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Posts Tagged ‘East Bloc’

40 Years On: Sadat Expels the Russian Advisers

July 21st, 2012 Comments off

I’m two days late with this, but July 18 marked the 40th anniversary of Anwar Sadat’s expulsion of Soviet advisers from Egypt in July of 1972.  In my musings last month on my own 40th anniversary of arriving in the Middle East for the first time, I noted that Soviet and East Bloc advisers were still very much on evidence when I got there. They remained so up to the 1973 war, but the expulsion of the military “advisers” (many of were actually flying aircraft, Manning SAM sites, etc., though that was not acknowledged) in the summer of 1972, was memorable, however. I was living in an apartment along the Nile, and as we looked out from our balcony one day after we’d been there a month or so, we watched waves of bit Antonov transports flying eastward over the city. In retrospect they were probably fling our of Cairo West and other bases to the west of the city, heading back to the USSR. At the time we feared it was a major buildup moving troops to the Suez Canal. Either later that day or the next day, all was explained when it was announced that the Soviet advisers (some 20,000 of them) had been kicked out.

A documentary on that era:


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And on the Sixth Day . . .

June 10th, 2010 Comments off

There was a ceasefire. And on the seventh, the Armies rested. The 1967 war and the occupation lines resulting from it are so central to today’s peace process that it is tempting (given the time frame) to evoke the Biblical creation narrative.

June 10, the sixth day of the Six-Day War, gets considerably less attention than some of the others. It’s the day of mopping up and wrapping things in a package, played out as much in the United Nations as on the battlefield, which by day six meant only the Golan.

The war had begun on the Egyptian front, and though on day one Israel attacked both the Jordanian and Syrian air forces, they did not move on those fronts on the first day. Once Jordanian artillery opened fire, it gave Israel the opportunity to move against East Jerusalem and to unite the city, a profound religious and nationalist goal. Syria engaged in artillery duels but until the Sinai and West Bank were secure, Israel did not feel free to begin ground operations in the Golan, and there was some concern that a ceasefire would be imposed before it had the opportunity.

At 3 am on June 9, Syria accepted a ceasefire, trying to block an Israeli attack, but it was too late and Israel attacked the Golan. June 9 was the day to ascend the plateau; June 10 the day to occupy. Syria, dug in here more than the other Arab states, gave considerable resistance.

But pressure from the Arab side for a ceasefire was intense. The Arab Armies were beaten and their East Bloc allies were trying to block an even greater disaster. Trying to speed a ceasefire, Radio Damascus announced the fall of the provincial city of Quneitra — which the Israelis knew they had not yet taken. Determined to get Quneitra before a ceasefire kicked in, Defense Minister Levi Eshkol gave the Northern Command four hours to take it, knowing it would take considerable diplomatic skill to prevent an imposed ceasefire before that time.

(The ceasefire as one dimension of battle tactics goes back to the original War of Independence when Israel established the precedent that if a ceasefire is to be “in place” in a certain number of hours, forces should move the front as far and as fast as they can so that the ceasefire solidifies the gains before the enemy can make a countermove.)

Eshkol’s deadline was two pm. Quneitra fell at 12:30 pm. A ceasefire was in place on all fronts for 6 pm.

The Six-Day War was over. All that remained was figuring out how to deal with Israel’s large newly-occupied territories, and the Arab populations living there. I’ll have to get back to you on that: that’s what the last 43 years have been about.

There’ve been other wars; there’ve been peace treaties; we’ve gone from Labor Prime Ministers ssying “There’s no such thing as a Palestinian,” to Likud governments negotiating with a Palestinian Authority. There has been progress, particularly in the 90s, but there’s little doubt that those six days 43 years ago really are a key to the peace process today, such as it is.


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Nasser’s Death, 39 Years On

September 28th, 2009 Comments off

When Aeschines finished speaking, people said, “what a great orator.” But when Demosthenes finished speaking, people said, “Let us march against Philip.”

