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The modern Egyptian military was founded by the Khedive Muhammad 'Ali, who ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1848. He sought to carve an independent realm out of the Ottoman Empire, and for this purpose he bought European weaponry and expertise and built an army that he used to defeat the Ottoman sultan and establish sway over Egypt, Syria, and parts of Arabia. European intervention on behalf of the sultan brought Muhammad 'Ali's dreams of an independent kingdom to an end and sharply curbed the size and independence of the Egyptian military. The armed force he had built then languished until Britain took control of Egypt in 1882.
The defense of Egypt, and especially the Suez Canal, was considered a vital imperial interest both in London and Simla, the seat of British colonial government in India. Consequently, there were always significant numbers of British regulars posted to Egypt, which made the development of indigenous Egyptian military forces less important to Britain than in its other Middle Eastern territories such as Transjordan and Iraq. Therefore, the British started their rule over Egypt by crushing the Egyptian officer corps to ensure its loyalty. They ousted most of the Turks who had previously dominated the officer ranks. Although Egyptians from the entire range of society received commissions, the verypoorest fellahin (peasants) were excluded from officer billets. Nevertheless, the lowest classes of the fellahin filled Egypt's enlisted ranks, while most Egyptian officers came from the (slightly) better-off peasantry and the lower middle classes, creating severe social splits between the officers and their troops. Although the British provided the Egyptians with new military equipment and revamped Egypt's military doctrine along British lines, the presence of Imperial regulars made improving the Egyptian military a low priority, and throughout the period of British rule, the Egyptian army was relegated to internal-security duties. Egyptian units were mostly commanded by British officers and many were incorporated into larger British formations. Indeed, even during the most anxious moments of the German threat to Egypt in 1941-42, London drew very little on Egyptian units to defend North Africa.
The War of Israeli Independence, 1947-48
Although Egypt had nominally been independent since 1932, only after World War II did it actually gain its full sovereignty from Great Britain. In 1946, Cairo rid its army of British officers and effectively seized control of Egyptian foreign policy for the first time in many centuries. As one of its first independent acts on the world stage, in April 1948 Egypt joined with its Arab brothers in opposition to the founding of Israel and sent a large expeditionary force to destroy the Jewish state before it could establish itself. Egypt threw its entire military into this effort. However, because 80 percent of Egypt's male population between fifteen and fifty years of age were mentally or physically unfit for military service, and because Egypt's nascent logistics system was extremely limited in its ability to support ground forces beyond its borders, Cairo never succeeded in putting more than 40,000 men into the field.
Expecting a quick victory over the Jews, Egypt initially dispatched about 10,000 men to Palestine. Although they had had little combat experience during World War II, morale was high among the Egyptians because they had little regard for the fighting qualities of their Jewish opponents. Cairo's expeditionary force was commanded by Maj. Gen. Ahmed 'Ali al-Mwawi and consisted of five infantry battalions, an armored battalion with British Mark VI and Matilda tanks, a battalion of sixteen 25-pounder guns, a battery of eight 6-pounder guns, a medium-machine-gun battalion, and supporting troops. In addition, the Egyptian Air Force had over thirty Spitfires and four Hawker Hurricanes operational to support the invasion force in addition to twenty C-47 transports, which Egyptian mechanics had transformed into crude bombers. Opposing them, the Israeli Haganah could field 50,000 highly motivated but woefully underarmed and undertrained troops. About 6,000 of the Israeli soldiers made up the three elite Palmach brigades while another 20,000 manned the six Haganah field brigades. The other troops were mostly regional forces that could be called on to defend their locale but little more. At the start of the war, the Israelis did not have enough small arms to equip all of their troops, with only 22,000 rifles, 11,000 (mostly homemade) submachine guns, and 1,500 machine guns. As for heavy weapons, they had fewer than 900 light mortars, 85 antitank weapons, five ancient artillery pieces, four tanks, and 400-500 homemade armored cars. Moreover, the Haganah not only had the Egyptians to deal with but also had to fight invading armies from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Transjordan as well as indigenous Palestinian forces.
