Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1167, (3 - 9 October 2013)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1167, (3 - 9 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

All about Sadat

A new biography revisits the achievements of late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat, writes David Tresilian

 All about Sadat
All about Sadat
Al-Ahram Weekly

The life of Anwar Al-Sadat, observes his latest biographer, Robert Solé, was like a novel, and, it might be added, a somewhat unlikely one at that. How did a young man of peasant origins who had dreamed of one day becoming an actor manage to play so starring a role not only on the Egyptian stage but also on that of the world as a whole, redirecting his country’s foreign and domestic policies as he did so? The paradoxes of Sadat’s character, Solé writes, gave rise to diametrically opposed reactions, some close to adulation, others to contempt, and he himself hardly helped matters by giving sometimes contradictory accounts of his career and motivation.

“A media superstar in the West,” Solé writes, “Sadat cultivated the image of a man of the people, almost a peasant, in his own country, emphasising his attachment to his country’s traditions.” Living for the first two decades of the July 1952 Revolution in the shadow of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Sadat was “always ready to carry out his orders almost to the point of sycophancy”. Few imagined that Sadat, of all the Free Officers who had originally carried out the 1952 Revolution, would be the one to succeed Nasser, slowly managing to impose his authority and carry out the country’s de-Nasserisation.

Sadat, vice president of Egypt when Nasser died in 1970, became president in the same year, going on to fight the 1973 War against Israel, to re-align his country with the United States and away from the former Soviet Union, and, in the initiative that will be forever associated with his name, to open the negotiations with Israel that resulted in the Camp David Accords in 1978 and the peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Two years later he was dead, dying in a hail of assassins’ bullets as he reviewed a military parade in October 1981. “The rule of Anwar Al-Sadat was not just another episode in Egyptian history,” Solé writes. “The 11 years of his rule counted for a great deal more than the 29 years in power of his successor, Hosni Mubarak, whose role consisted above all of managing Sadat’s legacy.”

Solé was born in Egypt, and he is the author of a string of books in French on the country’s modern history. His fluency in Arabic has meant that he has been able to make use of material that has appeared in that language since Sadat’s death in 1981, along with possibly more familiar French and English-language sources. Writing more than 30 years after Sadat’s assassination, his biography avoids the kind of sharp edges that characterised the work of earlier writers, not least that of the British journalists David Hirst and Irene Beeson whose 1981 biography of the former president is the standard work in English. Solé’s book, less detailed, is fluently written and apparently even-handed. While it does not contain any new discoveries, it effectively presents what is known of Sadat’s life to a new generation of readers.

It starts by reviewing Sadat’s childhood in the village of Mit Abul-Kum in the Egyptian delta, swiftly passing from there to its subject’s early military career and the formation of the Free Officers group that was to be responsible for the 1952 Revolution. As Solé notes, any would-be biographer of Sadat has to negotiate some perhaps unusually slippery ground in writing on these early years, since Sadat himself also many times did so, apparently reinterpreting crucial episodes in order to serve changing political purposes.

One notorious example concerns the so-called Manqabad Oath, made at the Manqabad army garrison in Upper Egypt in 1939 and a foundational moment in the history of the Free Officers. According to the account Sadat gives of this in his 1957 book Revolt on the Nile, written to present the prehistory of the 1952 Revolution, Nasser, a young officer, “imbued us with his faith in Egypt’s destiny. He was the living source at which we refreshed our exalted spirits. He soon became the pole of attraction for a host of ardent followers.” However, by the time that Sadat, now president, came to revisit the episode in the 1970s in his autobiography In Search of Identity, it was he, not Nasser, who was the commanding personality to whom the other officers looked up, and it was he, not Nasser, who founded the Free Officers. Commenting on this variation, Hirst and Beeson say that “the reason why… [Sadat] glorifies himself at Nasser’s expense is simple. This is the posthumous revenge of the servant who becomes the master.” Solé is more diplomatic, suggesting that “in fact there were two secret groups of officers in existence during the Second World War, and Sadat was one of the few to have been a member of both.”

However, the difficulties do not stop there. A second example discussed by Solé concerns Sadat’s actions on the eve of the July 1952 Revolution. In the first version, published in 1957, Sadat was in Rafah on 22 July 1952, and, having received word that action was imminent, took the train to Cairo, arriving in the capital at half past four in the afternoon. Finding no one to meet him, he took his children to the cinema, only later receiving instructions to meet fellow Free Officer Abdel-Hakim Amer at 11. “No sooner had I received the note, than I found myself bounding up the stairs to my room… I put on my uniform, got into my little car, and sped off.” In the second version, published in 1978, it was his wife, and not his children, that he took to the cinema. In the third, published in Jihan Al-Sadat’s 1987 memoir A Woman of Egypt, she met him at the station and the two of them then took a turn on the Pyramids Road, eventually returning from the cinema at midnight.

