Mohamed Morsi, Youssef says he hopes he will develop a vision and "be able to see all Egyptians as citizens with equal rights and duties – away from their political affinities or faith."

Youssef, as a Copt, indirectly says he is unhappy with what he carefully qualifies as “a growing trend of looking at people through the lens of their faith rather than them as Egyptians."

However, he does not blame Morsi - at least not directly – for the accentuated anti-Coptic sentiment.

Unlike many other Egyptians Copts and Muslims alike, neither does Youssef point the finger at Sadat, who encouraged a heavy Islamist political presence in the second half of his rule to counter the Leftist influence.

Rather Youssef says it has to do with schooling: "the poor quality of education [in Egypt] teaches people to be biased and narrow-minded."

Today, Youssef’s worst fear for the country is not the Muslim Brotherhood, sectarianism or poverty but rather poor quality of schools and universities.

“If we manage to sort out our education problem, and it is a big one, everything else will be fixed."


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