By Arab News
By Sir John Jenkins*
Forty years ago — on Oct. 6, 1981 — Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt since October 1970, was assassinated by a group of Islamist revolutionaries within the Egyptian military under the command of 1st Lt. Khalid Al-Islambouli. Al-Islambouli’s associates included Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Omar Abdul Rahman, and Tarek and Aboud Al-Zumar, who were significantly released after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in March 2011. They justified their actions by accusing Sadat of acting like “a pharaoh” and selling out the interests of Egypt and the wider Arab and Islamic worlds to Israel and the US.
They claimed to be particularly exercised by Sadat’s unprecedented visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and the subsequent peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. They — and many other Arabs at the time — thought Sadat had abandoned Palestinian rights in favor of the return of the Sinai to Egyptian control. They also hated his friendship with the shah of Iran, to whom he had given sanctuary after his flight from Tehran in January 1979.
In truth, nothing that Sadat did was really unprecedented. His personal history — just as much as Gamal Abdel Nasser’s — had simply reflected the tortuous history of Egypt in the 20th century. Sadat had been born into a peasant family in the Nile Delta. He had joined the Egyptian army, become close to the Muslim Brotherhood, taken the side of the Axis powers during the Second World War and participated in often violent activism against the British, who imprisoned him, and those he regarded as their allies in the Egyptian establishment.
Of all the Free Officers who overthrew the monarch in 1952, he was regarded as perhaps the closest to the Brotherhood. But when Nasser turned against them, he was prominent in their suppression, chairing one of the revolutionary tribunals that sentenced many of their leaders to death. He was at Nasser’s side when he helped establish the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964. He backed Nasser’s war in Yemen and the disastrous closure of the Straits of Tiran in 1967.
And when Nasser died, Sadat simply pivoted 180 degrees, removed the former’s key supporters from positions of influence, opened up the economy, released the Muslim Brotherhood leaders he had helped imprison and went to war with Israel, not to win but as a necessary prelude to the reorientation of Egyptian policy away from the Soviet Union and toward the US. He understood that Nasser’s self-aggrandizing policies had bankrupted the country, created an unwinnable cold war within the Arab world itself and gained nothing in return. And he decided to prioritize Egypt, not some fever dream of unachievable Third World solidarity.
In many ways, Nasser had come to understand much of this himself. He had privately reached out to Israel in the early 1950s. He had backed the PLO because he thought this was a way to control the potentially destabilizing activities of the emergent Palestinian fedayeen and protect Egyptian national interests. He knew the United Arab Republic had been a costly failure and the war in Yemen a disaster. He had come to see that over-reliance on the USSR — which would always prioritize its relations with the US — was dangerous. But he was a prisoner of the image he had created: The hero of Bandung, the champion of what the Martiniquais theorist Frantz Fanon called “les damnes de la terre” (the oppressed of the earth) — a slogan adopted later to greater effect by Ayatollah Khomeini, who had learned from Nasser’s failures. And so he failed his own people. Sadat was determined to do better.
And that is why Sadat thought it more important to regain the Sinai and make a peace with Israel than to allow any more Egyptian soldiers to die for Palestine: Four fruitless wars since 1948 were enough. Was he right? After all, he was accused of the basest betrayal. Egypt was expelled from the Arab League. And he was eventually assassinated by the very Islamists he had decided not just to tolerate but to instrumentalize in his campaigns against Nasserism, liberalism and socialism.
To answer that question, consider where we are now. The Oslo process emerged out of a US victory, the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. Whatever chance of success it had arose not out of Arab unity but out of a brief historical moment that made the US the unchallenged global hegemon. What made Oslo fail was a US refusal to prioritize Palestinian over Israeli interests. This was conditioned by the strengths of Israel as a nation state and the weaknesses of a divided Palestinian national movement that could offer nothing to the US or any other sponsor in return.
