I can still recall the gasps, screams, and cries that erupted from the passengers after a public address announcement during the short flight from Tel Aviv to Cairo. One woman, sobbing uncontrollably, cried out “there goes the peace.”
On October 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat sat in a reviewing stand in Cairo Egypt, a commanding figure in gold-braided hat, starched dress uniform and green sash. As the Egyptian President watched an extravagant military parade celebrating his 1973 surprise attack on Israel, a junior lieutenant in crisp khakis stepped from a truck and walked toward him. Sadat rose, expecting a salute.
Instead the young officer tossed a grenade and a band of accomplices scrambled from the truck and opened fire. Sadat fell mortally wounded, thus leaving the Middle East facing a dangerous political void and the world without one of the few leaders whose bold imagination and personal courage seemed to have made a difference in history.
I arrived in Cairo on the day it occurred. Realizing the magnitude of the event, I made an effort to witness, capture and chronicle as many details as possible of this tragic story as it unfolded.
The day had progressed uneventfully as my wife Rebecca and I boarded our El Al plane in Tel Aviv for the short flight to Cairo. After spending ten days in Israel, we planned to stay in Cairo for a few days where we would visit the Cairo Museum and explore the sites of ancient Egypt.
Just before we were scheduled to land, the announcement came over the public address system; President Anwar Sadat has been shot and critically wounded while attending a military parade. I can still recall the gasps, screams and cries that erupted from the passengers. One woman, sobbing uncontrollably, cried out “there goes the peace.”
What followed was the reality that we were witnessing one of the defining moments in modern Middle Eastern history. After landing, we experienced more of the display of raw emotions and anguish amid a highly tense situation as we made our way through the airport and finally to the Cairo Concorde Hotel.
We were confined to our hotel for twenty-four hours as a part of the security clampdown around the city. Egyptian soldiers and security guards were stationed around the hotel. We watched as tanks and military vehicles from the parade rumbled down the streets to their destinations.
Anwar Sadat was born on Christmas day, 1918 in the Nile Delta village of Mit Abul Kom, the son of an Egyptian clerk and his part Sudanese wife. It was the year the war in Europe ended and the year that Egypt demanded, in vain, total independence from Britain. A religious child, he attended both Muslim and Coptic Christian schools. Later while attending a Military Academy, one of his classmates was the late President Gamal Abdul Nasser.
All his life, Sadat flirted with danger. His courage and a kind of reckless self-assurance was one of the keys to his success. He took desperate chances as a young man, plotting against King Farouk and the colonial domination of Great Britain. As President, Sadat infuriated the Soviet Union when he abruptly threw 18,000 Soviet military personnel out of Egypt.
In 1971 he raised the possibility of signing an agreement with Israel provided all the occupied territories captured by the Israelis were returned. With no progress toward peace, Sadat began to say that war with Israel was inevitable.
Throughout 1972 and much of 1973, he threatened war unless the United States forced Israel to accept his interpretation of Resolution 242, which called for total Israeli withdrawal from territories taken in 1967. In April 1973, Sadat again warned that he would renew the war with Israel, the same threat he had made in 1971 and 1972. Most observers remained skeptical of the rhetoric.
On October 6, 1973 on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, it happened. Egypt and Syria opened a coordinated surprise attack against Israel. The conflict, which lasted for three weeks was intense with battles between formations of heavy tanks, dramatic aerial combat, and heavy casualties sustained in extremely violent encounters. There was even a fear at times that the conflict could spread beyond the Middle East to the superpowers who supported the warring sides.
The risks Anwar Sadat later took for peace overshadowed his risks in war. In 1977, defying the wrath of most of his fellow Arabs he did the unthinkable and traveled to Jerusalem, the heart of his enemy’s camp. “This man is either truly great or he is mad” one of Sadat’s aides said just before the President left for Jerusalem. “Everyone will know he is great if he succeeds. Only his friends will know he is great if he fails.”
On November 19, 1977, Anwar Sadat arrived in Jerusalem and addressed the Knesset. It is difficult to understate the impact of Sadat’s gesture. It was a remarkable psychological breakthrough that could not have been accomplished with regular diplomacy. For the first time, Israelis saw an Arab leader extend his hand in friendship-and in their capital.
Talks would continue even amid growing tensions in the region. This would eventually lead to the summit meeting at Camp David inspired and arranged by U.S. President Jimmy Carter. In the end there were breakthroughs and the framework of a successful peace treaty between Israel and Egypt effected. Two agreements were signed on September 17, 1978 that came to be known as the Camp David Accords.
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians lined Cairo’s streets when Sadat returned from Camp David. He was hailed as the “hero of peace” and called a Pharaoh by some, but in the rest of the Arab world, not so much.
Seventeen hardline Arab nations, reacting to the separate peace with Israel, adopted political and economic sanctions against Egypt. For the remainder of his life, Sadat continued to back the Camp David process.
Throughout the long process of pursuing peace, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, himself viewed as a grizzled hardliner, became close. Close enough to exchange personal notes about family events such as the birth of a grandson or Jihan Sadat receiving her master’s degree. They addressed extremely difficult political issues, shared moments of humor and developed an enormous measure of mutual respect, one for the other.
In 1978 Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin would both be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In Jerusalem, Begin’s sorrow at Sadat’s death “went beyond matters of state” said an Israeli policymaker. “Begin mourned the death personally.” When official word of the assassination reached Jerusalem, Begin immediately instructed his staff to organize a trip to Cairo to attend Sadat’s funeral on Saturday. The decision was more complicated than it seemed. As a religious Jew, Begin could neither fly nor ride on the Jewish Sabbath. Thus he was forced to fly to Cairo a day early and spend the night, multiplying the security risks. He wanted to demonstrate his respect, both for Sadat and for his successor.
In Washington, the decision was made that President Ronald Reagan would not attend the funeral because of the security risks and neither would George Bush. Instead, the blue chip delegation of former Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter was a safer security risk than a sitting President or Vice President.
We watched from our hotel room window as planes landed bringing world dignitaries to attend the state funeral, including Air Force One as it arrived with the U.S. delegation.
Anwar Sadat, the villager who hero-worshipped Mahatma Gandhi as a young boy and would one day rise to lead Egypt, this one who would dare seek peace with the Jewish nation was buried in a muted ceremony under tight security. New President Hosni Mubarak led the funeral procession, taking the hand of Sadat’s son, Gamal. Sadat’s body was entombed under a black marble tombstone inscribed with the simple epitaph: “President Mohammed Anwar Sadat, hero of war and peace. He lived for peace and he was martyred for his principles.”
We would later visit the Giza Plateau, where stood the timeless pyramids and the great Sphinx. The Sphinx, sitting as if guarding the tombs of past Pharaohs, with a weathered face and empty stare, like one who had already seen too much.