The October war: A history exploited for politics

The October war: A history exploited for politics
5 min read
09 Oct, 2016
Comment: For decades, the narrative of Egypt's 'triumph' was exploited to shore up the regime's power, writes Mohamed ElMeshad.
Sadat and Mubarak exploited the collective memory of the October war to consolidate power [Getty]

George Rashad, an Egyptian TV news anchor, last week siezed the occasion of the anniversary of the start of the October war with Israel to sing the praises of President Mubarak, who was deposed by popular revolution in 2011.

Rashad was referring to Mubarak's role as the head of the air force, a key figure in the initially successful, aerial attack - something which Egyptians have been reminded of for the past 30 years. 

But despite the current regime's obvious patronage of the 2013 counter-revolution, the topic of Mubarak is still touchy. In a constant state of limbo since being uprooted from power, he will likely, ultimately, escape legal punishment, yet he is still political poison.

No matter how much effort is expended on painting the revolution as a conspiracy by the Muslim Brotherhood and foreign powers, Mubarak's record as president will forever be tainted by the memories of the police state over which he presided.

Rashad was summarily suspended from his position as the morning show anchor. While invoking Mubarak on national television with such reverence was, to say the least, an ill-advised move, part of me does feel a little sorry for him.

For the 30 years of his ultimately disastrous reign, the entire Mubarak regime dedicated the first week of every October to singing the praises of the then-president and "mastermind of the aerial attack".

Like many of his generation, Rashad was raised to see the October victory as one of the greatest national feats of our time. Just like President Sadat before him, Mubarak made it his victory. Both regimes spent a lot of time and money on self-promotion to bolster their own regimes, largely overlooking the sacrifices of the soldiers who actually fought the war.

Mubarak famously downplayed the roles of some of his peers and fellow army officers, many of whom had played roles equally critical to his - or, as in the case of Saad El-Din ElShazly, had been decidedly more important.

As is often the case, when the time comes to etch a war into the national psyche, its memory tends to take a life of its own. The gravity and trauma of the affair introduce a paradigm shift. New realities set in: land is won or lost; political leadership is changed or strengthened; power dynamics are renegotiated; and, always, life is lost.

At times, a party makes gains on one front and losses in another. Often, one war sets the scene for a pattern of conflict, or for some process of negotiation, after experiencing stalemate or being locked in attrition.

But the memory of war is a completely different story. Its contribution to notions of patriotism, morale and identity, allows wars an entirely different subset of national realities. These are not as clear cut as the tangible territorial shifts.

The October 6 war, as it became known, meant the eventual return of Sinai to Egypt, having bene occupied by Israel in 1967. It cast redemption for the defeat six years earlier at the hands of "the enemy", and, for Anwar Sadat, it was to give him the legitimacy needed to consolidate his own power and set Egypt on an economic and social path of his design.

Western historians may dispute whether the Yom Kippur War was actually a victory for anyone, let alone the true extent of its geopolitical ramifications. However, for all intents and purposes, when discussing it from an Egyptian perspective, October 6 is a national holiday - where the "military victory" is celebrated - and it must be discussed as such, to understand its role in the national discourse.

Sadat and Mubarak turned this memory into a power-consolidating machine

Sadat and Mubarak turned this memory into a power-consolidating machine. Rarely are the stories of sacrifice and the lives, deaths and heroics of the soldiers who shouldered the burden of war, ever mentioned. 

Over their combined 41 years in office, the struggles and plight of the people were set aside for the enrichment and glory of those in power. The regime's military triumph - a necessity for the legitimacy of the military ruler - is reserved for the top of the pyramid.

It is not often that we get a chance to honestly discuss the October 6 war in Egypt. Such a conversation, were it allowed, might involve an candid assessment of its mistakes and failures to be learned from.

The current militaristic regime faces a certain quandary. While military victories must still be celebrated, Mubarak is still alive, and many of the symbols of that victory are still around, potentially leaving the current president a little insecure, for he did not play a role in the war.

In fact there are no real military victories for him to note, despite his curious promotion to Field Marshal.

This is where, given the current anti-January 2011 climate, suspending a national newscaster for invoking the Mubarak October victory starts to make sense. Sisi cannot make this his victory, in fact, he is turning out to be the most pro-Israeli president in recent history - even though Tel Aviv's transgressions and occupation of Palestinian land continue unabated.

Instead, and while he received congratulations on the October 6 anniversary, Sisi is acknowledging the narrative of the war's memory is becoming less and less able to bolster today's military rule. Instead he is trying to redirect attention, as always, towards what he calls his war on terrorism.

One potentially positive outcome, however, is that public and mainstream media might be able to highlight many of the untold stories of the soldiers and civilians who suffered, and who, unlike the country's leaders, were never compensated with power or profit.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists' book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.