Foreigners are often bewildered when they know that the Catalan national day commemorates a defeat in a war, not a victory. It is normal. Our problem is that we don’t have any victory in a battlefield, unless we go as far back as to the 14th century. However, in this strange tradition, we are not the only ones.
On October 6th Egyptians celebrate their alleged victory over Israel in the October war in 1973 -also called Yom Kippur and the Fourth Arab-Israeli war-. The current year, as the previous ones, there were parades, patriotic programs in the national TV, and even a speech by president Morsi in a packed football stadium. Nonetheless, the truth is that there was not such a triumph in the battlefield, and the war rather ended in a draw.
The start of the war, on October 6th, was indeed a great success for Egypt. President Sadat launched an attack that took the Israelis by surprise, the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal, and recovered part of the Sinai Peninsula. It took a few days for Israel to react, and to mount a counter-offensive that turned the tables. On October 24th, Israel had encircled Egypt’s Third Army and the city of Suez.
Under the auspices of the US, the UN brokered a ceasefire, and allowed for the evacuation of the roughly 40.000 Egyptian soldiers that were trapped, at the mercy of Israel. This was a very smart move by Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of State. He didn’t save the lives of thousands of Egyptian soldiers out of love for Egypt, but because he expected that it could pave the way for a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
By preventing a total defeat for Egypt, Kissinger thought that Sadat would be able to sell the result of the war as victory. This would restore the damaged Egyptian national pride after the humiliating defeat in the 1967 war. And so he did. The rest of the story is well known. Sadat went to Jerusalem, signed the Camp David peace agreements, and paid for it with his death.
It is perfectly understandable that Mubarak kept the lie on the October war alive. At first, he was a cautious and wily ruler who tried not to touch any sensitive nerve in the Egyptian society that could ignite people’s anger
Nowadays, in the midst of a muddled and contested transition, Egypt is still going through a soul-searching process. Therefore, I understand that there are other more pressing priorities than to rewrite the history of the October war. But at some point, it will have to do it.
Egypt will still be able to view the war under a positive light. The 6th October offensive was a show of bravery and defiance. It was commendable that the Egyptian army was able to stand to a powerful enemy that during the war counted with the help of the strongest superpower. But Egypt should just stop calling this a “victory”.
One of the many problems of the previous system was that it was based on many lies. To achieve a healthy reconstruction of the social and political fabric of the Egyptian society, it is necessary that the country gets rid of the habit of lying about itself and its past. The October war might be a good place to start with.