Anwar Sadat
Anwar Sadat; drawing by David Levine

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.

For Sadat’s murderers and in general for the religious circles to which they belong, Sadat’s crime, for which he deserved the death penalty, was betrayal of Islam and reversion to paganism. His alliance with America and his peace with Israel were only particular manifestations of this larger and deeper evil. The case against Sadat was thus much the same as the case against the Shah. The Iranian fundamentalists were more successful. They destroyed the regime, and launched their country on a far-reaching religious revolution. The Egyptians succeeded only in destroying the ruler. The regime survived, and so did the leftist opposition.

If it was the fundamentalists who removed Sadat, it was the leftists who have brought their explanations to the Western world. Heikal’s book, subtitled The Assassination of Sadat, is not a biography but rather an attempt to explain the events leading up to that single act. It is a sustained attack on Sadat’s aims, his manner of accomplishing them, his actions, his associates and friends, his personality, his family, and even—in a traditional local style of invective—his ancestors.

Much has been said in praise and in condemnation of Sadat’s innovations. Three major achievements are claimed on his behalf. The first and best known abroad is the peace treaty with Israel; this brought two substantial advantages, the restoration of the territorial integrity of Egypt by the recovery of the Sinai peninsula, and the shift of the Egyptian economy from a war to a peace footing, thus ending the devastating financial drain of the previous thirty years, and the loss of life which led one eminent Egyptian journalist to speak of Egypt as “the blood bank of the Arab world.” The price that Egypt paid for this peace—and it was a heavy one—was the break with the Arabs and to some extent also the Islamic world. This price was paid in particular by those Egyptians—diplomats, writers, and others—who had shared directly in Egyptian leadership in the Arab world. Recently, there are growing signs that this phase of Egyptian isolation is drawing to an end. Increasing numbers of Arab states are seeking to improve their relations with Egypt, and significantly it is the Arab states that are conceding the point, and not Egypt, which retains its peace treaty and its limited but continuing relations with Israel.

The second major achievement was the relaxation of the dictatorship, which, under Nasser, had grown more and more oppressive. While Sadat’s reforms fell short of full freedom of expression and political activity, they nevertheless represented an immense improvement on the previous situation and also on those prevailing in most other Arab countries. Not everyone, however, appreciated this change. Nasserists like Dr. Heikal, who had suffered few if any restrictions on their freedom of expression under the previous regime, gained nothing by the change. The same is true, for different reasons, of the impoverished masses, for whom the press and parliament meant very little and whose primary concern was their precarious economic survival. Toward the end of his life Sadat, feeling threatened by the new freedom which he himself had created, began to crack down on his critics and political opponents and sent a number of them, including Dr. Heikal, to jail. His repression at its worst was milder than that of the previous regime but differed from it in that its most prominent victims were men who could command a hearing in the Western world.

The third of Sadat’s major innovations was a new economic policy which paralleled his political liberalization. The “opening,” as it was called, meant a relaxation of Nasser’s Arab socialism and the rapid development of a new capitalism. It is still too early to judge the long-term economic effects of this change, or to relate them to other factors, notably the demographic explosion at home and the changes in the international economy. The charge most consistently brought against this aspect of Sadat’s policies is that of corruption. This was certainly widespread, and is said to have reached even into the president’s family circle.

Two points may be made on this matter. One is that corruption is hardly a novelty in the region. It existed before Sadat’s succession and no doubt continued after his death. Its rise and fall are to some extent determined by the honesty and severity of government but also—perhaps to a greater extent—by the increase and decrease of economic activity. The second point concerns the contrast between American and Middle Eastern perceptions of the relationship between money and power. In the US it is customary and acceptable to make money and use it to win political power. In the Middle Eastern tradition the sequence has commonly been reversed. There would seem to be no obvious moral superiority in the one way or the other, though there may be economic or political advantages and disadvantages. Under Sadat’s presidency, corruption seems to have gone beyond the limits of tolerance. More important, the modern style of life made the conspicuous consumption of its beneficiaries more extensive and more visible, and offered a constant affront to both the misery of the poor and the austerity of the pious. And Sadat was seen as a Pharaoh—if not in tyranny, then at least in his remoteness from the needs and feelings of the people.

Heikal has little to say about Sadat’s accomplishments; some are denied, some passed over in silence, and some attributed to others. In order to sustain his case, Dr. Heikal makes use of three devices. Wherever possible, he attributes the basest of motives to Sadat and his supporters, while always attributing the highest and most disinterested motives to his opponents. Where this is inadequate, he resorts to a rather high-handed selection and treatment of the historical record. And where both of these methods are insufficient for his purpose he uses personal abuse, sometimes by direct attack, more often by innuendo.

A few examples of these methods may suffice.

