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Sadat's contested legacy

Praised and derided for what are seen as the major accomplishments of his 11-year rule, Anwar Sadat continues to be an enigma 30 years after his assassination

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 6 Oct 2011
Former president Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat
Views: 4581
Views: 4581

"Sadat was not just another ruler or president of Egypt; he was one of the most prominent world leaders who left his unmistakable imprint on every page of our modern history."

So opens late writer and journalist Moussa Sabri’s voluminous book "Sadat the truth and the myth."

Written by an author known for his close relationship with Anwar Sadat, the book offers a rather heroic profile of the man who ruled Egypt for almost 11 years until his assassination at the hands of Islamist army officers on 6 October 1981 while attending a military parade to commemorate the 1973 War.

The 6 October War that saw the Egyptian military, which had sustained a painful military defeat at the hands of Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, cross the Suez Canal and bring down the Bar Lev Line is one of the most important events in the modern history of the Arab World and it is Sadat's doing, as Sabri wrote.

The other equally momentous event, as Sabri adds in the early pages of his book, was "the visit of the leader of the most influential Arab country to Israel in what was a political miracle by all accounts" that allowed for the establishment of an Egyptian-Israeli peace.

The book offers a beaming profile of Sadat: a man of war and peace; the man who came to rule Egypt when the Sinai peninsula was occupied and who died after having liberated the land – through war and peaceful negotiations.

The “hero of war and peace” was Sadat's preferred title – even over that of the “Believing President” that he bestowed upon himself during his years of promoting Islamists as a way of eliminating the political opposition of the Left, according to many accounts written on his rule.

"The hero of war and peace" was indeed the legacy that Sadat wanted to leave.

It is a legacy, Sadat's critics argue, that he personally designed to help him recover from the setback he suffered after his political adversaries attended a public address he was giving in his first years in office bearing pictures of Nasser and chanting "Oh Sadat, Oh Sadat, Nasser left us and died."

This moment, according to A Woman of Egypt: Jehan Sadat, the first part of the former first lady’s autobiography, left Sadat with a bitter sense of unfairness at how his political adversaries – devotees of Nasser who objected to his appointment of Sadat as vice president – were trying to undercut his rule.

As the journalist Ahmed Baheddine and writer Youssef Idris argued in their respective books My Talks with Sadat and In Search of Sadat, the image of the late president, who associated himself with Nasser but also hated to be in the formidable man’s shadow, is akin to how Sadat portrays Nasser in his own book, In Search of Identity. This sense is further enhanced by the journalist, and close Sadat associate, Aniis Mansour’s book From Sadat's Documents.

Sadat offered the accounts and the stories that lead to one conclusion: Nasser was more of a hard-worker who manipulated the emotions of the nation rather than a leader who dared to take revolutionary decisions that changed the face of the nation for the better – as opposed to Sadat who is always portrayed as a man with a special talent to read the future and make it.

This is not exactly the image evoked by the memoirs of those who knew and worked closely with Sadat during on leading national affairs including the two events that Sabri qualified as the most momentous events in the history of Egypt and the Arab world in modern times: the October War and the Camp David Accords with Israel.

The memoirs of Ismail Fahmi and Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel, the two foreign ministers who resigned in protest at the compromises they thought Sadat was making to Israel during the peace negotiations, offer an image of an impatient president who believed himself sole proprietor of the truth and was not willing to consider the views of his top aides.

Such inflexibility is supported by the personal accounts of Abdel-Ghani El-Gamasy and Saad Eddin El-Shazly, key architects of Egypt’s military campaign in the 1973 War. The two men portray an impulsive military leader prone to lose his poise at challenging moments who misjudges the situation on the ground. Sadat comes across as willing to take poorly thought through decisions, with serious consequences.

From the books and televised reminiscences of the veteran journalist and columnist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Sadat was all of the above and more.

For some, Sadat was an inspired leader who dared to change realities when he knew that the price for doing so would not be small. For others, Sadat was a gambler who had his eyes on his own personal gain and always managed to melt it into the context of national interests.

For all, Sadat was not an ordinary person – maybe even somewhat eccentric.

"The name Anwar Sadat was always associated with some conspicuously confusing and perplexed contexts," wrote Bahaeddine. "The first time we heard his name was in association with a story related to the boathouse of belly dancer Hekmat Fahmi when Sadat was caught while trying to help Nazi German soldiers who managed to enter Egypt when Rommel’s forces was approaching the Egyptian (western) borders."

While acknowledging that it was not uncommon for Egyptians to harbour sympathies with Germany, the adversary of Britain who, during World War II, were occupying Egypt, Bahaeddine argues that the association of an army officer, as Sadat was at the time, with the Nazi movement means, one way or the other, "that he had a faith in the Nazi principles and a Fascist nature."

While the terms “Nazi” and “Fascist” might have been applied by Bahaeddine metaphorically rather than literally, it is clear that this Egyptian journalist who knew Sadat well and agreed and differed with him, saw in him an egocentric man.

Egocentric, Sadat certainly was according to Idris’ book. It was this characteristic, the writer argues, that prompted Sadat to enter into what was effectively a unilateral peace deal with Israel, which he saw as a good opportunity – not just for Egypt but for himself as he was heralded in the West as "a brave leader with a vision."

It was this egocentrism, El-Shazly argues in his memoirs, that led Sadat to orchestrate the military tactics during the 6 October War in a way that was incompatible with the original plan, thus allowing the Israeli army to recapture ground and encircle a significant segment of the Egyptian army.

The elegant Italian suits, the exaggerated military outfits and the traditional ruler’s robes that Sadat alternates for his public appearances all reflect, as the authors of several books on the late president claim, the mindset of a man who liked not just to impress but also to somewhat shock and surprise.

The conflicting stories about his affiliation with a Nazi-sympathetic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iron Guards of King Farouk and the Free Officers Movement that executed the July Revolution, shed light, according to the same books, on the personality of a man who was fond of perplexing – or maybe of being perplexed.

Sadat was 62 when he was killed 30 years ago, by which time he had done everything a politician or a military man could have hoped for. He did it all his way, as his wife Jehan argues in her two-volume memoires "A woman of Egypt" and "My hope for Peace."

There was nothing particularly orthodox or traditional in the way of Sadat, Jehan argues. Then again, she suggests, leaders are not meant to be traditional.

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