from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Sadat’s Legacy and Egypt Today

November 18, 2011

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Late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat seen announcing to the Egyptian parliament his venture to visit Israel, Egypt's enemy at the time, on November 9, 1977. Pledging to go to the end of the world in search of peace, Sadat boarded a plane to Israel on November 19, 1977 to shake hands with his foes after four devastating Arab-Israeli wars (Courtesy Reuters).

This Sunday, November 20, marks the thirty-fourth anniversary of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel and address to the Knesset. The visit, the first of any Arab leader to the Jewish state, paved the way for the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

Sadat’s taboo-breaking act resulted in Egypt’s expulsion from the Arab League. Until this year, it had been the only instance of the pan-Arab organization expelling one of its members. Egypt’s membership was reinstated in 1989 and its treaty with Israel remains intact.

Yet Sadat’s peacemaking with Israel was just one notable aspect of his eleven years as Egypt’s president. Sadat had earlier launched the October War in 1973 against Israel with a surprise attack on Yom Kippur. Though the war ended with Israel’s encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army, the crossing and capture of the Suez Canal early in the battle served to heal the wounds of the 1967 humiliation and restore pride to Egypt and its military.

During his reign, Sadat moved Egypt sharply away from a number of policies adopted by his legendary predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sadat dramatically reoriented Egypt’s foreign policy away from the Soviet Union and toward the United States. This realignment with the West reflected Sadat’s decision to prioritize Egypt’s national interests over broader pan-Arab considerations and to concentrate on forging a more distinctive Egyptian national identity. This shift, along with the peace treaty with Israel, remains a cornerstone of Egypt’s foreign policy to this day.

In the economic sphere, Sadat pursued equally bold liberalization policies, known as the Infitah, or openness, designed to open up Egyptian markets to foreign capital. His move toward capitalism aimed at developing a strong private sector and bringing prosperity to Egypt. However, the majority of Egyptians found themselves increasingly disadvantaged by these policies, while a small coterie of regime friends grew richer.

In another move away from Nasser’s policies, Sadat sought to use Islam to gain political and popular support. Not only did he invite Islamist parties, banned under Nasser’s rule, back into Egyptian political life, but he oversaw the addition of a clause to the 1971 constitution that established the principles of sharia as a major source of legislation.

Like much in Egypt today, there is little consensus over Sadat’s legacy. Even the reason for Sadat’s assassination is a point of debate. MEM reader Paul Martin commented on my previous blog post about the future of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, challenging the conventional view that Sadat’s peacemaking with Israel brought about his assassination. Martin, a BBC and NPR reporter at the time of Sadat’s killing, argues that “the prime motivation for the assassination was revenge for Sadat’s clamp-down on Muslim fundamentalist opponents,” not the peace treaty with Israel. Other Egyptians share this view. Still other experts support my previously-held belief that it was Sadat’s peace with Israel that mobilized his killers. Somewhere in between, Mohammed Kamal, a Cairo University professor, has suggested that Sadat was assassinated not so much for going to Jerusalem but for his broader reorientation toward the West. Fundamentalists, Kamal says, "had a different vision of Egypt."

As Egypt moves to consolidate its revolution, Egyptian historians will no doubt be reexamining their country’s history. New documents will be sought, and new interpretations of the past will be produced. Their assessment of Sadat’s legacy will be one of the most contested topics of inquiry. Sunday’s anniversary of Sadat’s historic journey may add further impetus for this examination.

What are your thoughts? What were the most important aspects of Sadat’s legacy? I’d be interested to hear from you.

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