In 2011 mass demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt have attracted much attention worldwide, and have apparently sparked similar demonstrations throughout the Middle East. For some, these demonstrations have evoked memories of the late 1970s, when Anwar Sadat, Egypt's Premier shocked the Arab world by instigating a peace process with Egypt's longtime enemy, Israel -- a gesture, which gained worldwide admiration and respect and earned for Sadat the coveted Nobel Peace Prize in 1978.
Recently a McCook matron, who chooses to remain anonymous, shared bits of correspondence that she had with Mr. Sadat following his being awarded the Peace Prize. Mrs. A. very much admired Sadat's courage in bringing about the peace with Israel, and on a whim wrote to the great man to tell him of her admiration. She was very much surprised when Mr. Sadat wrote back, and sent her a silver coin, which had been minted by the Egyptian government, commemorating the peace treaty.
In some ways Anwar Sadat was an unlikely candidate for a high national office, let alone as a broker of peace with the Israelis. He was born in 1918, into a very poor family, one of 13 children, the son of an Egyptian father and a Sudanese mother. Much of his early years were spent with a grandmother, who stirred his imagination with stories of the strong Egyptian leaders of long ago, and contemporary stories of Egyptian heroes who were resisting the British occupation of Egypt.
In childhood, Sadat was greatly influenced by four individuals. 1. Zahran, a leader of an Egyptian farmers' revolt against the British. He was hanged for his efforts. 2. Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish leader who resisted foreign influence to bring about needed social changes in Turkey. 3. Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader who preached nonviolence in resisting social injustice. 4. At the other extreme, he admired Adolph Hitler, who so quickly organized the German army to become a strategic threat to the British in the 1930s.
Sadat graduated from the Royal Military Academy in Cairo in 1938. His first assignment was in Sudan, where he met Gamal Nasser, who was to become Egypt's second President. It was also here that these two, along with other Egyptian officers, formed the "Free Officers Movement," an organization committed to the overthrow of British rule in Egypt. During World War II Sadat was imprisoned for 18 months by the British for his efforts in trying to obtain German help to combat the British in Egypt.
In 1952 Sadat was a member of the Free Officers movement that overthrew Egypt's King Farouk. Gamul Nasser was elected President in 1954, and Sadat went along to fill various important posts in Nasser's Egyptian government, finally becoming Vice President in 1964.
When Nasser died in office in 1970 Sadat succeeded him as President, a position that was thought to be a very short term for the relatively unknown politician. But Sadat confounded his critics by becoming a surprisingly strong and effective leader for Egypt and the Arab world. In 1973 he instigated the "Yom Kippur" war with Israel, by joining forces with Syria in crossing the Suez Canal and invading the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, which had been captured by the Israelis six years earlier. Sadat's forces were forced to pull back, but he had created enough attention that the United States and the United Nations stepped in to bring about a cease fire between the nations.
Sadat was suddenly a hero in the Arab world, being hailed as "The Hero of the Crossing" (Suez Canal). The Israelis recognized Egypt as a formidable foe and treated Sadat with great respect and the two nations signed a cease fire pact.
But Sadat was just getting started. He announced to the Egyptian Parliament that he would go anywhere, and meet with anyone in the cause of peace. On a trip to the U.S. he met with Evangelist Billy Graham, who encouraged him, as did Pope Paul VI, whom he met later that year. He astounded the Arab world in 1977 when he accepted an invitation to address the Israeli Knesset (the first Arab leader to officially visit Israel), and impressed the Israeli statesmen with his ideas for peace between their two nations.
In 1978 American President Jimmy Carter facilitated a series of meetings at Camp David between Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's sixth Prime Minister, Menachem Begin. These meetings resulted in a peace agreement between the two nations, which earned the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for both Sadat and Begin.
In his Nobel acceptance speech President Sadat noted the long awaited peace so desired by both Arabs and Israelis, "Let us put an end to wars...and this call which reflects the will of the Egyptian people...and the great majority of Arab and Israeli people...and the hundreds of millions who will judge to what extent every responsible leader in the Middle East has responded to the hopes of mankind."
The treaty, finalized in 1979, marked the end of war between Egypt and Israel that had existed since 1948, and signaled a mutual recognition between the two countries. Among others things, it called for a withdrawal of Israelis from the Sinai Peninsula, and the free passage of ships through the Suez Canal -- provisions which have generally been in place since.
While Sadat was being hailed as a hero and great statesman throughout the western world, in the Arab and Muslim world it was much different. Where Nasser had been viewed as the leader of the Arab Nationalism movement, now Sadat was considered a "friend of the great Satan -- the U.S.," and a traitor to the "United Arab Front." In 1979 the "Arab League" expelled Egypt from the organization and moved its headquarters from Cairo to Tunis.
At home, the "Peace Dividend" that Sadat had expected from the peace accord did not materialize as quickly as he had hoped, and Sadat's government was plagued by "Bread Riots" and other protests from the people, and continuing economic pressures to the end of Sadat's life. In addition, there were continuing treats of uprisings from factions in the Egyptian Army, which caused Sadat to impose ever stricter laws limiting assembly and free speech.
Though he had purged some 1500 possible conspirators from the Army, there were still members of the Egyptian Army who plotted Sadat's overthrow.
Ironically, in 1981, at a celebration in Cairo commemorating Sadat's (Hero of the Crossing) crossing the Gulf of Suez into the Sinai Peninsula during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Sadat and 11 others (including the Cuban Ambassador) were assassinated by Arab fundamentalists.
Sadat had been President of Egypt for 11 years, and had used those 11 years to bring profound changes to the Middle East. His funeral was truly an event worthy of a Global hero. It was attended by officials from throughout the world, including three former US Presidents (Nixon, Ford, and Carter). Only the Sudanese President, from the Arab world was in attendance.
We can only hope that a leader of Sadat's stature, with the same vision of peace, will emerge from the turmoil in Egypt and throughout the Arab world.
Source: Anwar al Sadat biography; Sadat interview, Omaha World Herald 10/14/81