Anwar Sadat’s legacy is worthy of reappraisal

Anwar Sadat’s legacy is worthy of reappraisal

Anwar Sadat’s legacy is worthy of reappraisal
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As a student in the 1970s, my opinion of the late Anwar Sadat was not a positive one. He became president at an extremely tense moment for Egypt following the sudden death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and went on to launch his so-called Corrective Movement, which swept away the trappings of the old regime.

Large sections of society were opposed to Sadat’s policies in general. I was a young man at the time and, like many of the youth of this period, I joined the protests on Jan. 18-19, 1977, against his economic liberalization agenda, which had caused the price of bread and other essentials to spiral.

My convictions about Sadat remained much the same in the years following his assassination by Islamic fundamentalists on Oct. 6, 1981. But I have since grown to recognize his strength of character, his diplomatic prowess, and his success in cementing his name in the annals of history.

My opinion began to change about the late president after meeting his widow, Jehan Sadat, during her first media appearance following his death. Jehan, who herself passed away in July, spoke of her husband’s intelligence, his wit and his heart with great affection, describing his exploits and turbulent life.

Hearing her describe the man I had once viewed through my own narrow ideological lens forced me to reconsider his character, his actions and his legacy.

Soon after taking power in October 1970, Sadat began eliminating his political opponents, through deportation and imprisonment, in a move known as the May 15 Revolution (officially termed the Corrective Movement) to “exorcise Nasser’s ghost” from Egyptian politics.

It was a tumultuous period in which Sadat, who himself had served as Nasser’s vice president, sought to erase an entire epoch of Egyptian history, its symbols, its leading figures and its intellectuals. Top officials were arrested and the powers of the secret police were greatly reduced.

I still believe Sadat’s movement jeopardized the legacy of Nasser, who many loved and admired. But in doing so, Sadat was able to absorb the societal shocks of this transition and went on to rearm Egypt ahead of its 1973 war against Israel.

Here, both Sadat’s supporters and his opponents believe he secured a great victory that erased the humiliating defeat of the 1967 war and which regained the Sinai Peninsula from Israeli occupation.

Although Egypt was ultimately defeated in the 1973 war, the Arab coalition’s early gains shook the confidence of the Israelis and forced them to the negotiating table, kick-starting the Arab-Israeli peace process.

As part of this process, Sadat made a highly symbolic visit to Jerusalem — an act that seemed incomprehensible at the time. Several Arab countries condemned his engagement with the Israelis and saw it as a betrayal of the Palestinians. As a result, Egypt was ejected from the Arab League.

Sadat’s historic meeting with Menachem Begin, the then Israeli prime minister, in Jerusalem was an important stepping stone towards the Camp David Accords of September 1978, which led to the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in Washington in March 1979.

Meanwhile, there was furious opposition to the peace accords within Egypt itself, which was dealt with firmly through imprisonment, expulsions, and dismissals.

In the wider world, however, Sadat was feted for his commitment to peace. He and Begin were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 and US President Jimmy Carter came to consider Sadat a personal friend.

Hearing Jehan Sadat describe the man I had once viewed through my own narrow ideological lens forced me to reconsider his character, his actions and his legacy

Dr. Abdel Latif El-Menawy

Exhausted by war and internal strife, but emboldened politically by the 1973 war, Sadat drove ahead with his economic liberalization agenda, known as the infitah, which opened Egypt up to private investment, reversing the statism and command-economics that had defined the Nasser era.

Saddled with a crumbling and inward-looking economy oriented toward the Soviet Union, Sadat went on to lay the groundwork for Egyptian prosperity. Soviet military advisers were expelled from the country and Cairo made an abrupt strategic pivot away from its long-time allies in Moscow, embracing the Americans instead.

Sadat’s Corrective Movement, his rapid economic reforms, his turn against the Soviets, and his peace effort with Israel made him many enemies both at home and abroad. Bread riots and a failed coup attempt in June 1981 provoked a major crackdown on Egyptian opposition leaders.

Sadat also took the unusual step of encouraging Islamist groups to confront their opponents. This audacity would ultimately cost him his life. On Oct. 6, 1981, he was shot dead by Islamist army officers opposed to the peace process during a military parade in Cairo.

Many politicians, historians, and observers have said Sadat was “avant-garde” or ahead of his time. It is true that he demonstrated great courage, strength, decisiveness, and determination when he planned and executed the surprise attack on Israel in 1973.

He was also well ahead of his time in dealing with the world. To this day, people still remember his historic address to the Israeli Knesset, one of the most eloquent and important speeches in the history of world politics.

Confronting his political opponents at home, however, was risky, costing him much of the popularity he had earned after the 1973 war. But one misadventure that is rarely taken into account is Sadat’s failure to quell the Islamist revival that followed the Nasser period — a failure Egypt continues to pay for to this day.

Sadat remains a controversial figure in the Middle East. Praised as a prophet and cursed as a traitor, neither his death nor the passage of time has resolved the ongoing debate about the man and his legacy.

Indeed, the negotiations he started did not end the Arab-Israeli conflict, nor did they create a prosperous Egypt.

Fortunately, historians are yet to close the book on the legacy of Sadat, who well deserves reflection and review every once in a while with the luxury of hindsight.

• Dr. Abdel Latif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy

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