What were Egypt’s military and political goals in launching the Yom Kippur War? What role did Anwar Sadat play in leading Egypt to war? The Yom Kippur War which began on 6 October 1973 was fought primarily by Syria and Egypt, with some other military and financial assistance from many of the other countries which made up the Arab League against Israel.1 Although Egypt and Syria fought the war as part of a joint effort, the conditions for war were orchestrated principally by the Egyptian President, Anwar El Sadat. The attack on Israel was driven by the internal problems he faced within Egypt, as well as a desire to reassert Egypt’s position in the region after the failure of the Six Day War in 1967, which was seen by Egypt as a great humiliation. In attacking Israel, Sadat also hoped to restore to Egypt territory it had lost in 1967, but the ultimate and over-arching aim was bringing about a lasting peace with Israel.
Central to Sadat’s decision to resume conflict with Israel, was the Egyptian desire to regain both Egyptian and other Arab territories previously lost to Israel, most notably the Sinai Peninsula. Before the war, Sadat had been pushing for a wider peace settlement involving complete Israeli withdrawal from all Arab territories; this was later abandoned in favour of achieving Egypt’s territorial goals alone.2 This was a position that he had inherited from his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who even after the loss in the Six Day War remained committed “to renew the fight to avenge the Egyptian defeat and to recover the lost territories”.3
In 1971 Sadat had attempted to negotiate a peace settlement with the Israelis which he hoped would return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, but this came to nothing.4 Not only did attempts to conclude a ceasefire with Israel fail, but Sadat became convinced that the Israelis were not interested in peace and instead sought “to retain some of the newly-acquired Arab lands”.5 The Yom Kippur War was launched partly in response to these diplomatic failures. Although Sadat initiated the conflict with the purpose of recovering Arab lands, especially the Sinai Peninsula, he was not necessarily determined to do this by force; his purpose was, instead “as much to open the door for negotiations as it was for military gain”.6
The loss of the Sinai had severe economic repercussions for Egypt, as well as psychological ones. Sadat recognised the increasingly weakened state of the Egyptian economy after the Six Day War, which had further contributed to Egypt’s already massive external debt.7 The resumption of hostilities with Israel certainly represented a viable option in helping to fix Egypt’s economic problems.8 In their victory in 1967 the Israelis had advanced across the Sinai as far as the east bank of the Suez Canal, territory that was still in their control at the start of the war in 1973.9 Israeli control of the east bank of the Canal after 1967 led to the War of Attrition, a low level conflict between Egypt and Israel along the Suez Canal aimed at harassing the Israelis in the Sinai Peninsula.10 Israel’s control of the east bank of the Canal and the constant low-level conflict, forced Egypt to close the Canal to international shipping.11 By 1973 Egypt’s economy had become further strained, in part due to the cost of re-equipping the military after the Six Day War, and regaining the Sinai Peninsula became a more important priority as it “could lead to the opening of the Suez Canal and a source of revenue for Egypt”.12
A renewed war with Israel might also prove beneficial to Egypt due to the subsidies it would attract from other Arab nations. As Egypt began to gear itself towards war in March 1973, new shipments of weaponry from the Soviet Union were paid for by Libya.13 There were also promises of financial aid from Saudi Arabia in the event of renewed Egyptian conflict with Israel.14 The aftermath of the war also brought new financial assistance to Egypt, mainly from the oil rich states of the Arabian Peninsula and by the end of 1974 “Kuwait had opened credits worth $818 million, Saudi Arabia $661 million, and Iran $480 million, mainly for reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Canal Zone”.15 The Yom Kippur War was therefore vital in revitalising the Egyptian economy and paying for the rearmament of the military, regardless of the lack of military success which resulted.
Unlike many of his contemporaries in other Arab states, Sadat was not motivated by a desire to completely destroy Israel, but was instead open to the idea of peace. His predecessor as President, Nasser, had consistently taken an extremist view of Israel and had been the primary instigator of the Six Day War.16 An extremist stance calling for the complete destruction of Israel was in fact the predominant view among many of the leaders of Arab nations.17 Although Sadat was still prepared to fight Israel to achieve his goals if presented with no other viable option, he did not necessarily desire a complete military victory over Israel, but instead intended “using war to stir diplomacy”.18 This strategy assumed that if Egypt could fight the Israelis with some degree of success, they could kick-start the peace process with both countries on an equal level, regardless of whether or not they managed to defeat Israel militarily.
Egypt had emerged from the military disaster of the Six Day War in a precarious situation within the Arab world. Having long been one of the foremost powers in the Arab League, Egypt was humiliated by its loss in the war.19 This sense of humiliation was paramount in Sadat’s mind and he was particularly incensed by American statements regarding Egypt’s poor military performance which he saw “as attempts to undermine the morale of the Egyptian people in general and their armed forces in particular”.20 Perceptions in Israel also reflected this view of Egyptian weakness, with the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister, Yigal Allon, claiming in June 1973 that “Egypt had no military option”21 in dealing with Israel.
After Sadat’s ascension to the position of President of Egypt in 1970 he resolved to “reverse the humiliation and defeat of the 1967 war, restore Egypt and the Arab World to a position of international strength, and pave the way for peaceful settlement of Middle East problems”.22 The Yom Kippur War itself ended badly militarily for Egypt, with a near Arab collapse before the ceasefire with Israel came into effect.23 However the war did shake the perception of Israeli military invincibility and brought to the forefront Israel’s military limitations.24 As the Arabs had fared comparatively better than in the defeat they had sustained in 1967, the Yom Kippur War was treated more akin to a victory by the Egyptians, rather than the near military defeat that they had actually sustained. Sadat claimed that the war was a “glorious event, one of the greatest and most dignified in our history, when our forces, backed by our entire nation, moved forward heroically”.25 The Yom Kippur War can therefore be seen to have avenged the Egyptian humiliation as it showed that they could stand against the Israeli military as something approximating to equals.
