Major General Ahmed Raga’ey has worked in the army in artillery forces, shock troops, and military intelligence. He then established the shock troops school in Algeria.
In the wake of the June 1967 war, Raga’ey, with a group of his comrades, managed to form the Arab Sinai Organisation. Part of it turned into Battalion 39 (the most famous private unit that worked under the direct supervision of the intelligence service head). It has executed over 72 operations behind enemy lines. Raga’ey’s share of these operations was 42.
In 1977, with the direct orders of former President Anwar Al-Sadat, he handled the operation of forming the first Egyptian unit to combat terrorism, which was Division 777. In the same year, he was assigned by Marshal Mohamed Abdelghany to handle the operation of striking Libya; however, he refused to strike a fellow Arab country.
He is also the first to cross the Great Sand Sea located on the Egyptian-Libyan-Sudanese borders. The road he took is named after him in the Egyptian Armed Forces’ records. Additionally, he has poems and quatrains, in addition to writings in the field of development, especially in Sinai, as well as education development.
Daily News Egypt sat down for an interview with Raga’ey, hero of Battalion 39, the transcript for which is below, lightly edited for clarity:
How was Division 777 established to combat terrorism?
The idea started in 1976 when I met Marshal Abdelghany Al-Gamsy and he asked me what I do, then when I told him I was the leader of the shock troops, he said it was not where I belonged and that I should meet with him at the ministry.
When the incident of Larnaca took place, and writer Youssef El Sebaey was assassinated, Marshal Al-Gamsy called me to assign me the task of establishing a special unit for fighting terrorism. He gave six months to get this mission done and gave me the authority to bring individuals from the armed forces.
Within a few days, I had a plan, and the recommendations for the arming and required equipments, as well as the location.
Were there difficulties in forming division?
Yes, because there was a conflict with traditional shock troops’ minds, but I did not give in to that. I also faced difficulties in choosing the individuals of the division. The unit was formed of 90 volunteering individuals. The location was eventually chosen to be in Madinet Nasr (Nasr City) because of its closeness to Almaza Airport, where there is the helicopter unit.
The name 777 was chosen for the unit. It was one of the shock troops, but its operation was by the military intelligence, both in terms of commissioning or information.
Formation and arming started using the available equipment. Training also started. It was mainly based on high fitness and fighting techniques, whether using weapons or hands. Watching foreign movies, where there are pistols used has helped a lot. Pistols are the main weapons in the unit. With high efficiency, I was ready with the division after only three months instead of the six month-period I was given.
Is what is happening in Sinai bringing back memories?
Of course, and I remember everything, however, there is a specific operation I cannot forget. That was when the political leadership discovered in 1969 that there is movement of weird bodies on the eastern bank of the canal and that the enemy has placed these bodies. A gap had to be opened between the divisions of Israeli air forces, to help the Egyptian planes take picture of these bodies. They were 22 km far from the canal’s shore.
It was required to destroy the hawk rockets, hence with eight members of my division, we carried the rockets and we destroyed them. We also destroyed the location of the enemy’s weapons and ammo storage, which was left on fire for three hours. With the first light, the Egyptian planes took off and took pictures of the foreign bodies. We discovered that they were bridges the Israeli forces prepared in case they needed to cross to the western bank.
You were one of founders of coalition of “Officers for Egypt” against Muslim Brotherhood (MB). How do you see situation now?
The events of 25 January and 30 June have revealed the truth about the MB. If it were not for what happened when they ruled Egypt, we would not have discovered their truth.
The 30 June uprising was a necessity against the religious fascism and using religion to reach political goals. Even though I have some reservations regarding some measures, I still think we are on the right path.
How do you see calls for reconciliation with MB?
Where were they when it was possible to reconcile with them? The MB members in Egypt are criminals who stand trial, and the MB members abroad think it is okay to shed the blood of Egyptians, and I do not think that Egyptians are okay with reconciling with people who killed their children. The majority of those who called for reconciliation were seeking fame.
How do you see security’s dealing with, combating terrorism?
The army and police have managed to achieve great success in fighting against terrorism over the past years, and they managed to save Egypt from a disaster.
Is national security in Egypt currently in danger?
