Shortly before his visit to Jerusalem in 1977, then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat said he would go to “the ends of the earth” to obtain peace; as promised, he went on to negotiate the first peace accord Israel would sign with an Arab country. In the American media Sadat was revered as a great leader and a man of peace, but to many Arab leaders he had sold the Palestinians short by abandoning their right to self-determination. At first he was ostracised in the region. Some observers would later hold the treaty responsible for his death.
What led Anwar Sadat, who followed in the footsteps of the great Arab nationalist Gamal Abdul Nasser, to take such a different path to that of his predecessor? As Egyptian journalist Abdullah El-Sinnawi put it: “Sadat almost announced a kind of regional divorce from Arabism.” But this wasn’t always the case. He and Nasser were both senior members of the Free Officers Movement, a clandestine group within the army who overthrew the British-backed monarch King Farouk in 1952 and whose core philosophy was to liberate Egypt from foreign interference. Yet here was Sadat encouraging Egypt to form closer ties with America and Israel.
Born in a poor village in the Nile Delta, one of 13 siblings, Sadat’s father was from Upper Egypt and his mother was Sudanese. He attended the Cairo Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1938 before joining the Egyptian army. He was initially posted in Sudan, where he met Nasser and they formed the Free Officers. When Nasser became president, Sadat took a number of roles within his government, including serving as vice president, and when Nasser died in 1970 Sadat succeeded him to become the third president of Egypt.
Perhaps wanting to carve out his own legacy, Sadat began his departure from Nasserism through “the corrective movement”, launched shortly after he was inaugurated as President. Under this programme he expelled Nasserists from within the government and the political and security establishments (“the corrective movement” was also the phrase that Hafez Al-Assad used to term his own 30-year rule over Syria; Al-Assad became president one year after Sadat). Later in his rule Sadat would extend this crackdown to include leftists, liberals, the Muslim Brotherhood and members of the Christian community.
During this time, Sadat also threw out many Soviets from the country, still bitter from the 1967 Six-Day War when he had asked them many times for assistance but they had refused. Under Nasser, relations with the Soviet Union were strong but, according to a recent Al-Jazeera documentary, “I knew Sadat”, Sadat became “infatuated” with the West and believed that if Egypt were as close to the United States as Israel there would be greater opportunities at home for technology, science and investment. So he looked to leave behind his alliance with the Soviet Union and towards a friendship with the United States.
On 6 October, 1973, Egypt and Syria joined forces in the Yom Kippur War in what would become the fourth of the Arab-Israeli wars and according to Sadat would “restore Egypt’s dignity”. But they were defeated when the United States backed their ally, Israel. Sadat’s involvement made him popular at home, but at the same time it was a huge blow to Egypt’s economy and observers regard Sadat’s desire to move closer to America and make peace with Israel as a strategy to recover Egypt’s failing economy in the aftermath of the war. But Sadat also enjoyed the attention that came with it: as “I knew Sadat” explains, the president loved to be an “actor on the world stage”, and signing a peace agreement with Israel transformed him into an international statesman. In 1975, he was the first Egyptian president to visit the United States.
The peace deal came at a heavy cost for the Palestinians. Negotiations at Camp David secured the return of Sinai to Egypt from Israel, and in exchange Egypt would officially recognise Israel, establish full diplomatic relations and allow Israeli ships to pass through the Suez Canal. For their efforts, Sadat and then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin both earned the Nobel Peace Prize, Sadat as the first Muslim Nobel laureate.
To the Arab world, Sadat was a traitor. Following the Camp David accords Egypt was suspended from the Arab League (of which they were a founding member) and the headquarters were moved from Cairo to Tunis. Despite government-funded celebrations in the street, many were deeply unhappy about Sadat’s decision to sign a peace deal with Israel and for choosing Egypt’s best interests over pan-Arabism. Ironically, this withdrawal of support meant that he relied more and more on the United States for political, economic and military support.
But it wasn’t enough. On 6 October, 1981 Sadat was watching a military parade in Cairo to commemorate the Yom Kippur War when he was assassinated by men wearing military uniforms, described as “militant Islamists”, who threw hand grenades in his direction as he watched the military parade. Upon hearing of his death, former American President Ronald Reagan said: “America has lost a great friend, the world has lost a great statesman, and mankind has lost a champion of peace.” Many Western and Israeli leaders attended his funeral, whilst Arab heads of state were notably absent.