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Born in Mit Abul Kom, a town north of Cairo, Egypt, Sadat was one of the first students to graduate from a British military school. On graduating, he was posted to a remote government base where he met Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), a charismatic army major who was to become the nationalist leader of Egypt. They maintained a lifelong friendship. From 1942 on, Nasser secretly organized young cadets and officers to promote a republican, anti-British patriotic movement. The movement’s radical ideas were also directed against the corrupt monarchy of King Farouk (1920–1965), whose profligacy and incompetence were partly held responsible for the failures of the Egyptian army against Israel in 1948. In response to these military and political failures, Nasser’s group evolved into
the Free Officers Movement, which staged a coup on July 23, 1952, against Farouk. Sadat, who became Nasser’s public relations minister, remained under the shadow of Nasser during the dramatic events in modern Egyptian history—the Suez crisis (1956) and the Six-Day War (1967)—until Nasser’s death in September 1970.
Rise to International Prominence
Sadat was relatively unknown in international politics, despite the many positions he had held during Nasser’s period—minister of state (1954), secretary to the National Union (1959), president of the parliament (1960–1968), and vice president and member of the Presidential Council (1964). In his attempt to emulate Nasser, he initially adopted a stridently aggressive stance against Israel, including the surprise attack in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. The war ended in stalemate; with the Egyptian economy in crisis, Sadat adopted a diplomatic approach to Israel, launching the Sadat Initiative in 1977. This started a peace process that led to the Camp David talks in September 1978 with U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. The peace treaty that was signed in March 1979 involved the return of the Sinai to Egypt, the creation of demilitarized zones, and some autonomy for a Palestinian administration. Both Begin and Sadat received the Nobel Peace Prize, but the peace agreement was opposed by the Palestine Liberation Organization, several
Arab states, and right-wing elements in Israel.
Opposition from within Egypt came from Muslim fundamentalists. Sadat attempted to co-opt radical Muslim groups, including the Muslim Brothers, whom Nasser had exiled. He realized that the extreme poverty of the peasantry and urban working class created a breeding ground for religious and political radicalism. To stimulate the Egyptian economy, Sadat in 1975 sought to expand the private sector and to reduce the old Soviet-style economy and state bureaucracy. This economic opening (infitah) was combined with a policy of supporting moderate Muslim intellectuals such as Omar Telmesani, who began to publish Al Dawa (Call to Islam) in 1976. In return for their political support, Sadat allowed these religious intellectuals considerable cultural freedom.
This political pact began to disintegrate in 1977 when riots broke out in response to the negative consequences of the “open-door” economic policy and a radical group called the Society of Muslims (Al Takfir wa-l Hijra) defied the government by kidnapping and murdering a cleric. Sadat’s peace process, which involved some recognition of Israeli sovereignty, was rejected by both moderate and radical elements of the Muslim community. The radicals, who became known generally as takfir—a devout Muslim who excommunicates other Muslims who are seen to be lapsed—spread their message through much of the Arab world. These movements accepted the teaching of Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), who, as the founder of the Muslim Brothers, had preached the necessity of violent jihad against unbelievers and who was hanged for an alleged plot against Nasser.
In response to this radicalization, Sadat dissolved the Egyptian Students Union and brought a number of key activists to trial. Some 1,600 people were arrested, resulting in significant international and domestic criticism. He also attacked the Coptic community, forcing the Coptic Pope Shenouda III into exile (he was eventually restored by President Hosni Mubarak in 1985). As a result of this political crackdown, the radicals became a clandestine movement among the underclass of the slums of Cairo,
declaring a war against Sadat and the moderate clerics who were accused of apostasy. Sadat was assassinated on October 6, 1981, during the yearly 6 October 1973 victory parade by Muslim fundamentalists inside the army. He was buried in the unknown soldier memorial in Cairo and was succeeded by Mubarak as president.
The problems facing Egypt in Sadat’s time continue to dominate Egyptian politics. The state bureaucracies remain firmly in control of the economy and, despite President Mubarak’s moderate reforms and the recent success of the Egyptian stock market, a democratic culture has been slow to develop. The Muslim Brothers are excluded from parliamentary politics because they are still regarded as an illegal organization. A fragile peace with Israel has, however, been sustained because both governments regard Hamas (Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya) in the West Bank and Hizbullah (the Iranian-backed Party of God) as a threat. Periodic attacks on tourists, Copts, and members of the government have also curtailed the growth of the tourist industry. Between 1993 and 1997, Mubarak responded with ruthless oppression against members of the radical Gamaat Islamiya. In retrospect, Sadat’s era was progressive in attempting to secure peace and reform the economy, but he left behind a legacy of authoritarianism.
- Kepel, Gilles. 2003. Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and the Pharaoh. Trans. Jon Rothschild. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Sadat, Anwar el-. 1978 In Search of Identity: An Autobiography. New York: Harper and Row.
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