The conditions which created the Yom Kippur War, stemmed largely from the Israeli victory in the Six Day War.26 The loss of the Sinai Peninsula, the humiliation felt by Egypt and its need to reassert itself as a power in the region were all factors that helped to lead Egypt towards war. Sadat was motivated by these factors, as well as the failure of previous negotiations with Israel and the precarious situation of Egypt’s economy. His role in leading Egypt to war helped to fix problems in the Egyptian economy as well as achieving tangible results for his country’s relations with Israel. Although the war was a failure for Egypt militarily, it restored it’s standing in the region and lead to the diplomatic solution which would restore occupied territories to Egypt as well as leading to lasting peace with Israel.
Finklestone, Joseph, 1996, Anwar Sadat: Visionary Who Dared,Frank Cass, Great Britain
This source focused on the whole of Anwar Sadat’s life and was helpful in gaining information on his role in the Yom Kippur War. It was based largely on both Israeli and Arab primary sources.
Herzog, Chaim, 1975, The War of Atonement, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Great Britain
This book was written specifically about the Yom Kippur War and focused mostly on the military aspects of the conflict. Although it was written by a former President of Israel and thus was from an Israeli perspective, there was no pro Israeli bias evident.
Provided a comprehensive account of the Yom Kippur War, including the events that lead to the War as well as its aftermath. Although it was again written from an Israeli perspective, this source presented an unbiased account of the conflict.
Israeli, Raphael, 1985, Man of Defiance: A Political Biography of Anwar Sadat, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Great Britain
This book was written by a prominent Israeli academic known for holding some controversial views on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although there was some bias evident in the author’s interpretation of events, the book made extensive use of primary sources and had a strong focus on Sadat’s role in the Yom Kippur War.
The focus of this book was on the causes of the Arab-Israeli Wars and so directly related to the topic. It was useful in providing information on Egypt’s goals in the Yom Kippur War as well as Sadat’s role in starting the War.
Pollack, Kenneth, 2002, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991, University of Nebraska Press, U.S.A
This book focused on the militaries of several different Arab nations and had a strong focus on Egypt. It provided useful information specifically on Egypt’s military goals prior to the start of the Yom Kippur War.
Shamir, Shimon, “Arab Military Lessons from the October War” in Williams, Louis (Ed), 1975, Military Aspects of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, University Publishing Projects, Israel
This book was written in conjunction with the Israeli Ministry of Defence. It consists of both essays about the Yom Kippur War and its implications for Israel and the Arabs as well as extracts from primary sources. Although it is from a Israeli perspective there is no evidence of bias.
Shoukri, Ghali, 1981, Egypt Portrait of a President Sadat’s Road to Jerusalem, Zed Press, Great Britain
While this book presented an account of Anwar Sadat, which had a strong factual basis, there was some evidence of bias against Israel.
Waterbury, John, 1983, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes, Princeton University Press, U.S.A
The focus on this book was not on the Yom Kippur War or Sadat’s role in it. However there was some useful information primarily on the state of the Egyptian economy, both before and after the War.
Brown, Stephen, Anwar Sadat and the Yom Kippur War, http://ocean.otr.usm.edu/~w416373/PS%20331/Anwar%20Sadat%20and%20the%20Yom%20Kippur%20War.pdf, sighted 27/10/2010
This source was a copy of a seminar from the American National Defence University. It dealt specifically with Anwar Sadat’s role in the Yom Kippur War.
1 Ovendale, Ritchie, 1984, The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Wars, Longman, U.S.A, p.192
2 Waterbury, John, 1983, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes, Princeton University Press, U.S.A, p.401
3 Herzog, Chaim, 1975, The War of Atonement, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Great Britain, p.14
4 Pollack, Kenneth, 2002, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991, University of Nebraska Press, U.S.A, p.98
5 Israeli, Raphael, 1985, Man of Defiance: A Political Biography of Anwar Sadat, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Great Britain, p.62
6 Brown, Stephen, Anwar Sadat and the Yom Kippur War, http://ocean.otr.usm.edu/~w416373/PS%20331/Anwar%20Sadat%20and%20the%20Yom%20Kippur%20War.pdf, sighted 27/10/2010
7 Herzog, Chaim, 1984, The Arab-Israeli Wars, Arms and Armour Press, Israel, p.199
8 Waterbury, pp.133-134
9 Pollack, p.101
10 Ibid, pp.90-91
11 Herzog, 1984, p.196
12 Ovendale, p.191
13 Waterbury, p.398
14 Ovendale, p.192
15 Waterbury, p.416
16 Herzog, 1984, pp.148-149
17 Finklestone, Joseph, 1996, Anwar Sadat: Visionary Who Dared, Frank Cass, Great Britain, p.141
18 Ibid, p.99
19 Shoukri, Ghali, 1981, Egypt Portrait of a President Sadat’s Road to Jerusalem, Zed Press, Great Britain, pp.143-144
20 Israeli, p.44
21 Ovendale, p.191
22 Brown, Stephen, Anwar Sadat and the Yom Kippur War, http://ocean.otr.usm.edu/~w416373/PS%20331/Anwar%20Sadat%20and%20the%20Yom%20Kippur%20War.pdf, sighted 27/10/2010
23 Shamir, Shimon, “Arab Military Lessons From the October War” in Williams, Louis (Ed), 1975, Military Aspects of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, University Publishing Projects, Israel, p.174