Sa’ad Al Shazly was an armyman to the core. His military brain gained Egypt key victories in the Arab-Israeli War but could not defend him against the country’s politics
Although the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War was quickly transformed into a political and economic struggle, it was, nevertheless, a major military victory for the Egyptian army, which crossed the Suez Canal and destroyed the famed Bar-Lev Line in what is now a classic chapter in Arab military studies.
The hero who devised this significant initiative was Sa’ad Al Shazly, an otherwise unassuming officer who rose through the ranks, restored Egyptian military pride, delivered to president Anwar Sadat necessary negotiating tools, served his country as a diplomat, authored two critical books on his experiences, and became a role model for his countrymen and Arab brethren.
An egotistical Sadat, who cherished media attention, dismissed the warrior-diplomat at the pinnacle of his military career in 1973, when Al Shazly opposed the Camp David agreements between Egypt and Israel.
From his undeserved exile, he wrote The Crossing of the Suez, a work that provided unprecedented details on how the military command prepared for and executed the war.
This valuable book was never published in Egypt, though an Arabic translation was readily available online.
Remarkably, a military tribunal tried Al Shazly in absentia for writing his tome without Ministry of Defence authorisation and sentenced him to three years in prison, allegedly for revealing military secrets.
The episode confirmed that one was seldom a prophet in his own homeland, especially when pharaohs hogged national attention.
Al Shazly was born in 1922 into a modest family in Shubratana, a small village in the Nile delta not far from Cairo.
Like his grandfather, who fought and died in Isma’il Pasha’s armed forces in Sudan, Al Shazly quickly joined the army and served in the king’s guard until 1948, when he participated in the first war against Israel.
Over the years, he distinguished himself in the army, founded the paratroopers division in 1954 and commanded its first battalion until 1960.
Al Shazly’s first brush with international exposure occurred in 1960, when he represented Egypt in the messy aftermath of the Congo civil war as part of ONUC (the French acronym for the United Nations forces in Congo).
In turn, this service led to his posting as Defence Attaché in London between 1961 and 1963, where he perfected his language skills.
Given his organisational experience, however, he was recalled by army commanders in 1967 to lead the Special Forces [1967-1969].
Though the 1967 Six-Day War was a total disaster for Egypt, Al Shazly managed to safeguard troops under his command, with relatively few losses.
He was entrusted the command of the critical Red Sea District for a short year between 1970 and 1971 when, on May 16, 1971, Al Shazly was appointed Army Chief of Staff, a position he held until December 12, 1973.
Al Shazly devised the major lines of the 1973 war but differed with Sadat on the conduct of operations, especially after the president ordered a freeze on operations that exposed Egyptian troops in the middle of the Sinai.
He was unceremoniously removed from military service by Sadat and appointed ambassador to England and, later, to Portugal.
When Al Shazly first published The Crossing of the Suez in 1980 (with a revised edition out in 2003), Cairo set to prove in court that the warrior-diplomat revealed military secrets, whereas he insisted that these were political in nature.
In the event, Sadat frowned on criticism for his controversial 1973 decisions and opted to silence the architect who restored Arab military pride.
In addition to a three-year prison sentence, Al Shazly was stripped of all political rights — which Sadat alone could prevent as head of state — and had his property sequestered.
When Al Shazly returned to Egypt in 1992 after a 14-year exile in Algeria, he was promptly arrested at the airport and served his prison term in full. Although Egypt was basking in the post-Camp David era, with some rights restored by President Hosni Mubarak, Al Shazly’s legal efforts — to void his military sentence as being unconstitutional — produced mixed results. A civilian court ordered his release but Mubarak, a former air force pilot, did not budge.
In the General’s own words, his military memoirs were written reluctantly but with “anger directed primarily” at Sadat.
It was, he said, “an inescapable duty” to honour the memories of the soldiers and officers of the Egyptian armed forces who perished in 1973.
After serving his jail sentence, Al Shazly published The Arab Military Option, which examined future military capabilities of Israel and leading Arab countries.
In this second study, he contended that Arabs could only negotiate a just settlement from a position of strength.
Coming in 1983, which was after the disastrous Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon, there was an element of truth to his thesis.
Today, Al Shazly lives in Cairo and periodically writes various commentaries in Arab and international outlets.
When president Sadat appointed Al Shazly as Chief of Staff, little did he know that Egypt would enter a new era, since the promotion ushered in a genuine strategist into a command post.
Over a relatively short period, Al Shazly prepared the necessary elements for a successful crossing of the Suez Canal and an epoch-making breach of the Israeli Bar-Lev defensive line.
The new chief of staff knew that Cairo lacked an offensive military plan, was saddled with a weak air force, vulnerable fixed air defence assets, useless anti-air guns and qualitatively poor infantry.
The only minor advantage was an edge in artillery but Egypt faced two logistical dilemmas: the Canal itself and the Bar-Lev Line.
Artillery needed to be in the right place to be effective. He knew that intrinsic capabilities existed but with no rigorous analytical processes and limited training, Al Shazly concluded that Egypt could achieve little.
The goal, therefore, was to restore the army’s capabilities, focus on what could be done and permit politicians to negotiate an honourable peace accord.
With a largely dated air force, Al Shazly created fixed forests of surface-to-air (SAM) missile batteries to protect ground units that would advance about 12 kilometres beyond the eastern shore of the Suez Canal.
This was a key decision that created serious problems when the war was launched, but for the pragmatic Al Shazly, the initiative was eminently doable. With the air defence umbrella in place, attention was devoted to the Bar Lev Sand Barrier.
