Autumn of Fury: The Assassination of Sadat
During the few moments that passed between the murder of Sadat and the seizure of his murderers, the leader of the four assassins shouted some words that were repeated all over Egypt during the days that followed. According to reports, he cried out: “My name is Khalid al-Islambuli. I have killed Pharaoh. I am not afraid to die.”
Of this tripartite declaration, the most significant part is certainly the second. Its meaning is clear—that he had killed a tyrant. The choice of Pharaoh as the prototype of tyranny conveys a religious perception of the offense, the judgment, and the punishment executed.
To anyone brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and with even a minimal acquaintance with the Book of Exodus, the naming of Pharaoh as a paradigm of the evil ruler seems obvious enough. But Sadat’s murderers were neither Jews nor Christians. They were Muslims, and moreover Egyptians. The Old Testament had not formed part of their education, and in modern times they had been taught at school to regard Pharaoh as a symbol of the greatest and most glorious age of Egypt’s past, a source of national pride rather than an oppressor of God’s servants.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, in Egypt as in other Muslim lands, Pharaoh was known only from the Koran, which presents the Exodus in terms broadly similar to those of the Old Testament. In the Koran, Pharaoh is the villain of a story in which Moses and the children of Israel are the heroes, and in several passages Pharaoh appears as the ultimate example of the irreligious and oppressive ruler whom it is the believer’s duty to disobey and if possible to overthrow. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, as the achievements of the European science of Egyptology made the language, literature, and history of pre-Islamic Egypt known for the first time to the Muslim Egyptians, a new sense of identity began to transform their perceptions of themselves, their country, and their place in the world. Their sense of themselves became patriotic and national rather than religious and communal, and they formulated new and different views of the past and hopes for the future.
The resulting tensions and contradictions are at the heart of the problems of political life in Egypt today and, in similar forms, in the other countries of the Arab world. This very use of the term “Pharaoh” encapsulates a central dilemma of modern Arab nationhood. In one significant respect the two images of Pharaoh—the Egyptian hero and the Islamic villain—coincide. No one could accuse him of being “soft on Israel.” And this has at times raised troubling questions.
Why was Sadat killed? The immediate response of the Western world, better informed, or rather more extensively informed, about the international than about the internal affairs of the region, found a characteristic answer—simple, clear, and misleading. Everyone had always known that the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel would be murdered by his own people. Sadat had made peace, and Sadat had duly been murdered. What could be more obvious? The overwhelming enthusiasm with which the Egyptian masses had responded to Sadat’s peace moves, and the existence of some other grievances against him, were conveniently overlooked. Since then, this oversimplified explanation has been abandoned by most serious students of the region. Even Mohamed Heikal, despite his consistent and unconcealed hostility to the peace with Israel, does not insult readers of his new book by offering it to them as the sole reason. In addition to his condemnation of the peace, he puts forward a series of criticisms of the man, his polices, and above all his personality, which in his view led to the murder and—far more striking—to the lack of grief or even surprise that it occasioned.
During the period of relaxation of central control and repression that followed the death of Nasser and his replacement by Sadat, two major opposition groups appeared in Egypt. Forced underground and subjected to severe repression in Nasser’s day, they came to the surface under Sadat, and—despite some difficulties in Sadat’s last years—remain active to the present. One of them expresses its criticism of the old order, and its aspiration for change, in Islamic religious terms. Its exponents belong to various wings of the militant Islamic resurgence which, in the English-speaking countries, has come to be known as “fundamentalist,” a term from the history of American Protestantism which is at best a loose analogy and can be seriously misleading when applied to something as different as these Islamic movements.
The other opposition group is known, by an equally inaccurate transference of a term derived from another history and another culture, as “leftist.” The two forms of opposition overlap at some points—for example in their denunciation of the freewheeling capitalist enterprise favored by Sadat, of Egypt’s closer relationship with the United States, and of the peace with Israel. But they differ vastly in the relative emphasis that they give to these and other matters, in the reasons for opposing them, and, most important of all, in the remedies they propose.
