Anwar Sadat (1918-1981) was Egypt's president from 1970 until his assassination. He launched a surprise attack on Israel in 1973, then became the first Arab leader to sign a peace treaty with Israel. He shifted from Soviet to American patronage and relaxed Egypt's internal economic and political system.
Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat was born in 1918. His village, Mit Abul Kom, is about 40 miles north of Cairo in the Nile delta. Sadat lived with his grandmother while his father, a minor civil service clerk, was away in the Sudan with his Sudanese wife. The boy attended a village Quran (Moslem) school, then went briefly to a Coptic (Christian) school.
His parents returned to Egypt in 1925, and Sadat went to live with them in Cairo. In later years he relished visits to his village and spoke nostalgically of his humble rural origins. Sadat's father struggled to support 13 children on his modest salary. Poor grades led Sadat to shift from government to private secondary schools on two occasions, but in 1936 he earned the coveted secondary school certificate.
Plotting against British Rule and King Farouk
As a schoolboy, Sadat frequently demonstrated against the British, who occupied Egypt at that time. His heroes were all nationalists: Mahatma Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, Ataturk, and Egyptians Saad Zaghlul, Mustafa Kamil, and Mustafa Nahhas. He also admired a peasant martyr from Dinshaway (near Mit Abul Kom) whom the British had executed in 1906.
One result of the 1936 treaty which Prime Minister Nahhas signed with the British was the opening of the military academy to lower middle class youths like Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sadat graduated from the academy in 1938 and was posted to Manqabad in Upper Egypt. There he first met Nasser, a natural leader, serious and somewhat aloof. The idealistic young officers talked politics, debating the best way to rid their country of the British.
In 1939 Sadat entered the Signal Corps. While Nasser was off in the Sudan, Sadat plotted direct action against the British. Occasionally he met with Hassan Al-Banna, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group of religious zealots who wanted to root out Western and secular influences and turn Egypt into a theocracy.
Axis forces based in Libya pushed into Egypt in 1941, hoping to seize the vital Suez Canal. In the following year the British arrested Sadat for plotting with two German spies who were living in a Nile houseboat and trying to send information to Rommel's army. Escaping from jail in October 1944, Sadat hid out until the end of the war made it safe for him to resurface. He then participated in an unsuccessful attempt on the life of former prime minister Nahhas, who had cooperated with the British during the war. Sadat's role in the killing of Amin Osman, an Anglophile politician, landed him back in jail in January 1946. Sadat's friendship with King Farouk's private doctor linked him to the Iron Guard, a secret palace organization which struck at the king's enemies.
The trial of Sadat and others in the Amin Osman case was overshadowed by the outbreak of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The principal defendant escaped; Sadat and the others were acquitted and released. After dabbling in business schemes for a year or two Sadat won reinstatement in the army. He reestablished contact with Nasser's circle, who were now calling themselves "Free Officers" and planning to overthrow the corrupt and inept government. The riots of January 1952 destroyed foreign-owned businesses throughout Cairo and completed the public's disillusionment with the playboy king and the old politicians.
Nasser summoned Sadat to Cairo from his post in Sinai on the evening of July 22, 1952. But finding no further message from his chief, Sadat took his family to the movies and nearly missed the coup. However, it was Sadat who broadcast the news of the coup to the public on the morning of July 23. King Farouk was sent into exile and Brigadier Mohamed Naguib served as the Free Officers' front man until Nasser broke with him and put him under house arrest in 1954.
The posts Sadat held during the Nasser years were not quite at the center of power. He edited the regime's newspaper, al-Gumhuriya. He served as secretary-general of the Islamic Congress and of the National Union, the forerunner of the Arab Socialist Union and Egypt's only political party. During the 1960s he was speaker of the National Assembly. Sadat, along with Field Marshall Abdel Hakim Amer, bears much of the responsibility for Egypt's disastrous involvement in the Yemeni civil war (1962-1967). Then Egypt's defeat by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War nearly destroyed Nasser's regime. Aware of his ill-health and of plots against him, Nasser named Sadat vice president at the end of 1969. Nicknamed "Major Yes-Yes" for his acquiescence to Nasser's wishes, Sadat had outlasted most of the other Free Officers who might have inherited the presidency.
Sadat Takes Command
Nasser died of a heart attack on September 28, 1970. A plebiscite quickly confirmed Sadat as his successor. Ali Sabri and others in the Arab Socialist Union, the army, and the intelligence organizations assumed Sadat could soon be shouldered aside. But Sadat's "Corrective Revolution" of May 1971 sent the plotters to jail and consolidated his grip on power. A treaty of friendship reassured the nervous Soviets a few days later.
Sadat liked to govern by surprises. In February 1971 he unexpectedly extended a ceasefire with the Israelis on the Suez front and announced plans to reopen the canal even though the enemy was entrenched on the opposite bank. Unable to obtain enough Soviet support for a military showdown and under increasing domestic pressure to act, Sadat pulled off another surprise in the summer of 1972. He expelled the numerous Soviet military advisers from Egypt.
Failing to win American attention as he had hoped, Sadat now openly declared his intention to fight Israel. No one took him seriously, so the Syrian-Egyptian attack on October 6, 1973, came as a surprise. Egypt's successful crossing of the Suez Canal contrasted with the 1967 fiasco, but the Israeli counter crossing under General Sharon left Egyptian forces in a critical position by the time U.S. and Soviet intervention produced a ceasefire. Sadat always portrayed the Yom Kippur War as an unqualified victory, calling himself "The Hero of the Crossing."