The much-heralded Bar-Lev Line was presumably impenetrable and consisted of sand ramparts three to ten metres high to prevent Egyptian tanks from crossing into the Sinai.
It included 17 command centres at 10- to 30-kilometre intervals, each manned by 30 to 90 soldiers, with sensors linking the entire line to a network in Tel Aviv.
Given undeniable technical hurdles, Egyptian decision-makers considered many options to breach these defences, including boring holes through the sand barriers and blowing them up.
While deemed to be of the achievable variety, such a scheme required heavy equipment to be transported across the waterway and involved several hours of work.
Time was critical and, in a blitzkrieg scheme, not to be wasted. In the event, a young Egyptian engineer with experience on the Aswan High Dam construction project provided the solution.
He proposed, and following various tests, persuaded Al Shazly and his staff that the easiest and fastest way to breach the line was to use pressurised water to clear away sand.
Egypt destroyed the Bar Lev Line with hundreds of pressurised-water cannons.
Many other innovations were introduced in the 1973 war, ranging from fire retardant chemicals to counter napalm pipes spread across the desert, the acquisition and use of night vision goggles — and, in the case of anti-tank infantry teams, darkened welding glasses to counter “xenon rays” emitted by Israeli tanks to blind infantrymen — to electric and gas golf carts to carry ammunition and supplies.
A stickler for detail, Al Shazly supported his officers in many ways, giving them opportunities over several years to train, innovate and apply at will. What worked was saved. What didn’t was discarded.
Like most professional soldiers, Al Shazly did not trust non-uniformed personnel and loathed politicians.
His major drawback was an inability to create political alliances, even though Sadat and war minister Field Marshal Mohammad Sadek supported him at first.
Al Shazly and Sadek clashed several times, but unlike his minister, the Chief of Staff often spoke his mind on tactical and operational matters.
Unfortunately for Al Shazly, he was also opposed by Sadek’s successor, General Ahmad Isma’il ‘Ali.
Although Isma’il ‘Ali was an officer, Al Shazly considered his a political appointment, recalling their shouting match in the Congo in 1960, when Isma’il ‘Ali pulled rank under extremely difficult circumstances.
Yet, what truly differentiated the two men were their sharp disagreements over tactical philosophies.
In fact, while they agreed on strategic goals, Isma’il ‘Ali dismissed Al Shazly’s concerns on how best to protect the army beyond the Suez Canal following a successful crossing.
An overconfident Isma’il ‘Ali argued that Israel could not simultaneously withstand a Syrian onslaught in the Golan Heights and an Egyptian offensive into the critical Gidi and Mitla passes.
As the latter lay beyond the 12-kilometre SAM-protection distance, Al Shazly insisted that it would be suicidal to rush to the passes without air defence cover.
This was a serious enough matter that angered Isma’il ‘Ali, who, according to several accounts, persuaded Sadat to dismiss the hero of the war.
When ordered by president Sadat to push his troops beyond the range of the SAM air defence umbrella, Al Shazly assumed a defiant mode. He knew that such a move was tactical suicide.
According to many witnesses, including the late Chief of Operations General Abdul Ghani Al Gamassy and General Abdul Mina’am Khalil, the commander of the 2nd army, Al Shazly was livid.
Aware of the dangers to his men, the chief of staff initiated an argument over the order, which was not acceptable to the president.
Though Sadat relieved Al Shazly after the latter insisted that Cairo pull back either one or two divisions to counter-attack General Ariel Sharon’s units — which had meanwhile crossed into Egypt proper — Sadat rejected the recommendation and opted to concentrate on a political solution instead.
Al Shazly’s most important legacy, therefore, must be his loyalty to his men, not to politicians. It may also be important to note that the officer’s other contribution was the adoption of meticulousness.
The Egyptian army was filled with capable men and women (whom he encouraged to join because his plans required educated officers) but was largely neglected for a variety of reasons, which produced the tragic results of 1967.
Al Shazly aimed at the highest professional levels he could imagine and applied himself to that end. He planned for every endeavour, trained his troops as necessary and embarked on what was allegedly invincible.
Impact on Egypt and the Arab world
In his The Crossing of the Suez memoirs, Al Shazly describes how his lifelong journey led to the fated crossing of the Suez Canal in October 1973, a feat that restored Egyptian and Arab pride.
While it is customary to grant such honours to political leaders, and president Sadat may well deserve his share of the Nobel Peace Prize, it was Al Shazly’s doing that left a valuable impact on the morale of Egyptian men and women in uniform.
In fact, the political controversies associated with the October 14 Sadat decision to deploy forces beyond their air defence cover to reach the strategic passes, spoke volumes.
As oft-repeated, war was too serious to leave to politicians, and the 1973 experience proved it.
Al Shazly was dejected to find his 2nd and 3rd armies surrounded or under air attack.
He squarely placed the blame that befell the 3rd army on Sadat’s shoulders and, to a lesser extent, on war minister General Isma’il ‘Ali, especially for jeopardising the lives of hundreds of thousands of Egyptian troops.
If he personally never recovered from Sadat’s orders, which in reality seriously damaged incredible military gains and cost thousands of lives, he, nevertheless, left with his head high.
Allegations that he dabbled with Islamist politics were unfounded since AL Shazly was, above all, a loyal officer.
Unrepentant to this day, his impact on the Egyptian army will probably outlive him, befitting the contributions of a war hero.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an author, most recently of Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado, 2008.
This article is the third in a series, which will appear on the second Friday of each month, on Arab leaders who greatly influenced political affairs in the Middle East.