from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Hero of the Crossing? Anwar Sadat Reconsidered

October 7, 2013

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At 2pm on October 6, 1973, operation codename “Badr” began when two hundred Egyptian aircraft—under the command of General Hosni Mubarak—screamed low over the Suez Canal on their way to Israeli airbases and command and control installations in the Sinai.  Within fifteen minutes of the airstrikes, 4,000 Egyptian soldiers aboard more than 700 rubber dinghies made their way across the Canal along five fronts to assault the Bar-Lev line. By the morning of October 7, the Egyptian military had transferred an astonishing 90,000 men, 895 tanks, and 11,000 vehicles into the Sinai and established five bridgeheads east of the Canal while inflicting heavy losses on the Israel Defense Forces.

A number of Egyptian military miscalculations turned the tide of the war in the ensuing three weeks of fighting, yet by the time the guns fell silent on October 24, the Israelis had been bloodied.  The crossing of the Suez Canal was nothing less than an extraordinary feat of courage, tactics, and technical proficiency.  The very fact that the Egyptian military established a foothold in the Sinai, which was Cairo’s sole objective, altered the strategic balance between Egypt and Israel and ultimately led to the Camp David Accords of September 1978 and the peace treaty the following March. Domestically, the crossing of the Canal had a profound effect on Anwar Sadat’s political fortunes. Although Sadat had established full control of the political system with what he called the Corrective Revolution, his tenure up until October 1973 was shaky at best. The crossing erased all of the opposition and uncertainty surrounding Sadat. Suddenly, he was no longer the prevaricator, second-rate accidental president, but rather batal al ubur or Hero of the Crossing who had healed Egypt’s deep nationalist wounds that the Israelis inflicted in June 1967. That singular event was the well-spring of Anwar Sadat’s legend and, like all myths, the evidence in support of the man’s greatness is more apparent than real.

Before the July 1952 coup that brought the Free Officers to power, Anwar Sadat was less a professional military officer than an itinerant agitator.  That agitation may have been in the service of Egyptian nationalism, but it included a flirtation with Nazism and an embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood.  After the coup, Sadat, who was an original Free Officer, proved himself useful to Gamal Abdel Nasser by dint of his willingness to do or say just about anything.  In 1953, he founded al Gumhuriya, which was a tribune of the new regime and became head of the Islamic Congress, an afterthought companion to the Liberation Rally the Officers established to discipline the political arena.  Sadat then served as a minister without portfolio during which he was one of three judges—despite no legal training—to preside over the Revolutionary Tribunal that meted out punishment to his former allies within the Muslim Brotherhood after the October 1954 assassination attempt on Nasser.

Sadat then held relatively minor positions as deputy speaker of the United Arab Republic’s parliament during the brief and ill-fated union with Syria and subsequently as speaker of Egypt’s own People’s Assembly until he was made Egypt’s vice president in 1969.  There are a number of theories concerning Sadat’s elevation, but none of them have to do with his fitness to succeed Nasser.  Depending on who is to be believed, Nasser gave Sadat the nod either because every other original Free Officer had already served as vice president or because after the 1967 defeat, Nasser needed as much political support as possible and Sadat—despite being a hanging judge in 1954—could deliver the Muslim Brothers.

After becoming president upon Nasser’s death in September 1970, Sadat successfully outmaneuvered the former president’s loyalists, which was a good thing, but de-Nasserization required a rehabilitation of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Under Sadat, the Brothers enjoyed a measure of freedom in the educational, cultural, and social spheres, which had the unfortunate effect of creating the dynamics for Egypt’s primary political pathology  of the ensuing three decades. During this time the Brotherhood was tolerated until it began to acquire too much prestige and political power after which it was repressed, radicalizing the political arena, resulting in further repression.  Yet the use of coercion, intimidation, and violence was not confined to the Brothers or its radical offshoots, but also applied to the regime’s opponents across the political spectrum. As part of undoing Nasser’s legacy, Sadat spoke of the development of a “state of institutions,” which was code for a more open, if not democratic political order.  This amounted to nothing more than a slogan, however.  De-Nasserization also had an economic component, but Sadat’s much vaunted economic infitah (opening) did not establish the institutions of a market economy, but rather concentrates wealth among a relatively small group of players connected to the regime.

On foreign policy, the iconic photo of Sadat, President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in a three-way handshake upon initialing the Egypt-Israel peace treaty sealed the former Egyptian leader’s legacy as a visionary statesman.  Reality is more complicated, however.  Peace is, of course, an unassailable good and it may not matter how Egyptians and Israelis got there, but his efforts toward that end were at least as much a function of Sadat’s deteriorating domestic political standing as they were his vision.  Deadlock with Israel over post-war arrangements in the Sinai and, in particular, the Food Riots of January 1977 weakened the Egyptian leader.

Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in November 1977 bolstered his standing in the West, but only temporarily revived his fortunes at home and weakened him in the Arab world.  Invariably described as “bold,” Sadat’s visit to Israel and tough address to the Knesset was a gamble that he lost.  By going to Jerusalem, Sadat put himself in the unenviable position of needing an agreement more than the Israelis lest he trigger his own political demise.  As a result, Sadat was forced to agree to terms that, although they resulted in an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai—a triumph to be sure—compromised Egypt’s honor, sovereignty, and pan-Arab responsibilities from the perspective of many Egyptians. It turns out that the agreement he got only temporarily stayed the political reckoning that led to Sadat’s assassination on the eighth anniversary of the crossing.

The hagiography of Sadat in the West does a disservice to an extraordinarily interesting, if deeply flawed historical figure.  The martyred Egyptian leader may have done revolutionary things, but these never actually seemed to be his primary goal.  Rather, Sadat’s cause was Sadat.

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