Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1426, (17 - 23 January 2019)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1426, (17 - 23 January 2019)

Ahram Weekly

The centenary of Sadat

It was right to commemorate the centenary of the birth of late president Anwar Al-Sadat and to draw attention to the achievements of this important figure in contemporary history, writes Walid Abdelnasser

The centenary of the birth of late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat that took place some days ago gave rise to some heated discussions and occasionally furious debates. Although this situation might look unexpected to many, it reflected deeper ideological, political, economic and social positions adopted by the parties to the debates on the late president and his overall set of policies, orientations and attitudes.

The occasion provided an important opportunity to assess, in a supposedly objective manner, but also in one reflecting a commitment to Egyptian national interests, the role played by Sadat in public life, particularly in the period when he served as president between 1970 and 1981, and his legacy in Egypt, the Arab world and Middle East, on the African continent, in the Muslim world, and on the global level.

For me, it was wholly legitimate for supporters of the late president to wish to commemorate his centenary, as he was one of the most important figures to influence events in his country and region of the world as well as in contemporary history after the end of World War II. 

Several months earlier, supporters of late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser also celebrated the centenary of his birth on 15 January 1918. This was equally legitimate in the light of his historical legacy nationally, regionally and internationally. Both leaders had important impacts on the movement of history, despite the differences between them and the controversies surrounding their legacies. In 2018, Marxists and supporters of the 19th-century German philosopher Karl Marx celebrated the bicentennial of his birth worldwide. This, too, was only to be expected since he was a figure who changed the course of history.

Regarding the first centenary of the birth of Sadat, he should be given credit for two historic decisions, each of which was a turning point in the history of Egypt, the Middle East, and the wider world. The first was the decision to launch the October War in 1973 to liberate territories occupied in the 1967 War, while the second was the decision to visit Jerusalem in November 1977 that was labelled Sadat’s “Peace Initiative”. 

Sadat assumed responsibility in a courageous manner for these two decisions and their consequences. He reflected a similar courage in choosing the timing of both despite the many surrounding risks. Both decisions have been the subject of continuous discussion and controversy since the day they were implemented, and each has its sympathisers and opponents. Due credit should go to Sadat for both.

Other policies that were controversial during and after the Sadat era included his decision to introduce “controlled” political pluralism in Egypt. Among his supporters and opponents, the debate still persists about whether this decision was based on a genuine desire to modernise the Egyptian political scene and to introduce a qualitative transformation from the formula introduced in 1953 that had replaced the multi-party system with a single political organisation or party, in turn the “Liberation Rally,” the “National Union” and finally the “Arab Socialist Union,” or whether it was part of a package to secure the support of the West, particularly the United States, by adopting an “open door” economic policy, a “controlled” and “limited” democracy, the peace with Israel, and an alliance with the West in the context of the Cold War.

The “open door” economic policy introduced in 1974 in the aftermath of the October War was also controversial. Supporters of Sadat have long argued that such a policy was necessary to reinvigorate the Egyptian economy in the aftermath of the 1967 War. It was needed to help inject new flows of foreign investment and the transfer of technology that would help to modernise the economy and make it more competitive, they say, notably by introducing modern methods of management.

Opponents of the policy have just as consistently argued that it weakened the Egyptian national industries as they faced unfair competition, and that it gave rise to consumerist trends among Egyptians. They say it led to an ever-growing trade deficit and failed to contribute to the expansion of the productive sectors of the economy, leading only to the development of the tourist and real-estate sectors, both of which are notably vulnerable to external shocks. Finally, opponents have tried to argue that the policy led to an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots in Egyptian society.

The last issue that will be addressed here is Sadat’s stand in the Cold War towards the Soviet and the Western blocs. Supporters of the late president have given him the credit for reading the march of history in a strategic manner, even predicting the later fall of communism and taking the decision at just the right moment to end the alliance with the former Soviet Union and move in the direction of alliance-building with the United States and the West. 

However, his opponents have referred to the fact that ending the alliance with the Soviet Union also enhanced Egypt’s dependence on, and hence vulnerability towards, the West, and deprived it of an important source of support, both militarily and economically. They also add that Sadat’s policies contributed to the victory of the Western over the eastern bloc by involving Egypt in Cold War conflicts that it had no national interests in, such as the war in the Shaba (Katanga) region of the former Zaire and the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

I hope these examples have helped to shed light on some of the controversial milestones in the period of rule of late president Sadat. Each of them was, and will continue to be, subject to conflicting views, but it is equally true that each of them led to a lot of fundamental changes inside and outside Egypt, whose ramifications remain with us today and will probably continue in the foreseeable future.

The writer is a commentator.

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