In this article, we shall examine the history of Anwar Sadat as the leader of Egypt. We will discuss his early rise to power, as well as his domestic and foreign policies. Specifically, we shall examine his emphasis of privatization in Egypt internally. We shall also discuss his relationship with the United States and Egypt. As we shall see, Anwar Sadat’s legacy is very different from that of the previous leader of Egypt at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Anwar Sadat and the Free Officers
Anwar Sadat was a member of the Egyptian military, and one of the Free Officers, the group of military officers that overthrew King Faruk in 1952. However following the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat was the net leader of Egypt. Throughout his tenure, Anwar Sadat embarked upon a number of reforms from those of his predecessor, Nasser. As we shall see, he reversed course on both domestic politics (such as the role of the state in Egypt’s economy), as well as his new international relations with countries such as the United States, and Israel.
Sadat’s Foreign Affairs
In order to understand Sadat’s foreign policy, it is important to look at it with the information related to Nasser. Nasser was very adamant about not aligning himself and Egypt with either the United States or the Soviet Union. In addition, he was critical of the Israeli state, and fought them not only in 1948, but also in 1967 June War.
Anwar Sadat felt that the recent war with Israel made Egypt very weak military and in terms of the lack of economic investment in the country. He was worried that concerns about a new conflict could hurt any long-term economic development. Thus, tolls were down from the Suez Canal, and tourism was not providing high revenues; people were worried about visiting Egypt given the tense international relations with Israel (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). In addition, because they were not at war, but also not at peace, millions were continuing to be spent on Egypt’s military, which was greatly harming any chance for economic reform within the country (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).
Thus, Sadat was trying to figure out how to help strengthen ties with countries like the US, as well as finding a way to minimize hostilities with Israel. He believed that by reducing tensions with Israel, that it would help attract economic capital and investments in the country, and it would also help improve ties with the United States. This was something Sadat was looking at, and the United States could surely be of help to Sadat towards his relations with Israel.
And because of this, he tried to find ways to show the United States that he wanted to better Egypt’s relationship with Israel. So, early in his tenure in office, Anwar “Sadat endeavored to generate US participation in breaking the diplomatic stalemate. In July 1972 Sadat abruptly expelled most of the 20,000 members of the Soviet military mission to Egypt. This by no means terminated the Soviet-Egyptian relationship, but it was the first step toward a major realignment of Egypt’s relations with the superpowers” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 370). Sadat wanted to prove to the U.S. that he was serious about removing Soviet influence and going towards the U.S. and its help in negotiations with Israel. While the action did not go completely unnoticed, this was right before the terror attacks against the Israeli team in Munich, which did not help Sadat with regards to his actions making a breakthrough with regards to the United States (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). In addition, others have also pointed out that during that time, Nixon and his team were working on their reelection campaign, which may have taken some attention away from Sadat’s actions. In addition, the United States was still involved in the Vietnam War (Masoud, 2014).
In fact, as scholars have explained, “Sadat believed that Egypt [under Nasser] had picked the wrong superpower patron. Nasser had reluctantly brought Egypt into the Russian camp, and two wars with Israel had convinced Sadat that this had been a bad move” (Masoud, 2014: 454-455). And thus, Sadat attempted to alter Nasser’s course, and this included altering not only his international relations and foreign policies, but also changing domestic institutions in Egypt, new structures that would be better received by the United States (Masoud, 2014).
Sadat believed that since Israel would not negotiate with him while they were in a position of military power–and not seeing him as a serious threat–decided to surprise Israel and attack by attempting to cross the Suez Canal onto the Sinai Peninsula (which Israel took from the 1967 June War against Gamal Abdel Nasser). Thus, on October 6th, 1973, on Yom Kippur, Sadat went into the Sinai, while Syria attacked Israel from its East. Israel responded with its forces, until a cease fire was set up by the United Nations, and agreed upon by Egypt and Israel, in which ended the conflict on October 22nd, 1973 (Masoud, 2014).
Although Israel did re-establish themselves on much of the initial land that Sadat was able to gain back in those first days, scholars argue that this event nonetheless helped Sadat’s reputation in Egypt and in much of the wider Middle East. For one he was viewed as “The Hero Of the Crossing” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013; Masoud, 2014), which helped his popularity.
In addition, this action seems to have gotten Sadat what he hoped for; the attention of Israel, and the United States. From this point, the United States was very active in their relations with Egypt. First, the United States helped establish disengagement agreements between Egypt and Israel, and, along with this, Egypt and the United States re-established their official diplomatic ties (Masoud, 2014: 470). In addition, Nixon was the first U.S. President to go to Egypt since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1943, and the United States navy also helped clean up the Suez Canal following the effects of the war (Masoud, 2014).
Egypt and Israel Peace Treaty
Anwar Sadat, believing that he needed to shore up his relationship with Israel and the United States in order for any longer-term benefits in Egypt, decided that he would reach out to Israel in hopes of improving their international relations with one another. Thus, on November 20th, 1977, Anwar Sadat went to Israel to address the Knesset. Here, he spoke to the Israeli government about his desire for peace with Israel (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).
Following his speech in Jerusalem, United States President Jimmy Carter hosted Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David for peace talks. These discussion were far from easy, despite Sadat’s statements in the Knesset. There were some that were still skeptical of his motivations for reaching out to Israel. In addition, “Sadat and the newly elected Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, had different ideas on what they ought to be discussing. Sadat wanted not only to deal with bilateral Egyptian-Israeli relations but also to get agreement on a comprehensive plan for Middle East peace that would include a resolution of the Palestinian issue. Prime Minister Begin…had no intention of relinquishing Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and therefore sought to confine the discussions to Egyptian-Israeli matters” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 374-375). However, President Carter continued to facilitate discussions between Sadat and Begin. After just under two weeks of perpetual talks, the three leaders came out of Camp David with documents known as the Camp David Accords, which were officially signed by the different leaders on September 17th, 1978.
The Camp David Accords were critical documents outlining a peace deal between Egypt and Israel. As Cleveland & Bunton (2013) explain,
“[t]he Camp David Accords consisted of two major documents. The most straight-foward of them set forth the conditions for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The other, titled “A Framework for Peace in the Middle East,” endorsed UN Resolution 242 as the basis for a durable and comprehensive settlement of the Middle East conflict. In spelling out the future status of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the framework agreement proposed a staged plan for the achievement of Palestinian autonomy over a period of five years. However, the proposal was open-ended and based on assumptions that never materialized. it was also so vaguely worded that it was the subject to different interpretations, and that was exactly what Begin wanted. The framework for peace was a victory for the Israeli prime minister and a defeat for the idea of a Palestinian state. At Camp David, Israel won the right to deal with the occupied territories as it saw fit, even if that was not immediately apparent to Sadat and Carter” (375).
In terms of Sadat’s goals with regards to the United States and outside capital (and aid), it seemed to work. The United States offered Egypt billions of dollars in support, which included helping Israel leave from the Sinai Peninsula, since the peace agreement called for the return of the Sinai to Egypt.
Sadat, having recognized Israel, was seen as an ally to the United States (and Israel), but was outcast by much of the Arab Middle East. Most Arab leaders no longer had official ties with Egypt, and the Arab League headquarters were moved out of Cairo to Tunisia. Furthermore, Arab OPEC members ended oil subsidies to Egypt (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).
Anwar Sadat’s Domestic Politics
As mentioned above, Sadat wanted to ensure that the West was going to accept his outreach towards them. He felt that part of the way that this could be done was to embark on domestic reforms. Thus, in 1971, for example, “Sadat put a new, more liberal constitution in place…and strengthened judicial oversight of the government, particularly as it related to the violation of property rights. The Arab Socialist Union–a totalitarian political party that was the sole legal political organization under Nasser–was slowly dismantled” (Moustafa, 2007); Masoud, 2014: 455). However, the reforms were not limited to the early part of his political tenure. In 1977, he allowed political parties to operate, and, a couple of years later in 1979, following the agreement with Israel, Egypt had its “first multiparty parliamentary elections since the end of the monarchy” (Masoud, 2014: 455).
However, this is not to say that Sadat did not oppress political challengers. For example, “[w]hen Sadat was faced with disagreement over his economic and foreign policies, he responded with the same heavy-handed tactics that Nasser used. For example, a month prior to his October 6th, 1981, assassination at the hands of Islamist extremists, Sadat had arrested more than a thousand of his political opponents from across the political spectrum” (Makram-Ebeid, 1989, in Masoud, 2014: 455).
Anwar Sadat’s Economic Policies
Along with some political reform, Sadat also attempted to alter many of Nasser’s economic projects, which included opening up Egypt for more investment, and related to this, emphasizing increased economic privatization. Sadat believed that the government had gotten to big and inefficient, and that his new economic policies could improve Egypt’s domestic economic situation (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 373). Thus, he implemented a new economic program entitled “al-Infitah” or “the opening” which focused on ways to attract outside foreign capital. Part of this plan was to find ways to get banks to return to invest in Egypt. Sadat tried to do this through economic incentives, and also through ease of work. For example, individuals and companies who were coming to Egypt to work could bring their equipment. In addition, the government had more flexibility with regards to their land holdings, something that was much more controlled under Nasser. Furthermore, many private companies had contracts to work on public projects, which helped them economically (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).
However, despite all of his attempts, Sadat was unable to attract a great deal of outside capital investment to Egypt. And even those that were investing in Egypt “tended to put their money into the purchase or construction of apartment buildings and office towers or into tourist-related ventures such as luxury hotels. They chose those low-risk, nonproductive investments over the uncertain performance of Egyptian industry. [And] [i]n those instances where foreigners sought industry-related investments, there were often frustrated by the cumbersome bureaucracy and the resistance of the entrenched public sector” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 373). Egypt’s international relations were still hurting investment. While ties with Israel were improving, there were still some worried about any potential new conflict in the region. Moreover, Egypt was continuing to spend high amounts of money on weapons from the U.S.S.R., which led to more debt, as well as high inflation in the country (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 373-374).
The Death of Anwar Sadat
There were many opposition groups who were quite critical of Sadat, his international relations, and his domestic politics. Many were upset at what they saw as opulence by Sadat. Unlike Nasser, he was seen as living a lavish lifestyle. In addition, many were upset with his relationship with Israel, and his increased ties and reliance on the United States. And much of the criticism came from the various Islamist groups–the same ones that in the early 1970s, Sadat tried to help in order to counter the rise of leftist groups in the country (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). However, it was on October 6th, 1981, at a parade celebrating Sadat’s Crossing into the Sinai that he was killed by the violent Islamist group al-Jihad (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).
Overall, Sadat is remembered by his increased ties with the United States and Israel, and his attempts to reverse many of Nasser’s domestic nationalization programs. Many in the region still look at Sadat in a negative light when compared to Nasser, given Sadat’s outside relationships, the move away from notions of Arab unity, and attempts at increasing privatization, which some viewed as providing more power to economic and political elites in the country, as opposed to the general populace.
Cleveland, W.L. & Bunton, M. (2013). A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
Makram-Ebeid, M. (1989). Political Opposition in Egypt: Democratic Myth or Reality?” Middle East Journal, pages 423-436.
Masoud, T. (2014). Egypt, Chapter 11, in The Middle East, Thirteenth Edition, Edited by Ellen Lust. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.
Moustafa, T. (2007). The Struggle for Constitutional Power: Law, Politics, and Economic Development in Egypt. New York, New York. Cambridge University Press.