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Profile: Egypt's Anwar el Sadat (1918-1981)

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Carter and Sadat

The Carters and the Sadats in an informal moment at the White House, a photograph taken on April 4, 1977.

White House photo

Why Sadat Still Matters:

Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist fanatics in 1981 for the very reason why he still matters: he is the first Arab leader to see past debilitating enmities and sign a peace treaty with Israel—which Sadat did in 1979, after an historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977.

Sadat had been an unremarkable military officer before his rise to the Egyptian presidency. For all his authoritarianism, which persisted, Sadat aimed to modernize Egypt, end the false mythologies of nationalism peddled by his predecessor, Gamal abdel Nasser, and shift Middle Eastern history toward a more progressive engagement with the world.

Sadat's Early Life :

Mohammed Anwar el-Sadat was born on Dec. 25, 1918 in Mit Abul Kom, some 40 miles north of Cairo in the Nile Delta, one of 13 children born to a government clerk and his partly Sudanese wife, which gave Sadat his darker skin.

Sadat was named after Ismail Enver, also known as Enver Pasha (Anwar was an Arabized version of Enver), the Turkish war minister who, before he became a mass murderer of Armenians, was a Middle East war hero who held the city of Edirne during the Balkan wars in 1918, the year of Sadat’s birth. Sadat had a happy childhood.

Youth and Education :

Sadat was a devout Muslim from his early days, benefiting from an Islamic education. When his father was transferred to Cairo in 1925, Anwar practiced audacity by stealing apricots from the king’s orchards.

Though poor despite his father’s government wages, Sadat said village life had prepared him for the city by deepening his “feeling of inner superiority, which has never left me.” That feeling of superiority would express itself against British colonialism over Egypt, exercised by proxy through the Ottomans’ weak rule. Sadat was admitted to the Royal Military Academy and graduated an officer in 1938.

Enmity Against Britain:

World War II offered an opportunity to upend British rule. So Sadat worked as a spy for Edwin Rommel, the Nazi field Marshal in charge of Hitler’s North Africa campaign—out of opportunism for Egypt’s sake rather than any admiration for Nazi Germany. He was caught and jailed, and used that opportunity to learn German and English. Then he escaped and resumed plotting against the British. The assassination of a British sympathizer landed Sadat in court as a conspirator, but he was acquitted and by 1950 reinstated as an officer in the Egyptian military.

Linking Up With Nasser:

Gamal Abdel Nassser was the leader of Egypt’s underground rebellion against the British, a rebellion first directed at Egypt’s King Farouk, and set off on July 22, 1952. Sadat announced the coup on Egyptian airwaves after taking over Cairo’s radio station. King Farouk was exiled. The British were expelled. Nasser ruled as a cultish despot determined to make Arab nationalism a common currency from Morocco to Iraq.

Sadat was a faithful but underestimated follower throughout, rising to the vice presidency as Nasser's sanctimony sank Egypt in economic stagnation and two ruinous wars with Israel (in 1956 and 1967).

Sadat Rises to Egypt’s Presidency:

Nasser died of a heart attack on Sept. 28, 1970. Sadat became president, and at first projected a discordant image of a leader interested more in style and rhetoric than substance. He proved skeptics and critics wrong, first through an authoritarian crackdown on dissidents, then by cracking down on Egypt’s reviled secret police, which endeared him with the public.

Then he ousted Soviet advisers, cut ties with the Soviet Union, and on Oct. 6, 1973, launched a war against Israel. Sadat didn’t win it. But he didn’t lose it, either, thus restoring Egyptian dignity lost in the 1967 debacle.

Setting Up Peace Negotiations With Israel:

Sadat’s greatest achievement in the 1973 war, which Henry Kissinger, the U.S. secretary of state at the time, recognized, was strategic. Sadat hadn’t intended to drive tanks through Jerusalem, only to place Egypt in a stronger negotiating position when time came for negotiations with Israel. Sadat achieved just that. Then he went to Jerusalem, in a dramatic move on Nov. 20, 1977, when he addressed Israel’s Knesset, asking for “peace with justice”—meaning Israel’s return of Arab land, including East Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin spoke after Sadat, made no concessions, but agreed to more talks.

Camp David and the Peace Treaty:

In 1978, Sadat and Prime Minister Menahem Begin, with President Jimmy Carter’s mediation, agreed to the Camp David Accords (named for the American presidential retreat where the harrowing, two-week negotiations in September 1978 took place, which led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. It was the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab nation.

It was very good for Egypt and Israel. It was not good for Palestinians, who felt abandoned by Egypt’s “separate peace.” Sadat had, in fact, turned his back on previous pledges to ensure that Plaesttinians’ demands for independence were also met.

Egypt First:

For Sadat, however, three wars with Israel were enough. Egypt was struggling economically. The peace treaty allowed Egypt to draw down its military forces and benefit from an economic and military package from the United States worth an average of $2 billion a year since 1979. (Since 1979, Egypt has been the second largest recipient, after Israel, of U.S. foreign assistance.) Israel withdrew from the Sinai, and Sadat claimed he’d pursue a larger peace agenda involving the Palestinians in the longer haul. He never got the chance.

Sadat's Assassination and Legacy :

On Oct. 6, 1981, while celebrating the eighth anniversary of the 1973 war against Israel, Sadat was gunned down during the military parade. His assailants had been members of a Muslim Brotherhood breakaway group who declared him an apostate (for not imposing Sharia law in Egypt) and denounced the peace treaty with Israel. Carter claimed in the following days that Sadat had been planning to step down and “retire.” The claim doesn’t match Sadat’s character.

More on the Assassination:

After Sadat

Sadat was replaced with his vice president, the unimaginative Hosni Mubarak, who’s preserved Egypt’s authoritarianism while shedding any hint of Sadat-like boldness.

Naguib Mahfouz, The great Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate, summed up Sadat to journalist Milton Viorst (in Storm from the East) this way: Sadat “was a man who did great things, but who also made big mistakes…. Nasser considered himself a god, but Sadat thought he was a Pharaoh…. He moved us back toward democracy but far from real democracy. It was controlled and disciplined, and it retained authoritarian traces. But it was a change of direction which, with some setbacks, has continued. Sadat’s great contribution was to turn the country to constructive goals and values. The most important was to bring Egypt peace.”

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