The Egyptian offensive began on 14 May 1948, the day Israel declared its independence. Cairo's invasion force was divided into two columns. The stronger arm was to drive up the coast to capture Tel Aviv, while a smaller force, mostly Egyptian irregulars, pushed through the central Negev Desert, through Beersheba and Hebron, toward Jerusalem to stake Cairo's claim to the Holy City and prevent Transjordan's King 'Abdallah from seizing it.
This eastern column, under Lt. Col. 'Abd al-Aziz, advanced fairly quickly because it met little Israeli resistance until it reached the settlement of Ramat Rachel south of Jerusalem. There the Egyptians linked up with elements of Transjordan's Arab Legion. On 21 May the two forces launched a combined assault against the small Israeli force defending the village, driving them out by sheer weight of numbers. However, later that day a company of the Haganah's Etzioni Brigade reinforced the Israelis, who then counterattacked and retook the village. The Egyptians and Jordanians launched repeated attacks for the next four days but were unable to retake Ramat Rachel. The Egyptians dug-in south of the town and never moved farther north.
The route of the main Egyptian column advancing along the coast was far more eventful. A series of Israeli settlements dotted the Gaza area on the coastal route to Tel Aviv. The first two Israeli settlements the Egyptians came upon, Nirim and Kfar Darom, were so tiny that General Mwawi left reinforced companies to deal with them while the main force moved on. In both cases, despite overwhelming advantages in numbers (there were forty Israeli defenders at Nirim and thirty at Kfar Darom) and firepower (the Egyptians had armor, artillery, and even some air support) the Egyptian units were unable to take either settlement in repeated attacks. They conducted slow-moving frontal assaults in line-abreast against the main Israeli defenses. Their artillery fire and airstrikes were inaccurate, and the infantry turned and ran as soon as it became clear that their firepower had not destroyed or cowed the defenders. In addition, during each attack, Egyptian armor failed to support the infantry, turning back the moment it encountered any resistance from Israelis with bazookas or Molotov cocktails, leaving the infantry to carry on alone.
Meanwhile, on 16 May Mwawi's main force reached the Israeli settlement of Yad Mordechai, which was bigger and better defended than Nirim or Kfar Darom. Mwawi decided he could not mask or bypass the position. The Egyptians took two days to prepare an assault on the settlement and then, on 19 May, threw two battalions of infantry and a battalion of armor supported by an artillery battalion against the Israeli infantry company defending the settlement. The Israelis beat them back after three hours of heavy fighting. The next day, the Egyptians launched four more attacks, all of which were repulsed. In this battle too the Egyptians were hampered by the inaccuracy of their artillery and air support and by difficulties in coordinating the operations of their armor and infantry. They then regrouped for several days while Mwawi apparently worked out better coordination between his armor and infantry. When the Egyptians attacked again on 23 May, the armor did a much better job supporting the infantry, and the assault succeeded in taking part of the settlement. That night, the Israeli defenders, who were exhausted and low on ammunition, withdrew, leaving Yad Mordechai to the Egyptians, who sustained 300 casualties in the fighting.
With Yad Mordechai taken, Mwawi pressed on up the coast, masking and bypassing the well-fortified Israeli settlement of Nitzanin. Reinforced by sea at Ashqelon, he detached part of his force and sent it eastward along the Ashqelon-Hebron road to link up with Aziz's force south of Jerusalem. Mwawi once again resumed the march with the rest of his column, now down to about 2,500 men, but was stopped at the Ashdod bridge three kilometers north of the town of Ashdod on 29 May. Here, only about thirty kilometers from Tel Aviv, the Israelis made their stand. They had destroyed the bridge, brought in several battalions from the Givati Brigade to man the river line, deployed another force southeast of Ashdod to menace the right flank of the Egyptian advance, and had even committed their only two 65-mm artillery pieces. When the Egyptians approached, the Israelis fired back with all they had. In addition, four Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters the Israelis had just acquired from Czechoslovakia attacked the Egyptian column as it approached the river. Although the Israeli air attacks were not terribly accurate, their mere appearance in combination with the unexpected introduction of Israeli artillery (paltry though it was), the strong Israeli defenses, and the threat on his flank convinced Mwawi to halt.