I do not think there are great dangers on our national security abroad, but the real danger to our security is here in Egyptian prisons, and I mean the thinking minds of the MB. They are the ones in control, making all the plans. The second danger lies in Hamas of Gaza. We have warned them before that we know where they are and the camps where they receive their training. Israel knows all of this and protects them. Now we have the 999 special forces that can bring Ismail Haneyah, Mahmoud Ezzat, and Hamas leaders who train and send terrorists, in order for them to stand urgent trials.
You have a long history of cooperation with people of Sinai. How do you see their role in past, present in fighting against terrorism?
The people of Sinai are some of the most patriotic. There were our eyes, guides, and protectors, and have been patient with the occupation the whole time, working with us and sacrificing their lives to be members of the military intelligence. With the support given to Hamas using modern technology, these people get killed.
Are military operations in Sinai enough to protect it against terrorism?
I wrote the solution to this dilemma in my book The History of Humans in Sinai and Egypt.
Economic development in Sinai is divided into five sectors starting with defence villages. In the first two years of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s rule, I imagined about 5-6 million citizens would be moved from the valley to Sinai. I demand that we build water tunnels on the separators on the borders, fed by the Mediterranean and Red seas, in addition to fish farms that act like the Bar Lev Line, providing animal protein, as is the case on the borders of France and Spain, as they established poultry farms, with defence villages built behind by moving residents to them. The recruited soldiers would then be protecting their homes, get married, and start families, making real life start in Sinai.
On the coast of the Mediterranean, from Rafah to Port Said, we plant 1m palm trees, olive trees, and sunflowers with the aim of producing vegetable oils and compete globally.
In the south, there are 400 tourist villages with temporary labour, working with low salaries and in inhumane conditions. Their work is related to tourism and is not secure. These people must be allowed to stay in residential villages and bring their families and start small, medium, and micro enterprises. We must also take advantage of the bridge established between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and manufacture the needs of pilgrims, including Islamic robes, prayer mats, chaplets, and transportation.
In central and south Sinai, we utilise the rare metals, including 13 strategic materials that go into the manufacturing of iron and painite, in addition to other kinds that do not exist elsewhere in the world. There is the clear sand in Wadi Baabaa and Wadi Teer for the manufacturing of crystals and silicone.
How will we do all of this with terrorism?
Development will eliminate terrorism. Sinai was exposed to a western conspiracy, whose features became clear with the attempt to form an Islamic emirate to threaten Israel. In early July, we saw how Israel’s plan to fragment the region failed and how Europe was willing to acknowledge the emirate. Clinton admitted that there was a plan to allocate 40 km to Areesh to solve the issue of the Palestinians with Israel.
You have a vision that was clear in several writings to reform education. What are this vision’s features, why are you against learning from Japanese experience?
The Japanese were the ones to utilise the Egyptian experience twice. One time was in the era of Khedive Ismail, and the other time was after WWII.
The issue of education in Egypt is not just about the curricula; the priorities that Japan gives attention to are morals and behaviours.
In my book, I included the aspects of developing education and sent it to the ministry. They included buildings. Primary education does not require a special space, hence we can utilise churches. You can build classes everywhere, by which everyone can learn to read, and write, and basics of math. In four years, fees were reasonably increased. Which means you can build new schools. Also, I support that education would be 100% free. Increasing fees will also allow increasing the salaries of teachers. The salaries of teachers must not be less than EGP 3,000, when they are first hired.
Teachers must also go back to teachers’ institutes, as they do not need a bachelor’s degree or anything like that. The teachers’ institutes teach specialised educational materials. Additionally, the age when young people can give can start as early as 18 rather than 23. All the teachers who taught people like Magdy Yakoub, Yehia El Mashad, Moustafa El Sayed, and Naguib Mahfouz were all very young.
Science must become a goal rather than a tool to enter the final exam.
In the secondary stage, students are prepared for the labour market. This is where the role of technical schools becomes necessary. They must be given value and be equal to institutions and universities.
Then there is the necessary step of forming professional syndicates for plumbers, electricians, and mechanics, in order to defend their rights and interests. A technical institution must also be formed for drivers, as driving is the only profession in Egypt, that does not have an institute, and this profession matters because it is related to the lives of citizens.