Mubarak’s Wars

Gilad Wenig

On the first morning of the Six Day War, as Israeli jets began wreaking havoc over Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was out on a practice flight. As the commander of an airfield in Beni Suef, he had taken off early on 5 June 1967 with a few other pilots. They were in the air when they received news that the war had broken out. With aircraft and hangars under attack, and Israeli bombs destroying runways across Egypt, Mubarak was in trouble. Radio communications with the ground were limited and the airfield from which they’d taken off had been struck. Without an obvious place to land, Mubarak put his squadron of Soviet-made Tupolev Tu-16s down in Luxor, but they were unable to find fuel or munitions, and soon came under Israeli bombardment. ‘Anger and depression consumed me,’ Mubarak later wrote. ‘It was a terrible and an unforgettable moment.’

The war ended on 10 June but open hostilities between Egypt and Israel continued for another six years. Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula gave President Nasser plenty of incentive for military reform. But he was also determined to contain the Egyptian army as a political force: that meant a clean sweep of the senior command. In November 1967, Mubarak was appointed director of the national Air Academy, and in 1969 he became the air force chief of staff.

In the late 1970s, President Sadat encouraged Mubarak – now vice president – to write an account of his wartime exploits from 1967 to 1973. An Egyptian radio broadcaster, Muhammad al-Shinawi, collaborated on the project and together they produced a lengthy draft. (Sadat had wanted his own ghostwriter, the playwright Rashad Rushdi, to do it, but Rushdi demurred). But Mubarak’s rise to the presidency after Sadat’s assassination in 1981 seems to have made further work on it impossible, and the manuscript languished in the possession of al-Shinawi’s family until Mubarak’s removal in 2011. When the unfinished memoir was at last published in 2013 as Kalimat al-Sirr (‘Password’), it didn’t get much attention outside Egypt: a few months earlier, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had seized power in a military coup.

For someone as eminent as Mubarak to have written an account of a period including two major wars with Israel, and for that account to have gone relatively unnoticed, is remarkable. Archives in Egypt are closely monitored and where they touch on military matters, often inaccessible. Memoirs can be valuable sources, but they are also political documents, both because of what they reveal and what they omit. Mubarak’s memoir makes plain his deference to Sadat, his early avoidance of politics, and his eagerness to demonstrate Egyptian military prowess, all of which facilitated his later political rise. But his memoir doesn’t simply offer the perspective of a senior military insider; it also reveals something about the dynamics of Egypt’s authoritarian elite.

Mubarak had been a minor participant in the Egyptian defeat in 1967, but the war casts a long shadow over his writing. His tone is sometimes blustering, at other times cautious. This comes through strongly in a handwritten statement he wrote, included as a preface in the published book. It’s clear that he understands his limitations as a historian, and he says that he hopes other accounts of the period will follow. There was never much doubt of that. There have been countless memoirs by former officers, politicians and diplomats over the years.

In March 1969, the War of Attrition turned briefly into an official resumption of hostilities between Egypt and Israel along the banks of the Suez Canal. It was not a success for Egypt in conventional terms but, according to Mubarak, Egyptian forces learned a good deal from it. The air force analysed every engagement, studying and on occasion emulating Israeli tactics. It was during these appraisals that Mubarak forged an unlikely but fruitful relationship with Sadat. The two men were very different, but Sadat’s younger brother, Atef, had been at the Air Academy when Mubarak was in charge; Atef was shot down and killed in a bombing run on Israeli anti-aircraft batteries during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973.

When Sadat assumed the presidency after Nasser’s death in 1970, he too worried about a political challenge from the military. He promoted Mubarak to overall commander of the air force in part because he thought he would be a useful ally in the next stage of the war with Israel. Mubarak’s recollections of this period include a meeting on 24 October 1972 when Sadat – the leader who ultimately made peace with Israel – assembled Egypt’s top brass at his home to announce his plans for the coming war. Mubarak depicts Sadat as a charismatic leader rallying the troops to action. ‘I felt he was speaking generally about me and my fellow countrymen as a whole,’ he writes. It ‘struck a chord with everyone who was there’.

