A good moment to recall Egypt’s President Sadat.

Anwar El Sadat, President of Egypt (1970-1981)

 As Egypt, the oldest, largest (79 million people), and arguably most important country in the Middle East, navigates its way through a dangerous, exhilarating week of protest against its 30-year president, Hosni Mubarak, and we in the West ponder nervously what might come should Mubarak go, this is a useful time to remember Anwar el Sadat.

Anwar El Sadat was one of the original circle of army officers that toppled the corrupt monarchy of King Farouk in 1952, establishing modern Egypt and ending British dominance in the country.  He became Egypt’s third president on the death of his mentor, Egypt’s second president, Abdel Gamal Nasser, in 1970.

A graduate of Egypt’s Royal Military Academy, Sadat is remembered in the West primarily for three events that highlighted his term:

  • War with Israel:   On October 6 1973, he ordered Egypt’s army to launch a surprise attack against Israel on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.  Sadat’s army penetrated Israel’s Bar Lev line, crossed the Suez Canal, and penetrated 15 kilometers into the Sinai Peninsula before Israel could launch a counter-strike, itself crossing the Suez to encircle parts of the Egyptian Army.  The result was stalemate, viewed in Egypt as victory, restoring national honor after its defeat in the 1967 Six Day War. 

  • Peace with Israel:  Sadat then made peace.  Late in 1977, he dramatically offered personally to visit Jerusalem to jump-start talks.  The result was the 1978 Camp David Accords, negotiated with Israel’s Menachem Begin with help from US President Jimmy Carter.  Egypt became the first front-line Arab state to sign a treaty with Israel, which has held for over 30 years.  Sadat himself won the Nobel Peace Prize (shared with Begin) for his effort, but was vilified in much of the Arab world and Egypt itself was temporarily expelled from the Arab League;

    Assassination of President Sadat, 1981.
  • Death by Assassination:  Finally, in September 1981, Sadat, warned about growing criticism and conspiracy threats, ordered a crackdown on political enemies. His police rounded up some 1,500 critics: Islamists, Christian clerics, and academics and intellectuals of every stripe.  The next month, on September 6, as Sadat sat reviewing a military parade, a small band of dissident officers attacked with grenades and gunfire, killing Sadat and eleven others.  Two of the assassins were killed on the spot, and over 300 Islamic radicals were indicted to stand trial, including future al-Qaeda co-founder Ayman el-Zawahiri.

It is now thirty years since these events, and during that entire time Egypt has had just one ruler, President Hosni Mubarak.  Uner Mubarak, Egypt has remained stable politically (and cooperative with the US on key foreign policy initiatives) but at the cost of economic stagnation and political repression.  The resulting wide anger against him is visible in the huge protests this week.  All the world wonders – If Mubarak falls, what will follow?

This brings me back to Anwar El Sadat.  Sadat was controversial, loved and hated, and certainly had flaws by any view.  Still, as a leader, be carried himself with dignity,  moderation, and competence.  At home, he instituted pluralist politics and economic reforms, and had the backbone to take bold stands. He expelled Soviet military advisers in order to make his army more independent, then proved its worth in the Yom Kippur War.   Globally, he reached out to all sides, East and West, making his country a top payer on the world stage.

The fact is, over the centuries, Egypt, with its ancient culture, diverse population, and deep-rooted institutions, has produced many capable leaders, and today’s Egyptian army — by all accounts trusted by the people — appears an incubator of new talent.  Hopefully, in days and weeks to come, Egypt will struggle through its current turmoil and emerge a stronger, happier, freer place.  Rather than fear the likely change, we in the West can take confidence that this is the same country that elevated to its top position someone of the caliber of Anwar El Sadat.  Hopefully, there are others waiting in the wings.