A Country Study of Egypt:

The October 1973 War


On February 4, 1971, Sadat announced a new peace initiative that contained a significant concession: he was willing to accept an interim agreement with Israel in return for a partial Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. A timetable would then be set for Israel's withdrawal from the rest of the occupied territories in accordance with UN Resolution 242. Egypt would reopen the canal, restore diplomatic relations with the United States, which had been broken after the June 1967 War, and sign a peace agreement with Israel through Jarring. Sadat's initiative fell on deaf ears in Tel Aviv and in Washington, which was not disposed to assisting the Soviet Union's major client in the region. Disillusioned by Israel's failure to respond to his initiative, Sadat rejected the Rogers Plan and the cease-fire.

In May 1972, President Nixon met Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev, and Sadat was convinced that the two superpowers would try to prevent a new war in the Middle East and that a position of stalemate--no peace, no war--had been reached. For Sadat this position was intolerable. The June 1967 War had been a humiliating defeat for the Arabs. Without a military victory, any Arab leader who agreed to negotiate directly with Israel would do so from a position of extreme weakness. At the same time, the United States and the Soviet Union were urging restraint and caution. However, the United States refused to put pressure on Israel to make concessions, and the Soviet Union, which had broken off diplomatic relations with Israel as a result of the June 1967 War, had no influence over Israel. Internally, the Egyptian economy was being steadily drained by the confrontation with Israel. Economic problems were becoming more serious because of the tremendous amount of resources directed toward building up the military since the June 1967 War, and it was clear that Sadat would have to demonstrate some results from this policy. In the last half of 1972, there were large-scale student riots, and some journalists came out publicly in support of the students. Thus, Sadat felt under increasing pressure to go to war against Israel as the only way to regain the lost territories.

In retrospect, there were indications that Egypt was preparing for war. On July 17, 1972, Sadat expelled the 15,000 Soviet advisers from Egypt. Sadat later explained that the expulsion freed him to pursue his preparations for war. On December 28, 1972, Sadat created "permanent war committees." On March 26, 1973, Sadat assumed the additional title of prime minister and formed a new government designed to continue preparations for a confrontation with Israel.

Then on October 6, 1973, Egyptian forces launched a successful surprise attack across the Suez Canal. The Syrians carried out an attack on Israel at the same time. For the Arabs, it was the fasting month of Ramadan, and for Israel it was Yom Kippur. The crossing of the canal, an astounding feat of technology and military acumen, took only four hours to complete. The crossing was code-named Operation Badr after the first victory of the Prophet Muhammad, which culminated in his entry into Mecca in 630.

On October 17 the Arab oil producers announced a program of reprisals against the Western backers of Israel: a 5 percent cutback in output, followed by further such reductions every month until Israel had withdrawn from all the occupied territories and the rights of the Palestinians had been restored. The next day, President Nixon formally asked Congress for US$2.2 billion in emergency funds to finance the massive airlift of arms to Israel that was already under way. The following day, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia decreed an immediate 10 percent cutback in Saudi oil and, five days after that, the complete suspension of all shipments to the United States.

Israel was shocked and unprepared for the war. After the initial confusion and near panic in Israel followed by the infusion of United States weaponry, Israel was able to counterattack and succeeded in crossing to the west bank of the canal and surrounding the Egyptian Third Army. With the Third Army surrounded, Sadat appealed to the Soviet Union for help. Soviet prime minister Alexei Kosygin believed he had obtained the American acceptance of a cease-fire through Henry Kissinger, United States secretary of state. On October 22, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 338, calling for a cease-fire by all parties within twelve hours in the positions they occupied. Egypt accepted the cease-fire, but Israel, alleging Egyptian violations of the cease-fire, completed the encirclement of the Third Army to the east of the canal. By nightfall on October 23, the road to Suez, the Third Army's only supply line, was in Israeli hands, cutting off two divisions and 45,000 men.

The Soviet Union was furious, believing it had been doublecrossed by the United States. On October 24, the Soviet ambassador handed Kissinger a note from Brezhnev threatening that if the United States was not prepared to join in sending forces to impose the cease-fire, the Soviet Union would act alone. The United States took the threat very seriously and responded by ordering a grade-three nuclear alert, the first of its kind since President John F. Kennedy's order during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The threat came to naught, however, because a UN emergency force arrived in the battle zone to police the ceasefire .

Meanwhile, Syria felt betrayed by Egypt because Sadat did not inform his ally of his decision to accept the cease-fire. Two days after Sadat, President Hafiz al Assad of Syria accepted the cease-fire as well.

Neither side had won a clear-cut victory, but for the Egyptians, it was a victory nonetheless. The Arabs had taken the initiative in attacking the Israelis and had shown that Israel was not invincible. The stinging defeats of 1948, 1956, and 1967 seemed to be avenged.

The Israelis, however, paid a heavy price for merely holding their attackers to an inconclusive draw. In three weeks, they lost 2,523 personnel, two and a half times as many, proportionally speaking, as the United States lost in the ten years of the Vietnam war. The war had a devastating effect on Israel's economy and was followed by savage austerity measures and drastically reduced living standards. For the first time, Israelis witnessed the humiliating spectacle of Israeli prisoners, heads bowed, paraded on Arab television. Also, for the first time captured Israeli hardware was exhibited in Cairo.

In Egypt the casualties included about 8,000 killed. The effect of the war on the morale of the Egyptian population, however, was immense. Sadat's prestige grew tremendously. The war, along with the political moves Sadat had made previously, meant that he was totally in control and able to implement the programs he wanted. He was the hero of the day.

Negotiations toward a permanent cease-fire began in December 1973. In January 1974, Kissinger began his shuttle diplomacy between Egypt and Israel. On January 18, the first disengagement agreement was signed separately by Sadat and Golda Meir. A second disengagement agreement was signed on September 1, 1975. The agreement provided for a partial Israeli withdrawal in Sinai and limited the number of troops and kinds of weapons Egypt could have on the eastern side of the canal. Israel agreed to withdraw from the Abu Rudays oil fields in western Sinai, which produced small but important revenue for Egypt. Egypt also agreed not to use force to achieve its aims, a concession that in effect made Egypt a nonbelligerent in the Arab-Israeli conflict. As the price for its agreement, Israel extracted important concessions from the United States. Kissinger's secret promises to Israel included meeting Israel's military needs in any emergency, preserving Israel's arms superiority by providing the most advanced and sophisticated weaponry, and pledging not to recognize or to negotiate with the PLO.

On June 5, 1975, the Suez Canal was reopened. This was a great moment for Sadat, not only politically but economically, because the canal provided Egypt with considerable revenues.

Data as of December 1990


Source: Library of Congress