“Who did Sadat go to the cinema with on 22 July 1952,” asks Solé. “Was it his wife, his children, or his mother and father-in-law? Did he see two or three films one after the other, given that he arrived home so late? And [more importantly] did he get into a quarrel with another member of the audience, causing him…to have an alibi in the event of the failure of the coup?” According to Hirst and Beeson, Nasser did not trust Sadat, who “with his Muslim Brotherhood, and more suspect still, his palace connections, no longer figured among the top 10 conspirators.” He was suspected of being a double agent, or at least of having more than one iron in the fire. Solé again is more circumspect, writing that “even [veteran journalist Mohamed Hassanein] Heikal, his great enemy, said that ‘there was no reason to suppose that the rumours [about Sadat’s hedging his bets] were true.’”

Among the challenges facing the biographer of any Egyptian politician is the fact that Egyptian government papers have not been made available to researchers. Solé has apparently been able to use declassified Israeli government papers, though he does not give details of these, but like other biographers before him he has had to content himself with published sources in reconstructing the momentous events of the 1970s, from the October War to the run up to Camp David. As a result, the chapters of his biography that deal with these events, less detailed than Hirst and Beeson’s account and lacking the sharpness of Sadat’s own version in In Search of Identity, will perhaps be of most use to those not familiar with the earlier published sources.

“Anwar Al-Sadat had one obsession” throughout his presidency, Solé writes, and that was to regain Sinai, occupied by Israel after the 1967 War. Negotiation following the October War, leading to the re-opening of the Suez Canal, had failed to achieve this end, and so Sadat began toying with an idea “that to him was becoming more and more self-evidently the right one — a personal visit to Jerusalem.” As Solé notes, by this point in his presidency things were not necessarily going well for Sadat: there had been important moves in the direction of democratisation following the Corrective Revolution carried out earlier in the decade against Nasserist single-party rule, but inequality and corruption seemed to be growing following economic liberalisation, and attempts made to lift the subsidies on foodstuffs in January 1977 had led to the most important protests against the government in a generation.

What was needed was some major gesture that would allow Sadat to regain the initiative, and, to the world’s astonishment, or consternation, he found one in November 1977 when he flew to Jerusalem to make a speech before the Israeli Knesset. The aim was to “break the psychological barrier” that Sadat believed was frustrating talks between Israel, the Arab states and the Palestinians. However, Solé is hardly alone in thinking that the prospects of a just settlement were probably missing from the start, since while Sadat in his speech emphasised the need for Israel to withdraw from all the territories it had occupied in 1967, including the West Bank and Jerusalem, in his reply the then Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, ruled this out, causing the dream, as Eric Rouleau, Le Monde’s correspondent at the time, put it, “to turn into a nightmare. Begin did not change his position one iota as a result of Sadat’s gesture,” forcing him “to return to Cairo practically empty-handed.” 

Nevertheless, the negotiations continued, and the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was eventually signed in Washington in 1979. Egypt regained Sinai from Israel in a deal guaranteed by the United States, but the treaty “was silent about the future of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza being mentioned only in an exchange of letters between Sadat, Begin and [US president Jimmy] Carter appended to the treaty… In short, it was in truth a separate peace between Egypt and Israel, even if Sadat presented it as a step towards a more general Middle Eastern settlement.”

The consequences of this for Egypt as far as the Arab region was concerned are well-known, all the Arab states bar three (Sudan, Somalia and Oman) breaking off diplomatic relations with Egypt and the country being ejected from the Arab League as well as from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Solé’s view is that Sadat was “disappointed” by Israel’s failure to cooperate in the search for a wider settlement, with this rapidly turning to exasperation as Israel continued its policy of illegal settlement building on the West Bank and in 1980 laid claim to Jerusalem.

It is natural to compare Solé’s view, written earlier this year, to that of Hirst and Beeson in 1981 and Sadat himself in 1978. According to the British authors, “Camp David was the consummation of a bargain that had been implicit in Sadat’s go-it-alone diplomacy from the outset: Israel gives up Sinai in return for retaining the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan… There was no ‘linkage’: the implementation of the treaty, so desirable to Israel, was not contingent upon progress towards a comprehensive peace, so vital for the Arabs.” This is not what Sadat says, who on the last pages of his autobiography writes that the purpose was not “a bilateral agreement on Sinai (which couldn’t solve the problem), but a wider peace, based on justice to all concerned… which includes the restoration of the Arab territories occupied in 1967, and the solution of the Palestinian problem through the establishment of a national Palestinian state.”

Solé refers to Egyptian film director Mohamed Khan’s 2001 film Ayyam Al-Sadat, in which Ahmed Zaki gives a remarkable performance as Sadat in a screenplay based on the latter’s autobiography and on that of Jihan Al-Sadat. The film is sympathetic to Sadat, presenting him as a courageous and visionary statesman. As far as one can tell, it seems that Solé also tends towards this view, remarking at the end of his book that while “up until 1983, Sadat continued to be severely criticised,” posterity has been kinder, some of those who had been among his most virulent critics later reconsidering their views and Mohamed Khan’s film doing much to restore the reputation of the former president.


Robert Sole, Sadate, Paris: Perrin, 2013, pp368.

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