But much is omitted from this anodyne account. A nearly complete transcript of the meeting – ‘exceptionally stormy’, in the words of the sociologist Hazem Kandil – was published by a newspaperman, Musa Sabri, in 1974 and later corroborated by other sources. There were deep disagreements in the Egyptian leadership. Sadat wanted the military to prepare for war as soon as possible, but senior generals were worried about Egypt’s prospects in a full-scale conflict. For the most part Mubarak kept quiet, and when he did speak Sadat rebuked him in bureaucratic terms: ‘Hosni, that’s outside the purview of our meeting.’ Four of Mubarak’s colleagues, including the defence minister, were forcibly retired within days of the meeting.

Mubarak set to work on a plan for the air war, hoping to restore the honour of the air force and ‘repay the debt’ of the Six Day War. In his memoir he argues that a lack of military foresight or a coherent plan had led to the defeat in 1967. ‘The remedy is the same as the disease,’ he writes. In 1956, Britain and France had relied on concentrated airstrikes. The Israeli air force had done the same in 1967 and now, under Mubarak’s guidance, Egypt would reciprocate.

He arrived at military headquarters on 6 October after feigning an official visit to Libya. It was Ramadan but he chose to break the fast and drink a cup of coffee in front of his staff while he laid out the war plans. That afternoon, 222 Egyptian planes took off for the Sinai and the first of 90,000 Egyptian soldiers crossed the Suez Canal, while Syrian forces penetrated the Golan Heights. Egyptian pilots targeted Israeli runways, missile sites, field artillery positions, command and telecommunications centres, as well as radar and interference installations. According to Mubarak, 95 per cent of the targets were struck successfully and very few Egyptian pilots were shot down (though Atef Sadat was among the unlucky ones). That Egypt went on to lose was not a blot on Mubarak’s performance sheet. On the contrary, Egypt’s dramatic success on the opening day of the war, code-named Operation Collision, was a step on his path to the presidency.

Mubarak ends the memoir by addressing Mordechai Hod, the head of the Israeli air force in 1967. Mubarak vacillates between deep reservations about his adversary and grudging admiration. He takes Hod to task for underestimating the Egyptians but acknowledges his abilities as a planner and strategist. ‘I speak to him on behalf of the Air Force,’ he ends, asking Hod to relay a message to his fellow generals. ‘Tell them the Egyptian side has changed for ever. Tell them June will never happen again. Tell them that October will be the basis of any bloody meeting between Israel and Egypt.’ Kalimat al-Sirr is the work of an officer seeking political legitimacy.

Mubarak’s image as a war hero was central to his claim to power. Even in the final days of the Tahrir demonstrations of 2011, he tried to invoke ‘the moments of crossing and the moments of victory’ to appeal to the protesters. They were unpersuaded. Mubarak had opted for repression rather than conciliation and resigned only when he had no alternative, leaving his defence minister, another 1973 veteran, to take charge, and scuttling any hope of a meaningful transition. He spent his years out of office in various forms of detention on charges of murder and corruption, and died in a military hospital in Cairo in early 2020. The airman of Kalimat al-Sirr, taking pride in professionalism and austerity, was long gone, if he ever existed.

As for the war he helped plan, many observers have drawn comparisons between the attack of 6 October 1973 and Hamas’s surprise assault on Israeli border communities near the Gaza Strip on 7 October 2023. The correspondence between the dates, not to mention the terror associated with both attacks, makes the comparison seem compelling. Then, as now, Israeli intelligence agencies were blamed for failures of foresight, and complacent perceptions of the enemy’s capacity were irrevocably shattered. But the comparison is flawed, not least because of the asymmetry of the fight. It also implies that peace is in the offing, and so diminishes the brutality of the war. Yet such an outcome seems more remote now than at any time in the recent past.