Remembering Sadat's assassination

Remembering Sadat's assassination
Comment: 35 years ago, Jonathan Wright was sat in the grandstand as Egypt's president was shot. Here, he revisits the history of unfulfilled promises and missed opportunities that followed.
6 min read
05 Oct, 2016
Sadat was assassinated at a military parade on October 6th 1981 in Cairo [AFP]

When it comes to finding a new leader or disposing of an old one, Egypt sets a high standard in the drama stakes. The assassination of President Anwar Sadat, at a military parade 35 years ago this Thursday, certainly scored near the top of the scale.

Dressed in royal-blue ceremonial military uniform and high-heeled cowboy boots, Sadat rose to salute his four assassins as they sprinted towards the grandstand and started to pump his body full of bullets. As a member of the audience, sitting about fifty metres to Sadat's left, I remember the occasion vividly.

By chance, after slipping out to the side and round to the back of the stands, I saw Sadat's bodyguards carry his body, wrapped in a blanket, and load it onto the helicopter that took him to Maadi Military Hospital.

On my way back to the city centre, a journey that took some two hours because of the chaos that ensued, I recall wondering whether some good might perhaps come of Sadat's removal from the scene. Sadat had been lashing out recklessly, arresting many hundreds of critics, including some of the most respected people in Egyptian society.

At lengthy public appearances he showed disturbing signs of an angry paranoia that hardly befitted a man who was seen, rightly or wrongly, as an international statesman. Sadat may have had the silent majority behind him in his policy of making peace with Israel, but he had no time to listen to those who had any reservations about his negotiating strategy or the details of the agreements he had signed.

Even after 11 years in power, he had done nothing to help Egypt develop institutions that could increase public participation in policy-making or allow for a peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another. 

Sadat rose to salute his four assassins as they sprinted towards the grandstand

Most Egyptians were shocked by the assassination and fearful for the country's future. But the choices they faced were stark. A small minority rejoiced that "the pharaoh" or "the tyrant" was dead: they dreamed of radical transformation along either Islamist or leftist lines.

Realistically the robust machinery of the state made a transfer of power to another military man - Vice President Hosni Mubarak - close to inevitable. As we all know, Mubarak himself clung to power for another 30 years and did almost nothing during that time to prepare the country for a more stable future.

Modern Egyptian history has in fact been a series of dead-ends, of truncations, of low expectations and unfulfilled promises. President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the socialist giant of the 1950s and 1960s, can take credit for bringing momentous change to Egypt, much of it positive - land reform, free education for all, greater social mobility, Egyptian control of the Suez Canal and a nationalism that put an end to a century of subservience to foreign interests.

But even that promise was short-lived and some of the changes he made lacked the institutional underpinnings that would sustain them and protect them from the whims of an authoritarian successor.

All this is relevant because of the political and economic disasters that have dogged Egypt since the popular uprising against Mubarak in January 2011. Mubarak, like Abdel Nasser and Sadat, does not appear to have given much serious consideration to the possibility of withdrawing from political life and allowing for a peaceful transition to a new leader with a popular mandate, as enlightened leaders in luckier countries around the world have done.

Modern Egyptian history has in fact been a series of dead-ends, of truncations, of low expectations and unfulfilled promises

Many of his opponents, including the Muslim Brotherhood, were committed to utopian approaches that are uncomfortable with compromise and tolerance. In the turbulent and often violent years between the overthrow of Mubarak and the military intervention of July 2013, many Egyptian politicians and individuals sought instant solutions that would serve their narrow interests.

When General Sisi emerged as the new strongman, millions of Egyptians pinned entirely unrealistic messianic hopes on him, setting themselves up for early disappointments. In the meantime, political violence has continued in Egypt, especially in Sinai, where aggrieved local insurgents who have adopted an Islamist jihadist identity are at war with a central government that has consistently refused to listen to their grievances.

In another world, the popular uprising of 2011 might have led to a new kind of politics in Egypt - a politics based on incremental positive changes negotiated through processes of popular consultation, a politics that abandoned instant solutions or faith in inspired leaders and shifted power towards those with roots in the community who were prepared to persuade others of their own long-term piecemeal solutions to practical problems.

What Morsi and Sadat have in common is that they lost power through acts of violence

Egypt is a difficult country to govern. Although the state, for geographic and historical reasons, is immensely powerful in theory, in practice it is seriously under-resourced and permeated with traditional and privately motivated practices that undermine its effectiveness.

Instead of pretending that those in power in Cairo can solve all problems and are responsible for every shortcoming, ordinary Egyptians desperately need a little space in which they can shape the lives of their communities and build up confidence in the positive and constructive role of politics. 

Unfortunately the present government shows no signs it is willing to loosen up and provide such a space. It has now been three years since the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, who was elected in 2012 in the only free and open presidential elections the country has ever known. If the army had not intervened to depose him in 2013, his term would have come to an end at the end of June this year, now more than three months ago.

It is possible to imagine a world in which Morsi served out his term and either he and his successor as leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was defeated in elections by a candidate from another political party, setting a precedent for a more stable and inclusive future.

Unlike Sadat, who died a quick death by gunfire, Morsi merely languishes in jail indefinitely on dubious charges. What they have in common is that they lost power through acts of violence, and that those who replaced them lacked the vision that would introduce Egypt to the practice of peaceful transfers of power.


Jonathan Wright is a British literary translator, commentator and former journalist. For thirty years he worked for the international news agency Reuters, mostly in the Middle East, Africa and the United States. He now translates mostly contemporary Arabic fiction, for which he was won several prizes including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.