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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.