On October 6, 1981, forty years ago, then Egyptian President Muhammad Anwar al Sadat was killed while attending the military parade to commemorate the start of the Yom Kippur war against Israel, fought in 1973 and won by the Israelis. The parade was broadcast live on TV: in Cairo it was a day of celebration, with the streets full of people and children, and Sadat had appeared on his stage to pay homage to the troops who marched.
Seconds later, three of his soldiers broke away from the group, ran towards the president and began shooting him with some machine guns. They fired for about a minute, in general bewilderment and confusion, before the intervention of Sadat’s bodyguards, who killed two of the attackers.
Sadat was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Cairo. He died a couple of hours later of a hemorrhage: he was 62 years old.
Egyptian soldiers assist the wounded on the dais where Sadat was when he was attacked (AP Photo, File)
Anwar al Sadat, known as “the hero of war and peace”, was president of Egypt from 1970 to 1981, and a very important figure in the recent history of Egypt and the whole Middle East.
Sadat was born on December 25, 1918 in a city in Lower Egypt. At the age of twenty he graduated from the Royal Military Academy and during the Second World War he was arrested twice by the British for cooperating with the Germans (Sadat attacked the British hoping to end their colonial domination in Egypt). After the war he joined the nationalist military group “Free Officers”. In 1952, led by the charismatic socialist revolutionaries Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, the group overthrew the monarchy. Naguib became president, and two years later Nasser.
During Nasser’s presidency, Sadat held important roles: he was secretary of the single-party pan-Arab National Union, president of the Assembly and vice-president of the country twice. When Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970, Sadat took his place and initiated the so-called “corrective revolution”, reversing much of his predecessor’s work.
Nasser’s Egypt had very close ties to the Soviet Union, and Nasser had nationalized most of the country’s businesses, businesses, banks, and communications. Sadat instead liberalized the economy and opened up to Western countries, such as the United States, which were then sworn enemies of the Soviet Union. Sadat’s idea was to revive the country, weak economically and very weakened even “emotionally” after losing the wars fought against Israel, including that of the Six Days of 1967.
– Read also: The war that changed the Middle East
In Egypt Sadat did many other things: for example, he continued the introduction of a series of reforms with the aim of improving the condition of women with the so-called “Jehan laws” (named after his wife), which guaranteed women various new rights , including child custody in the event of divorce.
The thing he is best known for, however, and what led him both to win the Nobel Peace Prize and to be killed, was the 1973 Yom Kippur War, of which he was “the architect”, as he wrote. Thomas Lippman, analyst at the Middle East Institute US study center and correspondent in Cairo for the Washington Post in the years of Sadat’s presidency. The Yom Kippur War – so named because it began on the day of Jewish Yom Kippur, one of the most solemn holidays in the Jewish calendar – was a very important conflict because it had enormous consequences on the equilibrium of the Middle East.
It began on October 6, 1973, when the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and, together with the Syria of Hafez al Assad (father of the current Syrian president Bashar al Assad) and a coalition of Arab countries, attacked Israel. The goal was the reconquest of the territories obtained by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War: Egypt, in particular, wanted to regain possession of the Sinai peninsula.
After the first days of great losses and military successes of the Egyptian army, which helped to lift the morale of the Arab nationalists, the Israeli army reacted and repelled the attacks. The war ended when a ceasefire was reached, then peace negotiations began.
At the end of the war, Egypt and Israel started talking to each other directly, without the Americans as intermediaries: an important thing, since Egypt, like all Arab countries, did not recognize the existence of Israel at the time.
In 1977 Sadat went to Israel, on what is considered a historic visit: he met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and was invited to speak in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to discuss how to achieve lasting peace between the two countries. The following year, Sadat and Begin jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1979 they signed the peace accords at Camp David, in the United States, in the presence of then US President Jimmy Carter. Egypt became the first Arab country to recognize the existence of Israel.
The meeting at Camp David between Anwar Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and US President Jimmy Carter. (AP Photo, File)
The 1979 peace accords normalized relations between Israel and Egypt and at the same time had significant consequences within the Arab world: the other Arab countries accused Sadat of being a traitor. Sadat had in fact presented the war of Yom Kippur as necessary, in addition to the reconquest of the Sinai peninsula, also to enforce “respect and restore the rights of the Palestinian people”. The agreement went against this promise, not least because the governments of Egypt and Israel later collaborated in strengthening the embargo imposed on the Gaza Strip. After the agreements, Egypt was expelled from the Arab League.
The killing of Sadat, which took place two years later, was planned by a group of Islamic fundamentalists led by Lieutenant Khaled el Islambuly, then 24 years old then sentenced to death. It was not the first time they had tried to kill Sadat, but the other attempts had failed. For the attack they chose the day of the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.
Ayman al al Zawahiri, during the trial for the murder of Anwar Sadat (Getty Images)
One of the bombers, interviewed years later by the CNN, said Sadat’s assassination was part of a larger plan to fundamentally change Egypt. Among the people arrested and tried for the attack was Ayman al Zawahiri, who after the killing of Osama bin Laden became the head of al Qaeda.