Anwar al-Sadat played a significant part in recent Middle East politics until his death in 1981. Sadat had to follow in the footsteps of Gamal Nasser – a man all but idolised by the Egyptian people. Sadat took Egypt through the Yom Kippur War of 1973 to the start of a diplomatic way to end the crisis within the Middle East – the so-called Sadat Initiative.
Anwar al-Sadat was born in 1918 – he was one of thirteen children. He was born in Mit Abul Kom – a town north of Cairo. Sadat was born into what was considered by the British to be a British colony. Great Britain owned the majority of the shares in the Suez Canal Company. From an early time in his life, Anwar al-Sadat developed anti-colonial beliefs and these were reinforced when the British executed an Egyptian called Zahran for participating in a riot that led to the death of a British army officer.
Anwar al-Sadat was one of the first students at a military school created by the British for the Egyptian people. Here he studied Maths and Science. He was also expected to study a famous battle and Sadat chose the Battle of Gettysburg. When he graduated, he was posted to a remote government base in Egypt. In many senses, this posting was the turning point in Anwar al-Sadat’s life. At this post, he met Gamal Abdel Nasser – thus starting a long association which led to Sadat taking over from Nasser when he died in 1970. Sadat was one of the young officers that Nasser grouped around him that were dedicated to overthrowing the corrupt government of King Farouk, and with it British rule in Egypt.
Sadat’s involvement with this group led to him being sent to prison on two occasions. He was exhausted at the end of his second term in prison and he left the military and returned to civilian life.
On July 23rd, 1952, the Free Officers Organisation staged a coup in Egypt that overthrew the monarchy. Sadat was immediately asked by Nasser to be his public relations minister and Nasser gave Sadat the task of overseeing the abdication of King Farouk.
Nasser dominated Egypt post-1952 and Sadat served as a trusted lieutenant. The one time that Nasser’s position seemed weak was in 1967 when the Egyptian air force was wiped out on the ground and the Israeli army swept through the Sinai Desert to the Suez Canal killing 3,000 Egyptian soldiers. However, Nasser’s support remained strong within Egypt and he remained the unchallenged leader of his country until his death in September 1970. Sadat succeeded him.
Anwar al-Sadat was relatively unknown even in Egypt. He had always had a back seat in Egyptian politics. Therefore, it was incumbent on him to prove himself a worthy successor to Nasser.
From 1970 to 1973, Sadat came across as a bellicose leader, threatening Israel with war. This war came in 1973 with the surprise attack launched by Egypt and Israel in October 1973 – the Yom Kippur War. The initial advances made by the Egyptian military were not built on and the war ended in stalemate. If Egypt had been successful against Israel, it is possible that the people of Egypt would have turned a ‘blind eye’ to the domestic situation that Egypt had got into. This military failure combined with a weak economy led to riots in Egypt and attacks on the rich by the many poor.
After the failure of Yom Kippur, Anwar al-Sadat became convinced that the only way ahead was via diplomatic and peaceful means. He believed that Egypt would greatly benefit from a “peace dividend”. In 1977, Sadat announced to the Egyptian Parliament, that he was prepared to go anywhere to negotiate a peace settlement with the Israelis even to Israel itself – this was the so-called “Sadat Initiative” . Anwar al-Sadat went to Jerusalem and started a process that was to culminate with the talks at Camp David hosted by America’s President Jimmy Carter. For this work, Sadat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Anwar al-Sadat had gone along a potentially dangerous path. Many in Egypt were against his new found relationship not only with Israel and also with America. To counter this, Sadat did what he could to improve the lifestyle of the poor, especially in the overcrowded city of Cairo. He believed that such people were vulnerable to Muslim fundamentalism – but not if they saw the government doing what it could to help them improve their lifestyle. Sadat had a massive task undoing the poverty in Egypt that had existed there for many years. It could not be eradicated overnight. However, time was not on Sadat’s side. On October 6th 1981, Sadat was assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists.