Peace remains elusive 40 years on from Sadat’s assassination

Peace remains elusive 40 years on from Sadat’s assassination

Peace remains elusive 40 years on from Sadat’s assassination
Anwar Sadat shakes hands with Menachem Begin, after his speech to the Knesset, in 1977. (Getty Images)
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Anwar Sadat surprised the world and even some of his closest advisers on Nov. 19, 1977, when he made a historic trip to Jerusalem. He was the first Arab leader to make an official visit to Israel with an offer of peace. It was a courageous and spectacular move that led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty at Camp David one year later, but would ultimately cost him his life. He was assassinated four years later, on Oct. 6, 1981, by a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad during a military parade commemorating Egypt’s crossing of the Suez Canal at the start of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
There are several threads to the story, two of which are relevant. One is that Sadat had diverged from the policies of his predecessor, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and had embarked on a major realignment, which he called “Infitah,” or “opening up the country,” away from the alliance with the Soviet Union and more toward the US and the West. This brought him into collision with the Nasserists, who saw him as betraying the legacy of Nasser and of pan-Arabism in favor of a more isolationist Egyptian nationalism.


The second thread in the story is Sadat’s rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood — he released their members from prisons, allowed the exiles to return, and gave them some limited freedoms to have publications and carry out political activities. This may have been part of a vision to liberalize and have a multi-party system in the country, but he also used the Brotherhood as a counterbalance to the Nasserists, who were his real opponents. The result was that they also managed to infiltrate various institutions of government, including the army, which is how the assassins were able to be part of that parade.
The Egyptian Islamic Jihad was at the more extreme end of the spectrum of Islamist movements and aimed at overthrowing the system and taking over the state, turning Egypt into an Islamic emirate much like what now exists in Iran or Afghanistan. The leader of the group and its chief strategist at the time of the assassination was Aboud Al-Zumar, while his deputy, who later succeeded him as emir of the movement, was none other than Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who spent the rest of the 1980s with Osama bin Laden, having joined the mujahedin in Afghanistan to fight the Russians with the help of the US, and who later helped found Al-Qaeda, leading to the 9/11 attacks in New York.
Forty years after Sadat’s assassination, Al-Zawahiri is still part of the scene. He took over the leadership of Al-Qaeda after Bin Laden was killed in 2011. The region is still torn between two camps: One is working toward peace, with the Abraham Accords with Israel being part of that, and the other being the “resistance axis,” with an agenda of perpetual war.


The assassination of Sadat was aimed at killing the peace; and it was conducted by extremists from within Egypt. Historically, there are many precedents of peacemakers suffering a similar fate at the hands of enemies within.

  • In 17th-century France, Henry IV, also known as “Good King Henry,” was stabbed to death by a Catholic fanatic for being too moderate and for issuing the Edict of Nantes, which granted large measures of religious liberty to his Protestant subjects.

Mahatma Gandhi was also assassinated, in January 1948, by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist, for being too accommodating to the Muslims of India during the partition of the country.
In Israel itself, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot dead on Nov. 4, 1995, by an Israeli ultranationalist who was radically opposed to the Oslo Accords. This was a huge blow, from which the peace camp in Israel has never recovered.
If killing the peacemakers kills the peace, killing the warmongers has the opposite effect. By definition, war is driven by a culture that glorifies death. The killing of Qassem Soleimani, for example, consolidated the war camp and gave it a boost by turning him into a martyr. What better gift to those who want war than to give them war?

If killing the peacemakers kills the peace, killing the warmongers has the opposite effect.

Nadim Shehadi

History is yet to judge whether President Ashraf Ghani is a hero or a traitor for leaving Afghanistan without a fight. Opinions among Afghans are divided on the subject. He described it as the most difficult decision of his life and tweeted that he had no choice but to leave to avoid violence. He was chastised by many, including US President Joe Biden and many in the US military, who seemed disappointed that the country did not sink into a bloody civil war after America’s withdrawal.
If Ghani’s choice was between personal humiliation by appearing to flee on the one hand and condemning the country to at least another decade of bloody civil war on the other, then he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for avoiding the latter. Maybe the lesson from that and from the Sadat assassination is that violence and peace are incompatible, and that war can only lead to more war.

  • Nadim Shehadi is executive director of the LAU Headquarters and Academic Center in New York and an associate fellow of Chatham House in London. Twitter: @Confusezeus

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