Checked at Ashdod, Mwawi recognized that his forces were over-stretched and that he needed to consolidate his positions. He left Brig. Gen. Muhammad Naguib in command of the forces at Ashdod and ordered them to dig in. On the night of 2-3 June, the Israelis tried to outflank these Egyptian positions and cut their line of communications along the coast. However, the attack was inept and poorly coordinated and ran into the entrenched Egyptians, who broke it fairly easily. Meanwhile, Mwawi dispatched a force to attack the Israeli settlement of Negba, which threatened his line of communications east to 'Aziz's forces north of Hebron. In this operation, the Egyptians used almost a full battalion of armor supported by infantry. But the infantry lagged far behind while the tanks and armored cars surged ahead. Without infantry support and with only very inaccurate artillery fire, the Egyptian attack was stopped by Israeli infantry with Molotov cocktails in a fierce fight. The Egyptians were beaten back after losing four tanks, two armored cars, and over 100 casualties. Finally, Mwawi himself took the remainder of his force to attack the bypassed settlement of Nitzanin and eliminate it as a lingering threat to the rear. Nitzanin was defended by a company of Israelis, and Mwawi hit it with an infantry battalion, a platoon of tanks, a company of armored cars, and his entire battalion of 25-pounders. In addition, he brought in a squadron of Spitfires to provide air support. He took several days to carefully work out the combined-arms preparations and began the attack in the early hours of 7 June with a six-hour artillery bombardment. Despite this, the Israelis beat back the initial assault, prompting Mwawi to call in more air support. Assisted by constant airstrikes, Egyptian armor was able to penetrate the Israeli defenses and eventually forced the defenders to surrender late that same day.
The rebuffs at Ashdod and Negba and the successful capture of Nitzanin brought the initial Egyptian offensive to a close. The United Nations (UN) imposed a ceasefire on the combatants on 11 June, which lasted until 9 July. Of greater importance, the defeats at Ashdod and Negba caused the Egyptians to begin to doubt that the expedition was going to be the cakewalk they had expected. During the ceasefire, both sides augmented their forces - with the Egyptian contingent reaching roughly 18,000 men - and fortified their positions along the truce lines. In addition, both Israel and Egypt planned to attack as soon as the truce ended. The Egyptians hoped to widen and strengthen their east-west lines of communication by capturing a number of Israeli settlements that constricted the Ashqelon-Hebron corridor. On the other side, the Israelis hoped to pierce this corridor, then turn west and cut the Egyptian lines along the coast road to encircle the Egyptian forces in Ashdod and Ashqelon.
Excerpted from Arabs at War by Kenneth M. Pollack Copyright © 2002 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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|Understanding modern Arab military effectiveness||1|
Posted October 30, 2003
This is a superb and easily read treatise, of use both to the military professional and the interested lay reader. The book meticulously details strategic and tactical performance of each of the prinicpal Arab states, not only with respect to their well-publicized conflicts with Israel, but also investigates the lesser-known military endeavors (e.g., Egypt's war in Yemen, Libya's adventures in Chad). As a result, this is a comprehensive evaluation. Fortunately, it was not burdened with background details on Islam and it's baleful influences on the technical aspects of modern warfare: this material would constitute a separate treatise and has been detailed elsewhere. Nonetheless, the insights gained from Pollack's investigation of military performance transfer to Arab domestic politics and Islamic cultural influence on military doctrine. Regretably, the cost of the book and it's length will deter many readers. In summary, this is an outstanding book and should be on the 'must read' list of readers of Middle Eastern affairs. It's only shortcomings were in the maps: symbols used throughout the text were only annotated in one map and never completely explained. Otherwise, a superb work.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.