“It was unbelievable. I remember at first that we were in denial. We sat for two or three hours just waiting for the news. We were waiting for the news releases from the Armed Forces,” remembers Nassamat Labib, an ophthalmologist who lives in Alexandria.
Labib was just 20 years old when the October War started in 1973. She was a second year student at the Faculty of Medicine at Alexandria University, and when she heard the news that war had broken out she rushed to one of the local hospitals to donate blood.
“I remember every one of us was trying to help with something and even wanted to go to the battlefield to lend our support,” Labib said, adding that she was keen to attend all the youth activities and seminars that were happening at the university at the time.
“At that time, there were a lot of activities and seminars, and they had a great impact on our lives. I remember that there were many students who rushed to the hospitals to give blood, while others visited injured soldiers or tried to help by tightening their belts and helping the impoverished,”
“We acted as if we were all one nation,” she added.
War veteran Farid Al-Touni, a 71-year-old who served in the October War, says that it is now more necessary than ever to tell the younger generations about the victory in the October War.
“It is our role to tell our children and grandchildren what happened. We are the ones who took part in the war. We are the ones who saw the ultimate heroism of our martyrs. We are the ones who saw the Egyptian flag soaring over the Sinai Peninsula,” Al-Touni said.
“Instead of reading information in books or seeing films and documentaries, people should listen to our accounts of the war,” he added. In 2011, Al-Touni wrote a memoir called “An October Memory: Lying between Earth and Heaven” as a testimonial from a retired colonel who spent more than 35 years in the Egyptian Air Force.
In his memoir, Al-Touni said that the young soldiers at the time had not been able to wait for the orders to be released to begin the war and were eager to begin the combat. When they were finally told that combat would begin, the pilots took off from their Delta base as if they were taking part in a revolution, he said.
“Eighteen aircraft flew to our destination, which was the eastern airbase,” he added.
The memoir continues by describing details of the aerial fighting that helped Egypt to win the war in some 14 days. It recalls the heroism of the pilots in the air, and the fearlessness of all those who came home safely and those who lost their lives, including Al-Touni’s colleagues Ahmed Kamal Al-Tohami, Hani Hassan, and Mustafa Hafez.
Some 70 per cent of Al-Touni’s class were martyrs in the war, he said.
Today, Al-Touni stresses the importance of Egypt’s retaining a well-equipped airforce as well as a powerful domestic arms industry. “Due to the rapid technological advances of recent years, our soldiers must be well equipped to enhance their performance in different combat situations,” he said.
Fouad Abdel-Hamid was a 23-year-old engineering student when the war began. He had an internship at the time in the UK, where he was working with international colleagues from across the globe. “After the 1967 defeat, we were devastated and in disbelief. It was a very difficult transitional period when you could see the sadness and despondency in people’s eyes,” Abdel-Hamid remembers.
He recalls a conversation with a Greek colleague who was criticising the Egyptian and Arab defeat in 1967. “As Egyptians, the feeling we had at that time was indescribable. Everything was so unsettled, especially after the death of president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. We did not really know what the future held for us,” he said.
“But the way late president Anwar Al-Sadat made us believe in ourselves again was just incredible because he also made us believe that we are not going to go to war. He tricked us all, and that was one of the smartest strategies ever for taking a nation into a war,” Abdel-Hamid said.
“The War of Attrition before the October War made us believe in ourselves again as a nation and as individuals.”
“When the victory in the war came, it took us some hours to believe what was happening,” Abdel-Hamid said. There was also the experience of hearing inaccurate news during the early days of the war. “That’s why when we heard the news of our victory in 1973, we were not sure whether it could be true,” he added.
“But as the hours passed and as we listened to the international news broadcasts sharing the same information, we were so happy. Our pride returned to us,” he said. As his brother was a soldier at the time, Abdel-Hamid also joined the army and had the honour to meet some of the heroes of the war.
As the 50th anniversary of the October War takes place this month, there are still many hidden memories waiting to be unearthed and many unseen stories that need to be revealed. From the mothers who lost their sons in the war to the teachers who instilled patriotism in their pupils, and from the singers who raised millions of pounds to support the Egyptian Armed Forces to the ordinary people who prepared food for the homeless, this was a period when everyone pitched in to support the cause.
It was a time of honour, patriotism, and solidarity, all dedicated to the love and honour of our great country of Egypt.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 5 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly