In the wake of Youssef El Sebai’s death, the streets of Cairo swelled up in protest.
On February 19, 1978, as his body arrived from Cyprus to be wrapped up in a flag and readied for a state-sponsored service, the newspapers had spread rumor — that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was responsible — and this in turn had spurred hate. The crowds were a frenzy as the procession took place, and ceremonious sorrow — with its customary incantation, “There is no god but God!” — gave way to more passionate and perverse political refrains:
“No more Palestine, no more Palestine! Arafat, round up your dogs!”
Prime Minster Mostafa Riyad stood up and declared:
“No more Palestine after today!”
The bullet that had killed the minister of culture was seen as having hit all of Egypt. Aggrieved as he was, Anwar al-Sadat did not attend his dear friend’s funeral, and sent Vice President Hosni Mubarak to show face instead. Sadat was six months from secretly signing Camp David, and he had already gone across to talk peace at the Knesset — which was, after all, why Sebai had been targeted in the first place.
In the week that followed: a man was thrown off the metro by a mob gone mad; children at school were harassed and attacked; the police went about a spate of unwarranted interrogations and arbitrary arrests; a shopkeeper turned up to work one morning to find that his storefront window had been smashed. Many have marked this as the moment when public opinion in Egypt swerved. For whatever pan-Arabism may or may not have meant, citizens were now incited to feel that — four wars later — they had sacrificed too much of their bread in standing up against Israel, and the media took it upon itself to fuel the brazen anti-Palestinian sentiment that surged.
On February 28, the official daily Al-Ahram announced that the government would reassess the privileges granted to Palestinians as nationals in Egypt, and then later in the year two decrees were put into effect — administrative regulations 47 and 48 — to deny them rights they had thus far availed.
Back in Nicosia, Sebai’s murder had wreaked havoc in the lobby of the Hilton on that morning of February 18. Turns out, as per most accounts, he was shot inside and not outside the hotel. The meeting of the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization (AAPSO) had been disrupted, and the two assassins had rounded up the delegates in the hotel cafeteria and held them captive. They threatened to kill them with hand grenades as they bargained with the Cypriot authorities, demanding to speak directly with the minister of interior, Christodoulos Veniamin, for safe passage to the Larnaca International Airport, as well as for an airplane — both of which they were granted. They singled out the Arab men in the room, instructed them to undo their ties from their necks, then use those to rope each other’s hands behind each other’s backs, and they escorted them with their guns onto a bus, releasing all the women as well as the non-Arab rest.
Sadat was furious. Not only had Sebai been killed — in direct retaliation to his diplomatic doings — but four of the 11 hostages were Egyptian. He went as far as to accuse Cyprus of colluding with the militants and if not that then of abetting them by having insufficient security stationed. There was even a round of suspicion as to why Nicosia had been chosen as the venue for the AAPSO conference, when safer locations such as Moscow and Berlin had been proposed during the planning and preparation stages.
Sadat was quick to level allegations against Yasser Arafat as well, that this was an operation ordered by him. But the leader of the PLO had at least one of his own representatives caught in the crisis and was the first to call Spyros Kyprianou, the Cypriot president, to extend armed assistance — an experienced 12 (or 16?) man squad equipped with Soviet AK-47 assault rifles — were it needed. The offer was accepted in good faith and a plane sent to Beirut to collect them.
At some point the assailants declared themselves. They belonged to a militant faction whose leader Sabri Al Banna had broken off from Arafat’s political party Fatah back in 1974, which then in turn issued a death warrant on him. The splinter group, which was first called Fatah Revolutionary Council (FRC), was also known as the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO). Its politics were aggressively rejectionist, and as a radical outfit its primary objective was to eliminate key figures seen to be enemies of the Palestinian people, especially Arabs who held too moderate a stance toward Israel.
Aboard a Cyprus Airways DC-8, the assassins-turned-hijackers commanded the civil aviation crew to head toward Tripoli, but to their surprise, and despite the hostage situation, they were not allowed a landing. They tried Damascus (maybe?) and then Aden, but both told them the same thing. In a final attempt they managed to hit ground in Djibouti — it was about 4 or 5 am. While one of the hostages — it was Veniamin, who had offered himself as an emissary — was able to step off the aircraft and eventually get onto a telex line with Cyprus, the rest were not sanctioned to disembark. They spent the day there appealing to various governments for assistance, and eventually refueled the aircraft and headed right back to Larnaca — it was early evening on February 19 by then.
In the meantime, Sadat had grown really restless. Despite the assurance Kyprianou had given him — that he was handling the matter himself — the Egyptian president was scarcely comforted, thinking that Cyprus had long harbored Palestinian militants. He was determined to get involved in the rescue attempt and decided to solicit his special commando unit Task Force 777 to interfere. He dispatched them to Larnaca in a C-130H military jet without informing the Cypriot president what he intended — this by itself was already a disregard for the sovereignty of the other state, a violation of international norms even. Led by General Nabil Shukry, the assault team included around 70 personnel, most of whom were in combat gear, but then also some disguised as if for an undercover expedition — wearing bellbottom denims and platform shoes, or sportswear!
The aviation authorities were led to believe that Egypt’s minister of information was arriving to observe the negotiations, and so though the commando aircraft raised some eyebrows it landed at around 6:40 pm without any hassle, parking itself within a kilometer of the DC-8. When Cypriot officials went over to greet a member of cabinet, they were stunned to find a full-fledged Special Forces unit as well. When this was conveyed to Kyprianou in the control tower, the Egyptian ambassador was summoned from the plane. It was made clear to him that there was no permission for a commando raid. Failure to comply and the Cypriot National Guard would not hesitate to attack them.
Meanwhile, a series of exchanges with the hijackers had been underway — a push, pull and wait game on the tarmac was being played. Vassos Lyssarides, the vice president of the AAPSO committee, had taken charge, reaching an agreement at around 7:30 pm or so to hand over passports to the militants that had their photos — to be taken onsite with a Polaroid being called in for from the city — so that they could exit easily. The Cypriot armed forces and plain-clothes police snipers were concealed so as not to provoke anything, but this made Shukry, who had overheard something on the radio communication, assume that the hijackers were going to get away. He did not know that Kyprianou’s plan was to arrest them once the hostages — who had started brushing their teeth and combing their hair — were released.
At around 8:25 pm, the Egyptian minister of information returned to the C-130H. He informed the commanding officer in English, and in the presence of the Cypriot chief of police, what had been discussed — that they were not authorized to intervene. But then the Egyptians started to speak with each other in Arabic. And it was soon after this that the tail of the Egyptian aircraft dropped, and a jeep charged out with four men firing blindly into the dark. It headed for the DC-8, which didn’t retaliate. Following suit, down the ramp, the rest of the troops marched, but at an almost leisurely pace. Was this a decoy? A deliberate diversion, so that the actual killer team could get its act underway? At least one Western military observer seemed to ask.
A 50-minute gun battle ensued on the runway between the Egyptian Task Force 777 and the Cypriot National Guard and what had started as murder ended in massacre. The jeep blew up with the four men in it. The plane too was badly damaged by a shell and 11 other Egyptian commandos were slain. At one point, the so-called crack anti-terrorist unit were shooting at the tower in which Cyprus’ president was sitting and his soldiers had no choice but to ambush them. By the end of it, the Egyptian forces surrendered, having taken cover under an empty airliner, another 16 injured. Astonished at the outbreak of violence, the hijackers too were persuaded by the DC-8’s civilian pilots to turn themselves in.
It was an episode of diplomatic idiocy at best, but Sadat claimed credit for having solved the hostage crisis. As soon as his surviving commandos were deported, he cut official ties with Cyprus — later calling Kyprianou “a political dwarf,” and saying, “Cyprus must explain to me the treachery that was committed against my sons,” almost in tears. He also remained convinced that Arafat had colluded against his fighters when in fact the PLO squad from Beirut had not even shot a bullet. When the ANO assassins were put on trial, he demanded they be given a death sentence. They were, but then when Cyprus commuted it to life imprisonment — on procedural counts as well as for not wanting to alienate certain Palestinian factions — Sadat tried to insist that as Sebai’s murderers they should be transferred to Egypt to be properly dealt with.
He welcomed his men home as national heroes, and the 15 who died were honored at a grand funeral as having sacrificed their lives for the 11 hostages. But besides America and Israel, who were willing to praise his bravado regardless, all other nations saw this for what it was: The Egyptian soldiers were victims of the irresponsible behavior of their government, is how a Soviet newspaper put it.
In the summer that followed, the fault lines of a complex web of relations between Cyprus, Egypt and the PLO got reorganized and reimposed — and on the sidelines of this was the undetermined future of a magazine called Lotus.
It’s hard to tell whether Youssef El Sebai’s last editorial, which only appeared in print after he had passed away, was specifically intended for the thematic issue on “Africa” in which it was included. Titled “The historic cultural task of the Afro-Asian Intelligentsia,” it covered more or less the same ground as what he had produced for the launch of the journal a decade prior — that one had been called “The Role of AFRO-ASIAN Literature and The national Liberation movements.” Marked for the months of April-September 1978, the posthumous volume was co-edited by South African writer Alex La Guma — who had probably stepped up as deputy secretary-general from his position as assistant editor at the last minute. And it was this issue no. 36/37 that also concluded Cairo’s term: Dar al-Odaba was no longer the Permanent Bureau of the Afro-Asian Writers Association.
Lotus Notes is a monthly series for 2014 that is part of a writing project by Nida Ghouse called Inner States, with images by Jenifer Evans.
A TIME magazine article, “Terrorists: Murder and Massacre on Cyprus,” dated March 6, 1978; an Al Jazeera documentary, “Ightiya Youssef El Sebai” (Assassination of Youssef El Sebai); and a strategic report “The 1978 Battle of Larnaca Airport, Cyprus, and UK Diplomacy,” prepared on June 7, 2009 by Panagiotis Dimitrakis, a Cold War expert, are the three main sources relied on in this text. As is always the case no definitive account of the event exists, and on occasion the details contradict.