Egyptians have hardly noticed as the 30th anniversary of Anwar Sadat’s death approached this week. It isn’t only because they’re too busy with ongoing political protests and labor strikes as the country zigzags toward democratic elections.
They just don’t care.
To the young people who made the January 25 “revolution” in Tahrir Square, Sadat is a figure from a distant past. If they think of him at all, many are quick to curse him for making peace with Israel. There is little regret or grief over his assassination by Islamic extremists at a military parade in a Cairo suburb on Oct. 6, 1981.
And yet, Sadat was a remarkable warrior-statesman. As Egypt’s vice president in 1970, he became president upon the sudden death of Egyptian icon Gamal Abdel Nasser. The country was still reeling from its humiliating defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War three years earlier. Sadat increased Egypt’s ties with the U.S. and unceremoniously expelled Soviet military advisors in 1972. Then he put together the brilliant plan that led to the surprise Egyptian-Syrian attack on Israel in 1973 — the October War to Egyptians and the Yom Kippur War to Israelis.
That attack, as Sadat intended, restored Egyptian pride and shattered the Middle East stalemate. Four years later, he undertook the single most extraordinary diplomatic gesture in the region’s modern history, when he flew to Israel and told the Knesset: “We really and truly welcome you to live among us in peace and security.”
Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize, after President Carter skillfully negotiated the Camp David Accords. With the formal peace treaty the following year, Sadat secured the end of Israel’s occupation of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, removing Egypt from the circle of conflict in the Middle East and enabling Egyptians to focus on building their country.
Over the years, Egyptians have formed a greater appreciation for Sadat’s political maneuvering. “Sadat 30 Years Later: Smart or Crazy?” asks the headline on the cover of the Egyptian newsmagazine Rose al-Youssef this week. Most of the articles inside agree: Sadat was a clever politician.
Sadat, like Soviet chief Mikhail Gorbachev and white South African President Frederik W. De Klerk later, was a leader who saw the handwriting on the wall and bravely changed history. He broke the taboo against recognizing Zionism and the state of Israel and positioned the entire Arab world to end a destructive era of hostility and conflict. By 2002, the Arab League, which had expelled Egypt 23 years earlier because of the peace treaty, had voted unanimously on a plan offering Israel full peace in exchange for Israel’s full withdrawal from lands still occupied from the 1967 war.
What keeps Sadat from being the hero to Egyptians that he is to much of the rest of the world is that the peace he made with Israel was not a wholly honorable one. His separate deal left Palestinians out in the cold — with the most populous Arab country out of the military calculus, Israel expanded West Bank settlements, pursued the annexation of Arab East Jerusalem and variously rejected or delayed Palestinian self-determination. That pattern, which has largely continued for the last three decades, vexed Sadat as well as, on occasion, U.S. presidents from Carter and George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
It is likely that the new generation of Egyptians, feeling empowered to fight injustice and indignity, will not be as complacent. Egyptian democracy will produce a foreign policy that is far more responsive to public sentiment — a sentiment that is turning increasingly against Israel and the peace treaty.
Signs of fraying relations have multiplied since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, Sadat’s successor, eight months ago: An Egyptian mob stormed the Israeli Embassy, forcing diplomats to flee the country; saboteurs have repeatedly bombed a Sinai pipeline carrying natural gas to Israel; and Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf recently declared that the peace treaty with Israel was “not sacred” and is subject to modification. If Israel were to launch a military attack in the region similar to the ones in Lebanon in 2006 and the Gaza Strip in 2008, it is easy to imagine Tahrir Square swelling with angry anti-Israeli protesters — and similar scenes in other Arab capitals and cities.
The times cry out for statesmen of Sadat’s vision and courage. After a burst of peacemaking determination President Obama met resistance from hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and retreated. Egypt’s next president, meanwhile, will face the difficult challenge of maintaining a long-standing treaty with Israel — and the peace, international respect and U.S. economic and military aid that go with it — while popular opinion rises against Israeli policies.
Ultimately, Israel’s choices will heavily determine the prospects for peace. Until a future Israeli government unreservedly accepts the Palestinian aspiration to independence and negotiates in good faith toward the creation of a viable Palestinian state, Sadat’s historic quest for a Middle East settlement will remain tragically elusive.
By Scott MacLeod, a professor at American University in Cairo and managing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. He was Time magazine’s Middle East correspondent from 1995 to 2010.