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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Baki Zaki Youssef: Egyptian military engineer who became a hero

His actions provided an unlikely breakthrough in the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict

Egyptian troops celebrate as they plant their flag atop a bunker on Bar-Lev line east of Suez Canal, Oct. 13, 1973. (AP Photo/Pool/Ahmed Tayeb)
Egyptian troops celebrate as they plant their flag atop a bunker on Bar-Lev line east of Suez Canal, Oct. 13, 1973. (AP Photo/Pool/Ahmed Tayeb)

He was an engineer who became a war hero. That Arab-Israeli conflict was not a military victory for Egypt, but it was still enough to win back lost territory from Israel and, more importantly, restore pride in Cairo, so much so that it is distilled in popular memory in Egypt with one word: al-Obour, "the crossing".

Baki Zaki Youssef came up with the plan for how Egyptian soldiers could break through the Bar Lev Line in October 1973, the seemingly impenetrable, heavily fortified sand ramparts along the entire east bank of the Suez Canal – 20 metres high or more – that Israel built up after seizing the Sinai Peninsula in 1967.

As Saad El Shazly, the lieutenant-general who was the Egyptian military's chief of staff during "the crossing", later recalled: "For six years, Israeli bulldozers had laboriously piled the sand ever higher."

The consolidation meant the Bar Lev Line could withstand dynamite and other explosives. Youssef, however, had already learned a better tactic from his engineering days on the Nile. In the early 1960s he had helped build the High Dam in Aswan, the signature megaproject under President Gamal Abdel Nasser that was meant to express Egypt’s post-colonial independence and development, rivalling only Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company in its symbolism.

In Aswan, Mr Youssef had used high-pressure water cannon to rupture and remove heavy sand and construct one of the world's largest dams. The same tools could breach the Bar Lev Line, he reasoned, correctly.

The Israeli military had estimated it would take a sustained Egyptian assault, of between 12 hours and two days, to break through the fortifications and cross the canal; the exposed Egyptian troops would be slaughtered. Israel's defence minister Moshe Dayan is said to have called the canal and the Bar Lev Line "one of the best anti-tank ditches in the world".

But when the Egyptians attacked unexpectedly with a barrage of heavy artillery and air strikes on October 6, 1973 they broke through in less than three hours.

Operation Badr was a massive military undertaking, but it was the engineers, firing water hoses attached to powerful dredge pumps in the canal, who breached the line by steadily wearing down its sand walls.

Thanks to Youssef's plan, Egyptian soldiers soon crossed the canal safely on rafts, followed by tanks on temporary pontoon bridges.

For the first time since early June 1967, Egypt controlled a military position on the Sinai.

The images of the crossing are still celebrated in Egypt today. What followed in the days after, less so: Egypt’s military dug in and its generals, along with President Anwar Sadat, bickered over whether to advance deeper into Sinai as Israel’s army regrouped and then counterattacked, pushing back across the canal and into mainland Egypt.

Sadat took most of the credit for the war, claiming it as a victory and using the success of the crossing as a negotiating chip to reclaim the Sinai as part of the Camp David Accords, as he had intended. Youssef, meanwhile, went back to his life in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. He lived there for decades, until he died on June 23 at the age of 88.

Born in the Sinai and a graduate of engineering school at Cairo’s Ain Shams University in 1954, Mr Youssef retired as a major general 34 years ago – a few years after Sadat's assassination, and early in Hosni Mubarak's presidency.

"He was no leader," Youssef later told Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly, after Mubarak had been ousted after 29 years in power in the popular uprising of 2011.

Mubarak "got too isolated to see what was going on in the country". In a more recent interview with Ahram, he had kinder words for President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the former general who took power in 2013 from President Mohammed Morsi, who was elected in the first post-Mubarak election in 2012.

In an interview late in his own life, Albert Hourani, the British historian of Lebanese descent who helped found the modern discipline of Middle Eastern studies, looked back at 1967 and explained the shock waves it sent throughout the Arab world. "Victory is a much less profound experience than defeat," he said.

In 1969, Mr Youssef had spoken up at a meeting of Egypt's top military brass and pitched his plan to breach the Bar Lev Line.

"I was half-listening and half-thinking how we used water to move enormous amounts of sand from the Aswan mountains and then force it into the body of the dam," he later told an interviewer. "I was thinking that the Bar Lev line was made of sand, and that water could be used to breach it and open a path for our forces to pass through.

"It was coincidence that I had helped with the construction of the High Dam, a coincidence that I was invited to the meeting," he added. "It was the helping hand of God that brought the idea to me and I just said it."

The prospect of breaking through Israel's defences and crossing the canal still seemed impossible, but as Youssef put it: "I was still proud, determined that Egypt should move beyond defeat."

Frederick Deknatel is the managing editor of World Politics Review