Since the final collapse of Oslo 20 years ago — the result both of Israeli intransigence and the failure of a model of Palestinian leadership based, like Nasser’s, on charismatic authoritarianism — any Palestinian ability to achieve change has only weakened. The PLO and Fatah are moribund. Hamas’ rule in Gaza is oppressive and violent. Its regular conflicts with Israel leave us no closer to a Palestinian state than we were in 1964. And more and more Arab states prioritize, as Sadat and Nasser (belatedly) tried to do, their own interests, not some hopeless revolutionary cause.
The Arab world, that is, has moved closer to Sadat. His unilateral decision to visit Jerusalem, which at the time seemed extraordinary, now simply looks prescient, as Israeli ministers visit Gulf capitals and Arab ambassadors present their credentials in Israel. Increasingly, we see a new emphasis by Arab governments on the creation not of a pan-Arab or a pan-Islamic identity, but on national stories of belonging. And when we have witnessed the barrel bombing of civilians in Syria, ethnic cleansing there and in Iraq, the creation of new physical border controls across the region, and the suppression of protesters from Basra to Beirut and Aden to Algiers, any claims about Israeli brutality seem redundant.
But — and there is always a but — Sadat’s embrace of Islamists was a major mistake. They didn’t stop with his assassination, even if they decided (yet again) that violence for the most part was not yet the answer (though they kept their hand in through the occasional murder, like that of Farag Foda, the occasional uprising, as in Upper Egypt or Hama in the 1980s, and the sustained persecution of their opponents, like Nasr Abu Zayd). Instead, they took advantage of the excessive caution of the Egyptian state under Mubarak by spreading their tentacles throughout Egyptian and, by extension, other societies. This tide in the Arab world at least seems at last to be ebbing, if regular polling conducted by the Arab Barometer and other social surveys is accurate. But it remains a danger in societies where grievances can too easily be instrumentalized by those who claim to speak in the name of religion.
And finally we are still left with the issue of Palestinian aspirations to statehood. Palestinian national consciousness in its present form was shaped above all by Yasser Arafat and his colleagues in Fatah. That was his triumph. His failure was that he was unable to turn it into anything resembling a modern state. But it cannot simply be wished away. Nor can the millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants across the Middle East; or the way in which the dysfunctionality of Gaza and the contested status of Jerusalem mean neither Egypt nor Jordan can be indifferent to what happens in those places.
In spite of shifting circumstances, this has been true for more than 70 years. And it will not change unless we collectively find a way to resolve each issue either on its own or as the result of a bigger bargain. Israel is unlikely to help much. Why should it? Benjamin Netanyahu has gone — for the moment. His successor, Naftali Bennett, presents a more emollient face. He and President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi seem to work well together. But this represents conflict management rather than resolution. And Bennett’s view of the Palestinians is as hard-line as his predecessor’s.
The so-called Abraham Accords were the first really new move in this game of chess since Sadat visited Jerusalem. Sadat thought he had to attend to his own national interests first. Others clearly now not only share that view, but are prepared to act on it. And perhaps this gives us a clue. Making the achievement of a Palestinian state the priority has not worked. So perhaps we need to work from the outside in. That will ultimately mean stabilizing Lebanon and Syria (which each host about half a million Palestinian refugees). It will mean guaranteeing the security of Jordan (with over 2 million refugees). And, above all, it will mean dealing with the malign influence of Iran, which sponsors discord and division throughout the region. This can only be achieved within a stable, strong and self-confident Arab state system. That has rarely, if ever, existed. But at least parts of it are now in place in the Gulf. And Egypt, as always, has an essential role to play.
Sadat was not prepared for all the stars to align before he made his move. And he was right. So perhaps the best we can hope for at the moment is that we collectively make progress where we can, rather than where we think we should. As the great Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant observed, “should” implies “can.” And if you can’t, then all the people in the world saying that you should, won’t make any difference at all. And perhaps the best place to start with what you can do is at home.
- Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was corresponding director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.