Yom Kippur War 50 years on: Egypt thinks it won but fails to exploit the peace dividend

While other Middle Eastern countries forge more lucrative links with Israel, Egypt is stagnating


The surprise attack by Egypt and Syria against Israel in October 1973, known in the Arab and Muslim world as the Ramadan War and in Israel as the Yom Kippur War, marked the beginning of the end of the conventional Arab-Israeli conflict.

After signing a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, Egyptians maintained support for the Palestinians while also focusing more on domestic challenges.

Egypt experienced internal instability during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and more recently in 2020 has witnessed smaller and more peripheral Arab countries such as the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco establish diplomatic relations with Israel and engage in trade, energy and water agreements, scientific and technological cooperation, and weapons sales worth billions.

On May 15, 1948, under the pretext of saving Palestine from the Zionists, Egypt invaded the nascent state of Israel the day after it declared independence from the United Kingdom.

Egypt under King Farouk also had territorial ambitions which resulted in the acquisition of a coastal part of Mandatory Palestine known as the Gaza Strip. From 1948 until 1967, Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip and the roughly quarter of a million Palestinian Arabs living there were denied Egyptian citizenship nor given autonomy.

In 1952, Farouk was deposed in a military coup and later succeeded by Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Nasser advocated a philosophy called pan-Arabism and insisted that Egypt, due to its unique geography, should play a prominent role in the political and economic affairs of the Arab states in North Africa and the Middle East. Nasser maintained an alliance with Moscow and asserted that the Arab states should unify under a superstate with Egypt as the leader.

He also championed the Palestinians and threatened to destroy Israel while maintaining Farouk’s legacy of occupying Gaza through a series of Egyptian military governors.

Nasser’s messianic-like quest to become the leader of the Arab world and his support for the Palestinians made a clash with Israel almost inevitable. In June 1967, Israel launched a preemptive strike, citing Nasser’s decision to remove UN peacekeepers from Sinai and his blockading of the Straits of Tiran.

In just six days, Israel decimated Egypt’s air force and conquered the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. Israel also took the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria.

The dream of Arab unity and the belief that Arab armies could destroy tiny Israel suffered a fatal blow.

Anwar Sadat became president of Egypt in 1971 and did not subscribe to Nasser’s radical pan-Arab principles.

He embarked on a new course to put Egypt first, disengage from Moscow’s influence, and realign with the West. Sadat believed that to fulfil his vision, he needed to wage another war against Israel, which he did so in October 1973.

Many Jews around the world were raised believing that Egypt sought Israel’s destruction during the Yom Kippur war.

This sentiment is not entirely surprising, because of the nature of the attack on the holiest day in Judaism, coupled with Arab media rhetoric celebrating Israel’s demise.

However, declassified American intelligence and diplomatic documents reveal that Egypt’s decision to wage war against Israel in 1973 had more to do with restoring Egyptian pride, which had been badly damaged after its humiliating defeat in the 1967 war.

Sadat believed so much in the impracticality of destroying Israel that he even misled Syrian President Hafez al-Assad about his war plans. Sadat assured Assad that Egypt and Syria would launch a coordinated surprise attack against Israel.

However, once Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal and breached the Bar Lev Line, a strategic line established by Israel along the canal’s eastern bank, Sadat could claim a psychological victory.

Egypt stopped fighting and abandoned Syria in its time of need. These limited gains were enough for Sadat to restore Egyptian dignity.

Sadat waged war against Israel to gain a symbolic victory that could enable him to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state. In a historic visit to Jerusalem, Sadat addressed the Knesset and spoke about peace between both nations.

After the 1979 treaty, Israel returned the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. As the most populous and influential Arab state, Egypt had joined the pan-Arab military campaign against Israel in 1948 but became the first Arab state to make peace with it in 1979.

In the 50 years since the 1973 war, Egypt and Israel have never fought another battle.

The Egypt-Israel border remains one of the quietest of Israel’s frontiers and the threat of conventional Arab armies invading has all but dissipated. Arab states have no appetite to launch another war against Israel, especially without Egyptian participation.

While Israel and Egypt have a strategic interest in maintaining a close military and security bilateral relationship, after more than four decades, the peace treaty failed to produce a warm peace.

To this day, Egyptians complain that they have not fully experienced the fruits of the peace treaty.

Most Egyptians believe normalisation and warm peace with Israel can only occur after a resolution to the Palestinian question. This resentment helps explain why tourism between both nations remains largely one-sided, with Israelis visiting Egypt but few Egyptians visiting Israel.

In the decades since signing the treaty, Egyptians have had more time and energy to focus on domestic issues. Complaints of corruption and lack of freedom and democracy led to the uprising in 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

After a short experiment with free elections, Egyptians elected a new leader, Mohammed Morsi, but became disenchanted. A year later Egyptians poured back on to the streets and demanded Morsi step down.

A military coup installed General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has remained in power since 2014.

Despite Sisi’s pledge and efforts to combat violent extremist groups in the Sinai and improve the economy, domestic challenges persist.

Egypt’s population is more than 100 million, and, as of 2022, the poverty rate was projected around 28 per cent. In 2021, the illiteracy rate was around 18 per cent. This is a substantial figure and a major burden on the Egyptian state, although it is the lowest in 45 years.

Egypt was the first Arab state to normalise and establish diplomatic relations with Israel. In 2020, Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed the historic peace agreements under American auspices known as the Abraham Accords.

Morocco later normalised relations with Israel and Sudan joined, although domestic instability in Khartoum has disrupted normalisation. Against this backdrop, new opportunities have emerged to improve regional cooperation.

In November 2022, Israel announced a three-way deal with Jordan and the United Arab Emirates in which the UAE would finance and build a solar power station in Jordan for solar energy to be exported to Israel. In exchange, Israel would export water to Jordan.

Last May, Morocco and Israel announced a partnership to establish an Artificial Intelligence and Aeronautics innovation research centre. In July, Israel official confirmed the development of a new trade corridor project that will transfer goods in trucks between Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. A land bridge will connect Israel to Saudi Arabia and will operate regardless of the kingdom’s decision to normalise ties with Israel.

To be sure, Egypt participates in a variety of agreements with Israel, notably the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which the two countries co-founded in September 2020 with US and EU support and now includes additional members such as Cyprus, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Greece, Italy and France.

Egypt also participates in the Negev Forum, a bloc of countries created in March 2022 bound by mutual strategic interests, which include the US, Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco and UAE.

And yet for some Egyptians, a psychological barrier exists that prevents the realisation of a more fruitful and prosperous bilateral relationship. Deep down, many Egyptians know that they were once the centre of the Arab universe.

Today, Cairo exerts a fraction of its former regional influence. While it is true that Egypt can be relied upon to mediate truces between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, it has been noticeably absent from effectively influencing other regional conflicts and disputes, be they in Lebanon, Libya, Ethiopia, Syria, Sudan or Yemen.

Worse yet, some Egyptians feel concerned that Israel, Bahrain, the UAE and Morocco are moving forward on lucrative regional agreements without taking into full consideration Egypt’s strategic interests, historical regional role, and support of the Palestinian cause.

Egypt should not be expected to forget the past, but it will prove difficult to enjoy the total economic and strategic dividends of a rapidly-changing Middle East without adopting a more forward-leaning vision for regional prosperity and security.

Dr Michael Sharnoff is Associate Professor at the Near East and South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University in Washington DC. He is the author of Nasser’s Peace: Egypt’s Response to the 1967 War with Israel (Routledge, 2017).

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