In Dr. Heikal’s version, Sadat and all his associates, in virtually every political choice, both in domestic and international affairs, were guided by personal, mostly selfish, concerns. Their opponents, in contrast, acted out of the highest patriotic or ideological motives. In his explanation of some of Sadat’s decisions, Dr. Heikal hints, sometimes rather strongly, at financial motives and inducements. He does not mention the possibility that the Egyptian Medical Association or the Egyptian journalists, whose opposition to the normalization of relations with Israel wins Dr. Heikal’s approval, might have been influenced by concern to retain the prosperous Arab market for their services. In fact, of course, in this as in any similar situation, a ganglion of professional and commercial interests developed rapidly around both the pro-peace and pro-Arab lines of policy. By emphasizing one to the point of absurdity, and failing to mention the other at all, Dr. Heikal is playing a rather crude polemical game.

Much more serious is his treatment of past events. Some of his misstatements are due to unpolemical carelessness or ignorance. Thus, there is no propaganda value in asserting that Helmuth von Moltke, who went to Turkey in 1835, was “brought by the Sultan to train the Turkish army before the 1914 war” (p. 170). The statement is even, in a specialized sense, accurate. Only carelessness can explain the reference to the two German spies with whom Sadat was involved in 1942 as “Hans Eppler and his colleague known only as Sandy” (p. 17). The first spy was in fact called John Eppler, and his colleague, as Eppler explains in his own book on the subject, was called Sandberg. There is perhaps a very minor propaganda point in Heikal’s attribution of “the principle that religions other than Islam might be permitted to exist but not to expand” to an “old Ottoman rescript” instead of, correctly, to a basic rule of Islamic Shari’a law (p. 157).

Where, however, Dr. Heikal really outdoes himself in restructuring and reinterpreting the past is in his treatment of the military outcome and political consequences of the 1973 war. In his version, the Egyptians won a great military victory, the fruits of which were frittered away by Sadat’s failure to exploit it politically. No reader with unhampered access to newspapers and books is likely to agree with either judgment. As Heikal tells the story:

The October War was a strategic victory for the Arabs. It was almost a tactical victory for the Arab armies, Egyptian and Syrian, which fought the war, but this in the end eluded them owing to miscalculations in the field and America’s determination to rescue Israel, whatever the cost. [p. 274]

Immediately after the war, “Sadat failed to recognize the magnitude of the victory that was now within his grasp. He held all the trumps” (p. 62). Instead of exploiting this victory, Sadat concluded a treaty which gave the Israelis everything they wanted. “In return what had the Israelis conceded? Virtually nothing” (p. 214). The recovery of Sinai, with its oil and other resources, its communications, and its bases, appears only in a footnote:

The only “concession” made by Israel under the Camp David agreements related to Sinai, territory over which Israel had never had any historical or theological claims, and which was held onto only as a defensive screen against Egypt. [p. 212]

The opposing view of the relative value of recognition and territory was well stated in an interview in a Beirut Arabic newspaper, discussing the possible acceptance by Israel and her Arab neighbors of Security Council Resolution 242:

If the Arabs wish to go back on their agreement to the Security Council Resolution, they can easily do so by a single word. But if Israel should wish to go back on the implementation of this Resolution, she will have to wage a new war to reconquer the territories she will have evacuated in accordance with this Resolution.

This statement appeared in the newspaper Al-Nahar of August 2, 1970, and was made by Dr. Heikal. The point that he made would seem to have some relevance to the Camp David peace treaty too.

Perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of Dr. Heikal’s book is the note of personal spite that colors many of his allusions to Sadat, his associates, and even his family. Dr. Butrus Ghali, who as acting foreign minister had an important part in the initiation and negotiation of the peace treaty, “was prepared to take on the job for a number of reasons” (p. 105). Of these reasons, Dr. Heikal names three—that Butrus Ghali was a Copt, that he had a Jewish wife, and that he bore the same name as a kinsman who had been assassinated by a Muslim nationalist in 1910, after presiding, as judge, in a court which had sentenced some Egyptian villagers after the famous Denshawai incident. For these reasons, in Heikal’s view, “Ghali combined ambition with a realistic feeling that there was little prospect for a man like him in the normal context of Egyptian politics. ‘What have I to lose?’ summed up his attitude” (p. 105).

This is insulting and unfair, both to Egypt and to Dr. Butrus Ghali. Many Copts have been involved in the political life of modern Egypt and continue to be. Had such “reasons” determined Butrus Ghali’s actions, they would surely have led him to hold back, rather than step forward. After all, he had a great deal to lose, as the previous example of his namesake and the subsequent example of his president demonstrate. But in Butrus Ghali as in Sadat himself, vision and courage are qualities that Dr. Heikal does not seem to recognize.

Even Sadat’s widow is not immune from Dr. Heikal’s form of political analysis. One example of his method is a footnote reference to Jihan Sadat’s partly English origins: “When she became a President’s wife Jihan pursued the idea that her mother’s family originated in Sheffield, but exhaustive searches failed to find any trace of them there” (p. 25). Dr. Heikal does not explain who conducted these searches, or in what circumstances.