— Classical proverb. (In Roman times often quoted as “Cicero” instead of “Aeschines,” Demosthenes’ actual historic opponent.)

On September 28, 1970, I was beginning my second year of graduate school. I had not yet visited the Middle East. An Arab summit had been taking place in Cairo. To the surprise and shock of everybody, we suddenly heard that Gamal Abdel Nasser had died. (Though the Journal still likes to call him Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir, I’m going to write this so you know who I’m talking about.) It was stunning. Nasser had been the central figure in the Arab world, and I was just beginning my studies of Arabic and had no real memories of a pre-Nasser Arab world. (I also recall that this was the exact same day, in the evening, that an old friend from college called from the Andrews AFB hospital to inform me that he’d been evacked after being shot in Vietnam.)

Nasser dominated the Arab world for his generation. Egyptians born in that era are often named Gamal, and I suspect that’s how Gamal Mubarak got his name. My July 23 post noted the ambiguities and uncertainties with which Egyptians and others view the 1952 revolution today, but Nasser was an extraordinary figure, though an ambiguous one. He had that charismatic power that Demosthenes had in the quote above, but of course, so did Mussolini and Hitler. He had that ability to embody a national identity that we see in Atatürk, de Gaulle, and a few others. He was the first Arab leader to master a rhetorical skill of beginning his speech in Modern Standard Arabic and shift into more and more colloquial Egyptian as he got deeper into rallying his audience. He used the radio as later leaders have used television. He saw to it that transistor radios, and later, TVs, showed up in every coffeehouse up and down the Nile, so that the fellahin could be rallied and informed of what their leader was doing.

Was he a dictator? Of course. A demagogue? Par excellence. Did he make mistakes? Enormous ones, including the 1967 war, for which he resigned and, while not entirely spontaneously, his people demanded that he stay. And he created the first true national security state in the Middle East, the mukhabarat state that remains, unfortunately, more the norm than the exception still today. Each of his successors has begun office by trying to dismantle it, but retained office by reinforcing it. Nostalgia for the great days of Arab nationalism may cloud the memories of the “dark side” (plus the fact that today most Arab states have all the bad elements of Nasserism and few of the good ones).

While he has never been an “unperson” in the Orwellian sense in Egypt, he faded a great deal in the Sadat era (Sadat even, in his second version of his autobiography, insisted he, not Nasser, actually founded the Free Officers), but enjoyed a limited renaissance under Husni Mubarak. But elsewhere in the Arab world one can still find his picture widely pinned to bulletin boards or taped to walls. He made the Arab world feel like they could stand up to the outside world, the Britain and France and Israel at Suez, to Israel over Palestine.

Nasser was a phenomenon of his time, but he died young, at 52, though he looked older. His legacy was soon sullied by a De-Nasserization effort by Anwar Sadat, but Egyptians did not forget him, and other Arabs mourned his passing. His October 1 funeral brought an estimated five million mourners into the streets of Cairo (Anwar Sadat’s funeral was held in a restricted military zone, attended by foreign dignataries — rare in Nasser’s funeral except for the East Bloc and the Arabs — with only selected Egyptian invitees). Here’s the video of Nasser’s funeral:

I opened this with the quote about Aeschines and Demosthenes. Demosthenes’ “Philippics,” though they became a synonym for personal attacks, did not stop Philip of Macedon, and of course, Philip’s son conquered an enormous empire. But while Alexander is remembered, so is Demosthenes (though Alexander’s fame is far greater), but not Aeschines. When Nasser spoke, people said, “let us march.” But when they marched, they were defeated. Nasser is still warmly remembered, but his legacy, like that of his revolution, is mixed.

But on September 28, 1970, the Arab world was shocked in ways that can scarcely br imagined today. Nasser had no real precedents, and few real successors, though many have aspired to that position. I suspect those coming to Middle East studies today will have trouble understanding exactly what his appeal was.


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