When he became president of Egypt in 1970, Anwar Sadat released a number of Muslim Brotherhood members from jail. He was signalling a shift away from the dictatorship of his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser. He was also repaying a long-standing debt. As a young army officer, Mr. Sadat had himself spent time in jail for plotting against Egypt’s British-dominated regime. While he was imprisoned, the Muslim Brotherhood took care of his family.
The story suggests that Mr. Sadat had qualities of generosity and imagination that merit close attention in this current, viciously polarized phase of Egypt’s history.
In 1970, though, no one was predicting that Mr. Sadat would be anyone’s model for emulation. He was widely regarded as a cipher, Mr. Nasser’s dogsbody. The Central Intelligence Agency believed he would last no longer than six months in office before being shoved aside by a stronger, more determined rival.
Mr. Sadat was more than willing to be underestimated. Born into a peasant family, he never discarded the persona of the simple ibn al-balad (son of the land). It gave cover to a sophisticated politician capable of acting with great daring.
His achievements were remarkable: ridding Egypt of its Soviet presence and aligning the country diplomatically with the United States; replacing Nasserite socialism with the Infitah, the open door to foreign investment; launching a (semi-successful) war against Israel in 1973 and then embracing a peace treaty with the Jewish state.
These achievements were tainted toward the end of his 11-year rule, when he succumbed to the temptations of power and started jailing his opponents. He was, as one commentator whimsically put it, “at the height of his unpopularity” in October, 1981, when jihadists enraged by his treaty with Israel gunned him down at a military parade.
I lived in Egypt from 1984 to 1989, teaching at the American University in Cairo. It was clear to me that Mr. Sadat’s immediate legacy was an ambivalent one. The shock and grief at his assassination were still palpable, but some felt – too harshly in my view – that, at the last, he had revealed himself as just another military dictator, who set the tone for Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime. There was also growing impatience that the promised benefits of the Infitah were such a long time coming.
Ultimately, assessments of his legacy depend on the ideological perspective of the assessor. But my concern here is less with what Mr. Sadat did, and more with how he did it.
The key is to be found in a word that recurs frequently throughout his autobiography, In Search of Identity. The word is politics. The word doesn’t carry positive resonance, as he acknowledged, but he made no apologies for being a politician. “I believe that politics is the art of building up a society wherein the will of God is enacted,” he wrote.
He contrasted politics, with its connotations of give-and-take, with the exercise of arbitrary power, which for Mr. Sadat was not politics but its negation.
His other lesson for posterity was his willingness to transcend the divisions of history and make peace with ancient enemies. The boldest initiative of his career was to travel to Israel and deliver a message of peace to the Knesset. The move carried enormous risks, but it convinced prime minister Menachem Begin of Mr. Sadat’s sincerity and opened the way for the peace treaty between their respective countries.
Politics, not posturing. Compromise, not intransigence. This is Anwar Sadat’s posthumous message. Will it be heeded? Sadly not, I fear, at least while the bogus patriot, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, remains the man in charge.
John Sainsbury is a professor of history at Brock University.