Immediately after he was assassinated in 1981, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was canonized by the Western media. He was portrayed as a brave crusader for peace who had taken bold steps to overcome his people’s alleged resistance to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. By single-handedly flying to the Israeli Knesset and embracing Menachem Begin, he had broken down years of psychological barriers and secured his place in history as a statesman of unblemished stature. Sadat, we have been told, was a man “ahead of his time” whose bold vision was overcome by the fanaticism of the “extremists” who cut him down in his prime.
But how accurate is this picture? Not very much, in the opinion of this writer. While Sadat was not an evil man, his personality and character blinded him to certain realities of power politics. These character flaws were mercilessly exposed in Mohamed Heikal’s Autumn of Fury: The Assassination of Sadat. I read Heikal’s book many years ago and, for some reason, was induced to buy it again recently and give it a thorough reread. Sadly–perhaps not unintentionally–the book is out of print; but if you can secure a used copy, it is required reading for students of Mid-East affairs. As the 1970s and 1980s recede more and more into the background, it becomes especially important for a new generation to keep itself informed about what happened in this period.
For those who don’t recognize his name, Heikal was long considered the Arab world’s preeminent journalist. As the editor of Egypt’s Al Ahram newspaper, and as the personal confidant of president Gamal abd al-Nasser, he exerted a powerful influence from the 1960s until his death in 2016. He was once close to Anwar Sadat as well, until the two had a falling-out in the mid-1970s; Sadat even had him jailed for a couple of months in one his security crackdowns in the early 1980s. Heikal was not a man to pull punches; he was even making waves towards the very end of his life in 2007 when he generated a storm of criticism for finding fault with Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak, of course, was overthrown by a popular revolt a few years later.
Heikal methodically paints an unflattering picture of Sadat a man characterized by submissiveness, laziness, and impulsiveness. Coming up in the shadow of Nasser, he never carved out a separate identity for himself, preferring to stand in the shadows and watch developments. Fundamentally lazy, he never liked to wrestle with problems in the same way Nasser would; Heikal notes that Sadat almost never spent any time reading at his desk. While Nasser consumed reports, newspapers, and periodicals, Sadat went out of his way to avoid dwelling on the necessary details of complex problems. When Sadat first arrived on the political scene in the wake of Nasser’s death, observers around the world generally had a low opinion of him. He was said to be sensitive (to the point of fixation) about his dark skin, and was frequently given to bombastic statements. Yet he could be calculating and opportunistic, as his conduct before, during, and after the October War of 1973 would prove.
The Egypt that Sadat inherited in the early 1970s was a country that had suffered a shattering defeat in the 1967 war against Israel. Syria, Egypt, and Jordan had been hammered by Israel and had lost huge amounts of territory: Egypt had lost the Sinai, Jordan the West Bank, and Syria the Golan Heights. Sadat knew that his nation’s pride was at stake; he had to do something to expunge the stain of 1967, and it had to be done quickly. For a long time he tried to get the attention of the Americans: he expelled Egypt’s Russians advisors, he sent out peace feelers, and he communicated in every way possible to Henry Kissinger that he was ready to make a deal. But the problem was that no one was listening. One can only negotiate from a position of strength, and Sadat was holding no cards at all. Israeli prime minister Golda Meir saw him as an erratic clown and had no reason to grant him any concessions. In fact, Israel had already begun building settlements in the Sinai.
Sadat determined that war was the only way to “jump-start” the peace process. No one was going to take him, or the Arab position, seriously unless some kind of battlefield victory could be delivered. So he began to woo Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and craft a joint plan for offensive war to retake the territories lost in 1967. But from the beginning, Sadat was not honest with his counterpart; he led the Syrians to believe that he was committed both to crossing the Suez Canal and advancing through the Sinai. Sadat assured his Syrian counterpart that he would be fighting by his side from beginning to the bitter end. In fact, this was not his intention at all. He believed his own objectives could be reached simply by crossing the canal and then digging in a few kilometers on the other side. Unwilling to advance deep into the Sinai outside the range of his air defenses (and expose his tank columns to enemy air power), he convinced himself that he only had to win back a few centimeters of ground on the other side of the Suez in order to generate the momentum needed for a peace conference. In his mind, one big dramatic gesture would solve his problems.
His position was perhaps not an unreasonable one, but the problem was that he deliberately fed false war plans to the Syrians. To deceive an ally in time of national peril was callous in the extreme. Assad had been assured that, once Egyptian armor crossed the Suez, it would advance through the Sinai; and this it did not do. When the October War broke out, both Egypt and Syria made modest advances on the ground. When the Egyptians stopped and dug in after crossing the canal, Assad was at first perplexed, then furious. As Egypt essentially pulled itself out of the fight, Syria was exposed to the full force of the Israeli military; its modest gains on the Golan were reversed quickly, and soon it was on the defensive. Assad would later tell British writer Patrick Seale that, after one of their wartime conferences made him realize what Sadat was doing, he seriously considered having Sadat arrested and taken into custody.
But it was what happened after the war that would doom Sadat. He immediately rushed to accept Kissinger’s “peace” initiatives, announcing to the world that Egypt “had fought its last war” with Israel. He flew to the Knesset and embraced an enemy that had proven to be neither magnanimous nor gracious in victory, and one that harbored barely-concealed expansionist goals. What was the price for peace? Essentially, Sadat was told he would be able to recover the Sinai as long as he turned his country into a US client state and made a separate peace with Israel at the expense of the other Arab states. Once Egypt–the most militarily powerful Arab state–was removed from the balance of power equation, the remaining Arab states bordering Israel would be left to face the full force of the Israeli military machine.
All his life, Sadat was addicted to grand, dramatic gestures. He believed that his unilateral opting-out of the Arab-Israeli conflict would win him reciprocal goodwill and concessions on the other side. These hopes proved to be illusory. In return for getting back the Sinai, he had to turn his country into an American client state; the nation that had led the Arab world under Nasser now became more isolated than ever from it. What was it all for? The Camp David Accords, which were supposed to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive peace in the region, did nothing of the kind. Menachem Begin interpreted the treaty to mean that he could have a free hand in building settlements in the West Bank; as he saw it, he had given up the Sinai to be allowed to keep the West Bank. Indeed, the Israeli leadership of this period did not even recognize the Palestinians as a people with a legitimate identity.
Sadat failed to understand that a comprehensive, lasting peace could only come when all of the Arab states pursued their objectives as a unified front in concert. As was inevitable, the Camp David Accords unleashed a tidal wave of conflict in the region. By removing Egypt from its security concerns and demilitarizing its southern border, Israel could focus its energies on invading Lebanon (which it did in 1978 and 1982) and continuing its creeping annexation of the West Bank. As Assad in Syria saw it, it would have been better to make no peace at all under such conditions; far better would it have been to keep the enemy under continuous, united military pressure until a more favorable time for peace arrived. But Assad was a patient man, and Sadat was not. As Heikal says,
Part of the trouble was Sadat’s own character. He had never had the education–or, indeed, the time–to give serious considerations to the problems that were going to confront him. He had no real understanding of Egyptian history. After a miserable childhood he had spent his adolescence and early manhood in underground adventures, and, once learned, conspiratorial habits are hard to shake off. He enjoyed the trappings of supreme power without appreciating the responsibilities which go with it. Nor did he understand the true nature of Egypt’s relations with the rest of the Arab world. He saw that Egypt was a natural leader among the Arabs, but assumed that wherever she led the others would follow. The subtleties of leadership, the inevitable give-and-take demanded of it, completely eluded him.
This really was the heart of the problem. What Sadat really wanted was the adulation of the masses, to ride in an open car through the streets amid the frenzied cheers of the crowd. Sadat’s “peace” deal–what Heikal calls Sadat’s “last strip tease” all came down to vanity and delusion masquerading as sound foreign policy. In Damascus’s view, it was essential to maintain some kind of military pressure on Israel; only in this way would it make meaningful concessions that would to a permanent peace. Egypt’s unilateral withdrawal from the fight would enable Israel to pursue a policy of divide-and-conquer with respect to its other neighbors. Time would eventually prove Assad’s position to have been the correct one, at least from the perspective of keeping the peace through a balance of power.
In fairness it should be said that these views are not shared by all: a case could be made that Sadat did what was best for his country and did, after all, succeed in getting the Sinai back. I remain convinced, however, that Sadat was wrong to make a separate peace at Camp David. Real peace is only secured through a balance of power among belligerent nations; and when one of these acquires too much power (as in the case of Israel after Camp David) in relation to its neighbors, then conflict is the inevitable result. He should have carried on with the War of Attrition until circumstances favored a peace settlement.
In domestic affairs, Sadat isolated himself more and more in a protective bubble of delusion. Egypt’s isolation from the other Arab states in the wake of Camp David fed the growth of the militant opposition inside his country. His response was to clamp down and arrest thousands; when this failed to work, he arrested even more. Such measures cannot be pursued indefinitely; and as 1980 arrived even people in the Western media were openly comparing him with the Shah of Iran. When assassins finally came for him in October 1981, he would be neither missed nor mourned by his countrymen.