The attacks on Sadat himself are manifold, and constitute the main content of the book. The charges are undocumented, and many are clearly based on malicious gossip. There are enough verifiable errors of fact—Hermann Eilts, the US ambassador in Egypt at the time, found more than a hundred—to throw doubt on the rest. Nothing is too petty to use. According to Heikal, Sadat indulged daily and liberally in vodka, a detail denied by others who knew the late president well. This offense was compounded by his eating “calorie-free toast…made from calorie-free flour imported from Switzerland” (p. 171). My own “exhaustive researches” have failed to find any trace of such flour.

But the meanest of all, which caused a wave of revulsion when the contents of the book became known in Egypt, is the disguised attack on Sadat’s mother. According to most versions of Sadat’s family background, Sadat’s mother was a Sudanese, and it was from her that he inherited his swarthy complexion. This is not enough for Dr. Heikal. According to him, Sadat’s mother was the daughter of a black slave brought from Africa, called Kheirallah.

After the British occupation, when pressure to abolish slavery intensified, his master (whose identity is unknown) freed Kheirallah. His daughter…was, like her father, completely Negro, and the fact that Sadat inherited her complexion and some of her features was to have a profound effect on him. [pp. 8–9] Later, according to Heikal, Sadat’s father took a second wife, a fair-skinned eighteen-year-old, and Sadat’s mother was “reduced to a position of servitude no less harsh than that from which her father…was supposed to have been rescued…[she], the black wife, became the household drudge” (p. 11).

Heikal returns to this point again and again. Sadat as a young man, he says, “feared his father but could not love him; he could not respect his unfortunate mother, and had come to resent the badge of color which he inherited from her” (p. 12). His marriage to Jihan is presented as a matter of black and white: “Jihan appealed to Sadat not only because she was beautiful and adoring but because she was white. Color had been, and was always to be, almost an obsession with him” (p. 25). Dr. Heikal finds this even in the pictures of the president that were on public display: “Like a pharaoh in a bas-relief he preferred, in the representations of him which were now to be seen in all public places, to be shown in profile—which also had the advantage of not emphasizing the Negroid element in his features” (p. 181).

It was however as a Pharaoh, not as Negroid, that Sadat was condemned and executed by his devout assassins. Heikal devotes some but not a great deal of attention to these men and their intellectual mentors. One of the latter was an electrical engineer called Abd al-Salam Faraj, who in 1980 published a little book called Al-Farida al-Gha’iba. Dr. Heikal’s translator renders this title as “The Absent Prayer”; “The Hidden Commandment” might perhaps be closer. A passage in this book—not cited by Heikal—gives a clear idea of the outlook of its author and his disciples:

There are people who say that the occasion for jihad today is the liberation of Jerusalem, the Holy Land; certainly this is an obligation in Holy Law and a duty for every Muslim…but:

First: The fight against the near enemy takes precedence over the fight against the distant enemy.

Second: Since the blood of the Muslims flows until victory, one may ask one’s self, to whose advantage would this victory be? Of the Islamic state, or of the impious power of which it would merely serve to reenforce the foundations?…

Third: The cause of the existence of colonialism and imperialism in our Muslim countries arises from these same impious rulers. To begin by attacking imperialism is a useless and inglorious work and a waste of time; we must concentrate on our own Islamic problem, that is to say, the establishment of the law of God in our countries.

From these and other writings of the fundamentalists, it is possible to get a reasonably full and accurate idea of their purposes. Of particular value is the detailed transcript of the interrogation of the accused, conducted by an Egyptian examining magistrate in accordance with the French-style procedures followed by Egyptian criminal justice. A copy of this was obtained by a Lebanese journalist, and published in extenso in the Beirut daily newspaper Al-Safir between May 20 and 28, 1982. But of all this Dr. Heikal, whose case against Sadat is very different from that of the fundamentalists, has little or nothing to say.

In his introduction, Dr. Heikal observes that he was “very fond of Sadat as a man.” Contrary to the popular view, Sadat had not, he says, dismissed him from the editorship of Al-Ahram, and there had not been “a total breach” between the two men. Dr. Heikal had left the editorship by his own decision. “Nor did we suddenly switch from being friends to being enemies.” Sadat subsequently offered him various positions of importance, which he refused. It was only later that Sadat began to attack him “regularly by name in public” (pp. ix–x) and in due course sent him to jail. Despite all this, Dr. Heikal insists that the book is in no sense an attack on Sadat, that it is not “the expression of a personal grudge against him,” and that there is on his side “no feeling of personal animosity.” One is left wondering what kind of book Dr. Heikal would have written had he indeed been inspired by a personal grudge, or felt animosity, or desired to attack the murdered president.

This Issue

May 31, 1984