Pilger Misremembers? A Fisking

This is a guest post by Sackcloth & Ashes

Writing on the Egyptian revolution back in February 2011, the polemicist journalist John Pilger reminisced about the victory parade he witnessed in Tahrir Square at the tail end of the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, whilst covering this conflict for the Daily Mirror. Pilger wrote that the celebrations happened after “the Egyptian Third Army crossed the Suez Canal and overran Israel’s fortresses in Sinai. Returning from this battlefield to Cairo, I joined a million others in Liberation Square. Their restored respect was like a presence – until the United States rearmed the Israelis and beckoned defeat”

As someone more than familiar with the history of this conflict, this was the first I’d heard of a million-strong victory parade in Cairo. I knew full well that shortly after the UN-brokered ceasefire along the Suez Canal front on 25th October 1973 Anwar Sadat sought – with considerable success – to persuade the Egyptian people that the war represented a great triumph for the country. I also know that Egyptian narratives of the history of the conflict focus very much on events from the 6th-8th October 1973 – when the Egyptian military took the Israeli Defence Force by surprise, crossed the canal, breached and overrun the IDF defences on the Eastern bank (the Bar-Lev Line), and then defended their recaptured territory successfully against Israeli counterattacks. The crossing of the Canal has symbolic importance for Egypt. The 6th October is Armed Forces Day in Egypt, and the ‘two day war’ of October 1973 has been used to alleviate the humiliation of the Six Day War of June 1967.

Naturally, Egyptian narratives do not incorporate the events which followed the first 48 hours of the war – namely the failed offensive towards the Gidi and Mitla Passes on 14th-15th October, the Battle of Chinese Farm, the IDF’s counter-strike across the Canal, and the encirclement and near-destruction of Egypt’s Third Army around Port Suez (18th-22nd October). Pilger also repeats verbatim the Egyptian myth that it was only US arms which saved Israel from defeat, conveniently forgetting (1) the air and sea-lift of Soviet bloc arms to Egypt and Syria from the 9th October and (2) the fact that US rearmament of Israel only began on 14th October, and that much of this kit did not actually reach the IDF before the ceasefire was declared. But in this respect I’m loath to criticise the Egyptians for their mythmaking. Every state embellishes its military successes and glosses over its defeat, and compared to their Syrian allies the Egyptians actually fought pretty well.

However, when so-called reporters start parroting myths, it’s a different matter. I suspected that Pilger – based on past form – was being somewhat creative in his interpretation of the past. The only way of seeing whether this was in fact the case was waiting for the opportunity to get to the British Library in London, and to check the Daily Mirror’s back issues to see if Pilger had actually witnessed this massive million-strong celebration in Cairo, in which the masses gathered in Tahrir Square to commemorate their great military triumph over Israel.

According to Pilger’s own account (see ‘How the Mirror went to War’, Daily Mirror, 12th November 1973), he only arrived in Egypt on 14th October, following a 36 hour journey overland from Libya. He hinted at the problems he had with the Egyptian authorities over censorship, and reading between the lines it probably also took him a while to get a visa from them. Pilger subsequently reported on the Egyptian offensive towards the Gidi and Mitla Passes (‘Egyptians begin the big push’, 15th October 1973), describing it as ‘unquestionably the most important battle of the war’. It was, as it enabled the IDF to smash the Egyptian attack, and then launch its own ultimately successful offensive back across the Canal. Presumably because of Egyptian censorship, Pilger was unable to report on this defeat, although in his report entitled ‘Meanwhile, on the propaganda front …’ (22nd October 1973) he indicates that there is a gulf between Cairo’s line on how the war is progressing, and what is actually going on at the front.

What of the millions thronging to celebrate at the war’s end? Pilger refers to jubilation amongst Egyptian soldiers when a ceasefire is initially declared on 22nd October (‘Peace gets half a chance’, 23rd October 1973), and also states that in Cairo itself the Sadat regime broadcast the following message – ‘Praise be to God. The Holy War, the war of justice, is over. The great struggle is ours’ (‘Now the Phoney Peace’. 24th October 1973). Aside from that, there is nothing at all.

It appears very much as if the ‘I joined a million people in Tahrir Square in October 1973’ claim can join Pilger’s other great contributions to journalism, such as his claim that SAS troopers trained the Khmer Rouge (which led to a libel claim that was settled out of court), and his allegation that during the Kosovo war of 1999 the Serbs shot down 38 NATO aircraft and killed scores of US and British special forces personnel (a claim which even the Guardian treated with ridicule).

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