President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were paying attention at last. Sadat abandoned his Soviet option and risked all on Egyptian alignment with the United States. Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy produced limited Israeli pullbacks in Sinai in 1974 and 1975. Thereafter progress toward a settlement bogged down until Sadat's astonishing visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 to meet Prime Minister Menachem Begin and address the Knesset. President Jimmy Carter's personal diplomacy brought Begin and Sadat together at Camp David in September 1978. They signed two "framework" agreements, one providing for an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty within three months, the other for a five-year transition toward autonomy and Palestinian self-government in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Begin and Sadat signed the final treaty in March 1979, and they shared the Nobel Peace Prize for 1978. The Palestinian part of the agreement remained a dead letter, however, with Begin pursuing hardline policies toward the Palestinians and the other Arab states.
In renaming the United Arab Republic the Arab Republic of Egypt, Sadat signaled his intention to put Egyptian interests ahead of the Pan-Arabism of the Nasser era. Nothing practical became of the Federation of Arab Republics (Egypt, Libya, and Syria), a scheme he had inherited. The impetuous young Gaddafi of Libya, who saw himself as Nasser's true heir, turned hostile and plotted to overthrow Sadat. In July 1977 open warfare flared for a time on the Libyan-Egyptian border.
Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinians saw the Camp David agreement as being made at Arab expense. Other Arab states agreed, and at an Arab League meeting in Baghdad the Arab states decided to withdraw their ambassadors from Egypt, sever political and economic ties, and move the headquarters of the league from Cairo to Tunis. The United States compensated somewhat for the loss of Egypt's Arab ties by massively increasing its aid to Sadat.
The October 1973 war made Sadat his own man in economic policies and domestic politics as well as in foreign affairs. In 1974 he turned sharply toward economic liberalization, in contrast to the statist policies of Nasser. He proclaimed an "open door" economy, hoping it would attract private investment from Western, Arab, and Egyptian businessmen. He returned some of the lands and businesses nationalized under Nasser to their former owners. A new class of free-wheeling entrepreneurs quickly made fortunes in land speculation, luxury apartment construction, and consumer imports.
Sadat's Regime Becomes Controversial
Sadat also planned his political liberalization with American audiences in mind. Abandoning Nasser's singleparty system, he encouraged "left" and "right" splinters to break off from the Arab Socialist Union's "center" in 1976. He made sure, however, that his own center party (called the National Democratic Party since 1978) kept over-whelming control in the People's Assembly. Manipulation of the laws and government harassment kept the Progressive Unionist left, the New Wafd right, and the religious purists from mounting all-out public challenges to the regime.
Even before the signing of the treaty with Israel, the early hopes for the Sadat era were fading inside Egypt. The "open door" had brought in foreign banks, tourism, and luxury imports, and it had encouraged many Egyptians to earn quick fortunes in Egypt's oil-rich Arab neighboring countries. But there was little investment in productive industries. A contractor named Osman Ahmad Osman, whose son had married one of Sadat's daughters, came to symbolize the nepotism and opportunism of the new rich whom the public labeled "fat cats." Student and worker opposition flared into full-scale riots in January 1977 when the government, acting under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, cut back the food subsidies which cushioned poverty for the average Egyptian.
The lifestyle of Sadat and his wife Jihan also aroused concern. Sadat divorced his rustic first wife on emerging from prison in 1948. His new wife, Jihan, was half-British, good looking, and considerably younger than himself. The couple developed a taste for the good life, ordering clothes from Paris designers. Sadat's first wife had followed Middle Eastern custom by remaining in the background, but Jihan enjoyed the limelight. She spoke up for women's rights, visited hospitals, and presided at official ceremonies. Reporters abroad were delighted with the couple's Western manner and their ready accessibility for interviews. Many Egyptians were not.
In his last years the Islamic religious groups which he had at first encouraged to balance off other opponents came back to haunt Sadat. The Muslim Brotherhood and its more radical offshoots deplored the Westernization and corruption of Egyptian public life. They opposed the treaty with Israel. The example of the Iranian revolution of 1979 and their own dismal career prospects also turned educated urban youths to fundamentalist Islamic groups in large numbers. The fears of the Coptic minority mounted simultaneously, and violence between Christians and Muslims broke out on several occasions.
In September 1981 Sadat struck out wildly at his diverse opponents. He arrested hundreds of politicians of all stripes, banned journals, stripped the Coptic Pope of his temporal power over his community, and expelled the Soviet ambassador.
Sadat had lost his political touch. On October 6, 1981, Muslim religious radicals shot him down as he reviewed a military parade commemorating the 1973 war. The shocked West paid tribute to Sadat by dispatching three former U.S. presidents and other prominent statesmen to his funeral. Prime Minister Begin also attended. Egyptians and Arabs reacted differently. The streets of Cairo, which millions of mourners had jammed when Nasser died, remained eerily silent. President Nimeri of the Sudan was the only Arab head of state to attend the funeral. Sadat had left a difficult legacy to his successor, Vice President Hosni Mubarak.
Further Reading on Anwar Sadat
For Sadat's own story, see his Revolt on the Nile (1957) and In Search of Identity: An Autobiography (1978). The first book defers to Nasser, while the second plays up Sadat's own role in the 1952 revolution. Jimmy Carter's Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (1982) discusses his negotiations with Sadat and Israel's Begin. David Hirst and Irene Beeson, Sadat (1981) and Mohamed Heikal, Autumn of Fury: The Assassination of Sadat (1983) provide unfavorable interpretations. P. J. Vatikiotis, Nasser and His Generation (1978) analyzes the generation of army officers to which Nasser and Sadat belonged. My Father and I (1986) by Camelia Sadat provides more intimate glimpses of the personal, as well as political, aspects of his life.