What the murder of Anwar Sadat 40 years ago meant for the Middle East

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Forty years ago, on October 6, 1981, the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was murdered by Islamist terrorists in Cairo. I was then an Egyptian analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and had just published an internal paper on the prospect of a succession in the event of Sadat’s murder, which I thought likely given the strong rejection of his unilateral peace agreement with Israel. Sadat’s death prepared the catastrophic road to the 1982 war in Lebanon, the establishment of Hezbollah and the seeds of al-Qaeda.

Every October, Sadat celebrated the anniversary of the beginning of the Ramadan War (or Yom Kippur War) and relived the day – October 6, 1973 – when Egyptian soldiers crossed the Suez Canal. He was “the hero of the crossing”. Before that he was the right hand man of Gamal Abdel Nasser. He and Nasser had led Egypt into a catastrophic war in Yemen in the 1960s, a swamp that Cairo was bogged down in when it fell into the disaster of war with Israel in 1967. In 1973 Sadat and the Egyptian military had redeemed both themselves and Egypt.

He was an unpredictable leader, deliberate and thoughtful. His famous 1977 speech offer to visit Jerusalem was dismissed as rhetorical talk by the CIA in the President’s Daily Letter the next morning; a week later Sadat was in Jerusalem. At Camp David, with the outstanding support of US President Jimmy Carter, he made peace with Israel. But for most Arabs he had betrayed the Palestinian cause at the Maryland summit and was considered a traitor and outcast in 1981.

My paper predicted a smooth and hassle-free transition to Hosni Mubarak, then Vice President, and that is exactly what happened. The new director of the CIA, Bill Casey, had it reprinted and distributed across Washington to draw attention to the CIA’s predictive analysis. He wanted to divert attention from the fact that the agency was in charge of training Sadat’s bodyguards.

A few weeks later, Israel’s then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon asked his military intelligence experts how Mubarak would react to an invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli army aimed at destroying the Palestinian Liberation Organization and driving the Syrian army out of northern Lebanon. Your answer was, as I have already written, that Mubarak would do little or nothing. Sadat would have reacted differently, they found, probably terminating the peace treaty to improve his reputation. He was sure that he would respond energetically to an invasion that many believed possible only because he had removed the threat of war from Egypt.

Backed up by the intelligence assessment, Sharon began the catastrophic invasion in June 1982 that resulted in the September massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila, the suicide attack on the U.S. embassy in April 1983 that killed 63 people, including seven CIA officers , and the October 1983 bombing of the naval barracks at Beirut Airport, killing 241 Marines, sailors and soldiers. The invasion also led to the establishment of Hezbollah by Iran, which drove the Israelis even from the southernmost part of Lebanon in 2000. President Ronald Reagan withdrew the Marines after the naval barracks were bombed, and Syria and Iran were triumphant.

In the description of his former foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, Mubarak was a “stabilizer” who “perhaps shied away from major political plans because of his experiences with Sadat”. He was passive during Operation Peace for Galilee.

A well-known Egyptian doctor named Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was arrested by the police after Sadat’s murder, stood on the brink of the attack in 1981. Because of his language skills and his demeanor, Zawahiri became the spokesman for the conspirators in the prison. Released for lack of evidence, Zawahiri has since been on the run.

As the deputy and later successor of Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri has been the leading ideologue of al-Qaeda since he was born. He articulated his aim in destroying America’s will to support Israel. He was also the focus of the triple agent conspiracy that killed seven CIA officers and a Jordanian in 2009 in Khost, Afghanistan. He showed up last month with an audio tape celebrating a new book in time for the 20th anniversary of September 11th. It is certain that sooner or later he will be back in Kabul.


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