Of the two kinds of opposition, that of the “leftists” is by far the better known in the Western world. Many of its leaders are Western educated, and can address a Western audience not only in its own language but also by appealing to its own values, or at least rhetoric. In fact, it is to these “leftist” circles that most Western academic and journalistic inquirers turn for enlightenment on Egyptian affairs. One of the most enlightening informants—if not on Egypt, then at least on the outward aspect of Egyptian leftism—is Dr. Mohamed Heikal, editor of the great national newspaper Al-Ahram under Nasser and in the early years of Sadat, and author of a series of books that were translated into many Western languages. The leftist school is anti-Western and particularly anti-American, and its exponents have acquired considerable skill in detecting, and even directing, the Western taste for self-criticism. They are also anticapitalist and prosocialist, though the socialism of Nasser to which they look back nostalgically probably owes less to either the communism of Eastern Europe or the social democracy of Western Europe than to the bureaucracies of the Pharaohs, the Ptolemies, and the Ottoman Pashas who directed the economic life of Egypt over the past millennia by means of the state apparatus. The leftist school is also opposed to the Camp David agreements and more generally to Israel and Zionism. In its Arabic though not in its Western-language publications, it sometimes goes still further and uses arguments and makes points that are unmistakably anti-Semitic.
The religious, more specifically Islamic, opposition is little known in the West, because it has made no attempt to address itself to a Western public and feels no need to seek any kind of Western support or approval. Its views can be found only in the publications, many of them illegal, of its leaders, and by some occasional windfall such as the reports of the long interrogation of Sadat’s murderers. But despite its lack of exposure in the Western press, there can be little doubt that the religious opposition is vastly more important than the opposition of the leftists—both in the extent of its support among the masses, and in the magnitude of the threat that it offers to the existing order.
Like the “leftists,” the “fundamentalists” are against the West. Unlike the “leftists,” they are also against the Soviet Union, seeing the two superpowers, and the two different ways of life that they embody, as equally alien to Islam and equally menacing to the Muslims. Like the leftists, again, they are highly critical of Sadat’s capitalism, but for different reasons. They oppose neither profit nor private enterprise, both of which are sanctioned and regulated by the Holy Law. What they reject is the crass materialism and corruption, which they attribute to the particular brand of economic activity stimulated by the Western nations. This however does not make them any more sympathetic to socialism, whether in its Marxist or Nasserist forms. Indeed, while for the leftists Nasser is a great hero and his time of rule a golden age, for the fundamentalists he is one of the major figures in their demonology.
Like the leftists again, they are anti-peace and anti-Israel, but for different reasons and with different priorities. Curiously, the entire Palestine question occupies only a minor place in their writings, and the very words “Palestine” and “Arab” are of infrequent occurrence. In their perception, these are Muslim lands and peoples that have been usurped and dominated by an infidel stranger. In God’s good time, the stranger will be evicted and the land restored to the realm of Islam. This is, however, not of immediate concern. The major problem is the domination of the Muslim lands, Egypt and elsewhere, by apostates and secularists who, while pretending to be Muslims, are in fact destroying Islam from within. In their view, the major crime of Sadat, as of the Shah in Iran, Saddam Husayn in Iraq, Assad in Syria, and before them Nasser in Egypt and Atatürk in Turkey, was the abrogation of the Holy Law of Islam and the paganizing of Islamic society by the introduction and imposition of laws and usages imported from the outside world.
This, they assert, is the ultimate crime against God and his Holy Law, for which the penalty is death. Rulers and regimes that have abandoned the Holy Law have thereby forfeited their legitimacy; they have become the enemies of God and therefore of all good Muslims. The duty of jihad, usually rendered as holy war, is incumbent upon all Muslims, but the first task is to destroy the tyrant at home and thus make possible the restoration of a truly Islamic society governed by Islamic law. After that, with God’s help, the removal of the external enemy whose penetration had been made possible by Muslim sinfulness and weakness would be a relatively simple matter.
That tyrant is Pharaoh. For the secularist, the patriot, even the socialist, Pharaoh may be a hero and a source of pride. But for the religious Muslim, who rejects all these philosophies, Pharaoh is the terrible example, named in God’s book, of arbitrary rule and the defiance of God’s law. That Pharaoh was not particularly well disposed to the Jews does not make him any more acceptable. If anything, his persecution of the Jews is a sin, not a merit, since they, not the pagan Egyptians, were at that time the custodians of God’s truth. The fundamentalist view on this point is in striking contrast with the secular nationalist viewpoint as expressed for example in speeches by Saddam Husayn, in which he acclaimed Nebuchadnezzar as a hero of ancient Iraq and praised him in particular for his efficient handling of the Zionist problem in his day.