Today in Middle Eastern history: the Yom Kippur War begins (1973) and Anwar Sadat is assassinated (1981)

October 6 is a dual anniversary for contemporary Egypt. On the one hand, October 6, 1973, is the date when Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal in a surprise attack against Israeli forces in the (then-Israeli occupied) Sinai Peninsula while Syrian forces attacked Israeli positions in the (still-Israeli occupied) Golan Heights, beginning the Yom Kippur War, which would last through October 25. The day is commemorated as “Military Day” in Egypt because of the success of that opening attack and the eventual success (sort of, if you look at it just right) of the war effort. On the other hand, October 6, 1981, is the date when the man who led Egypt into and through the war, President Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad while watching the annual Military Day parade through Cairo.

As I often do when he’s already covered the ground I’m about to cover, I’ll direct you to Michael Collins Dunn’s excellent blog for in-depth looks at both events. He’s written extensively about the 1973 war, particularly the less-talked about Golan front, and has written both about Sadat’s legacy and about his (Dunn’s) personal remembrances of the assassination.

The Yom Kippur War differs from Israel’s two previous wars with the Arab world (the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the 1967 Six Day War) in that this time the two Arab states fighting Israel (Egypt and Syria) were seeking only limited territorial gains rather than Israel’s total annihilation. Egypt wanted Israel out of Sinai, which it had occupied since 1967, and in hindsight you can certainly understand why, given what a peaceful oasis Sinai is for Cairo nowadays. Syria wanted Golan, also occupied by Israel in 1967, and, well, you can’t always get what you want I guess.

But while Syria’s Hafez al-Assad really did pretty much just want the Golan back, Sadat had other reasons for wanting to pick a fight with Israel. In 1973 he was still trying to get out of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s hefty shadow, a full three years since Nasser’s death. He believed that a victory over Israel, even a limited one, would shake Egyptians out of the funk they’d been in ever 1967’s overwhelming defeat, and they’d love him so much for it that he could finally rule the country for reals and not just as “Nasser’s successor.” Also, from a more practical perspective, Sadat desperately wanted to get Israel off of the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. Egypt had kept the canal closed since the 1967 war, when Israel took its eastern bank, and the country’s precarious economic situation dictated that Sadat open it up again.

Israel had offered to give Sinai back to Egypt (and the Golan back to Syria, as it so happens) in 1967, in exchange for a peace treaty, but Nasser rejected the offer. Probably in order to make his cause seem more noble, Sadat now proposed a peace agreement with Israel on terms that he probably knew the Israeli’s couldn’t accept; his demands included not only a return of the Sinai, but for Israel to give up all the land it seized during the Six Day War (including Gaza and the West Bank) and to commit to settling the Palestinian refugee situation. Again, Sadat must have known Israel wouldn’t settle on those terms, but he knew that once he’d started the war he would be able to say “hey, I tried diplomacy and they turned their backs on it.”

The Yom Kippur War is kind of strange in the sense that its aftermath is kind of independent of its military outcome. The war ended with an Israeli battlefield victory, full stop. After a brief initial Syrian success, Israeli forces pushed the Syrians back toward Damascus, and got close enough that their artillery could shell the Syrian capital. Their success on the Golan front was so decisive that Iraq and Jordan, neither one of which wanted anything to do with the war when it started, both wound up sending relief armies into Syria to halt the Israeli advance.

On the Sinai front, after a significant early Egyptian success in their surprise crossing of the Suez, called Operation Badr, the Israelis eventually stabilized the front and then, on October 14, counterattacked across the canal and encircled Egypt’s Third Army (which was east of the canal and had been ordered to stay there rather than cross back over to counter the Israeli advance). Historians disagree as to whether the Israelis could have totally destroyed that Egyptian army, but they didn’t even try, thanks to some intense mediation from Henry Kissinger. Kissinger believed that if American diplomacy saved the Third Army, it might leverage Sadat away from his alliance with the Soviet Union (and, in this case at least, it turns out that Kissinger was correct). At sea, the Israeli navy was totally dominant, winning both of the war’s major sea battles and controlling the eastern Mediterranean coast.

The Sinai front (Wikimedia)

In its aftermath, though, the war has been treated more as an Egyptian victory and an Israeli defeat. Sadat and the Egyptians, desperate for a military victory over Israel, focused on Operation Badr, which was a clear success, and kind of ignored the war’s eventual outcome. To be fair, the Egyptian army’s chief of staff, Saad el-Shazly, was fired, but that may have had more to do with his post-war criticism of Sadat’s decision-making. Badr did catch the Israelis totally by surprise, drove their forces off of the east side of the Suez Canal, and held off any Israeli counterattack for over a week. That may not seem like much in the context of an overall defeat, but apparently it was enough. And there was a material gain for the Egyptians–the ceasefire agreement gave Egypt control over both sides of the canal for the first time since 1967. In Israel, the fallout over Badr led to a full military investigation and several firings, and forced Prime Minister Golda Meir to step down the following year.

Perversely, the war actually brought Egypt and Israel much closer together. Relieved from its 1967 humiliation, it was now possible for Cairo to approach the Israelis diplomatically without looking like it was begging for mercy. Sadat, at his new American ally’s urging, used the prestige that the war gave him to begin negotiations with Israel on what eventually became the Camp David Accords, the first comprehensive treaty between Israel and an Arab nation. Those talks allowed Egypt to finally get back the rest of the Sinai.

Sadat (right) having a moment with US Senators Frank Church (center) and Joe Biden (left) at Camp David in 1979 (Wikimedia)

Unfortunately for Sadat, though, talking to Israel also sealed his fate. Underground extremist groups like Egyptian Islamic Jihad (co-led by budding mass murderer Ayman al-Zawahiri) used the Camp David Accords to built support for their own movement, which was planning to assassinate Sadat. The Egyptian government got wind of the plot in February 1981 and began rounding up EIJ members, including Zawahiri, but missed the cell that wound up carrying out the attack. Sadat’s legacy was fixed when he signed the Camp David Accords, but his assassination reverberates to the present day in many ways–in Egyptian politics, in the Arab-Israel drama, and in the extremist jihadi community. EIJ, its profile greatly raised by the assassination, made an appealing partner for Osama bin Laden’s “Afghan Services Bureau,” and their merger brought us al-Qaeda.

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