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Finishing what Sadat started—A Commentary by Karim Yehia Youssef ’07

The following commentary was published in Al-Ahram Weekly on April 26, 2007.

Finishing what Sadat started
By Karim Yehia Youssef ’07

As Arab states edge towards peace with Israel we should commemorate and give due credit to the man who took the first step on that path, writes Karim Yehia Youssef*

This month marks the 28th anniversary of the return of Sinai to Egypt. As we celebrate a day of peace, a larger peace between Arabs and Israel appears on the horizon. Both are the culmination of a series of events which irreversibly changed the history, geography and politics of the Middle East: the 1973 War; Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977; Camp David in 1978 and the historical peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Remembrance of President Anwar El-Sadat, the man behind it all -- the war, the liberation of the land, and the peace -- is due.

We have the habit of not recognising the true worth of our leaders. This is especially true of the "hero of war and peace", Anwar El-Sadat. In the words of Joseph Finkelstone, Sadat is a hero "in the Western world, among thoughtful Arabs, and in Jerusalem", but he is not given proper credit in his own country let alone the Arab world. This short article is an initial, if necessarily incomplete, attempt to right Sadat's record at home and an invitation to give credit where credit is due to Sadat as a visionary Egyptian leader whose legacy is the proper lens through which we may evaluate the current window of opportunity for a broader peace in the region.

Much has been said about this man who inspired anything but indifference. His charisma, political talent, simplicity, deep sense of the dramatic, and profound religious conviction are among the attributes noted by his admirers, but he has also inspired a large chorus of detractors. Writing in 1998, nearly two decades after his assassination, Joel Gordon noted, "It is still virtually impossible to draw Sadat's political allies and foes toward a middle ground of respectful objectivity." Today, wherever the reader may stand, for or against his presidency, one thing is certain: posterity has validated Sadat's choice of the road to peace.

Sadat's true legacy, beyond the liberation of Egyptian land, is having the vision of peace as the ultimate destiny of the region, the daring to pursue it, and the political genius to succeed. Insurmountable obstacles, back then, appeared to put peace beyond reach and even beyond desire: decades of hostility, a number of wars, war crimes, resentment driven by injustice, fear or distrust, and an unwillingness to compromise from a position of force on one side and a refusal to recognise reality on the other. Moreover, Sadat inherited a military defeat in the 1967 War, a rejection of peace as a strategy in favour of war ("What was taken by force, can only be restored by force"), and a population unwilling to embrace the former.

To forge peace, Sadat first had to restore Egyptian pride. The 1973 strategic war equalised the balance of power and levelled the negotiating field, opening the way, in the words of Sadat himself, for a "permanent peace based on justice" which could not and "does not proceed from a position of weakness". The war also inaugurated an active American role in the peace process through Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" which led both Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organisation to realise that serious negotiations and compromise were necessary to attain a viable resolution to the conflict and led both sides to review their options accordingly.

The road to peace was even more difficult than the military challenge. To break the almost insurmountable wall of distrust required a vision that was ahead of its time and actions to match; what Sadat produced was a move both radical and unprecedented in its conception. Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 was precisely the spark necessary to ignite a process that would eventually lead to peace. Despite his oft-stated willingness to "go to the far corners of the world, even to Jerusalem" in pursuit of peace, nobody in Egypt, nor in Israel, nor in the West, believed he would go. To move out of the vicious cycle, a leader from the region had to take that perilous step. Sadat proved to be that leader. He took this step in knowledge of the price and risks involved in his gamble for peace.

The decision to make this journey while Egypt and Israel remained in a state of war required a rare courage. What was at stake was not only Egyptian territory, but Egyptian lives, continued Egyptian leadership of the Arab world, and the moral responsibility of taking an irreversible step that would change forever the parametres of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The risk also involved the possibility of tarnishing his own legacy, risking his life and even the potential endangering of his family. My father's first reaction, when, arriving in his office in the Council of State, metres away from Sadat's residence, upon realising that the president was on his way to Jerusalem was to wonder, "Did he take his family with him?"

Despite the staggering weight of the risks and responsibilities involved, Sadat did what he thought was right and in the best interests of his nation. He succeeded. The land was returned. Peace materialised, but also many of the risks. Arab states isolated Egypt, Sadat was widely accused of blasphemy and treason, and in the end he paid for his courage in taking this historic step with his life.

If the objective assessment of history can be hoped for with the passage of time, as the rest of the Arab world extends a peace initiative to Israel, the time has come for those who derided Sadat and his vision of peace almost 30 years ago to revise their judgment. It is also time to shed new light on the image of Sadat that has been cultivated in Egypt. As many have pointed out, a complete scholarly biography of Sadat, in Arabic, is long overdue and the least tribute to this visionary president.

Sadat's efforts, both in war and in peace, were conducted with rare political talent, dignity and in conformity with the constitutional duties of a head of state. Sadat surpassed the best military minds and political strategists of his time and led Egyptian forces to score the only Arab victory in the history of the Arab- Israeli conflict. About a year before the war, Sadat courageously ordered Soviet specialists out of Egypt, shifting Egyptian policy in the direction of the US and ultimately making the war entirely Egyptian. Sadat also undertook a radical change in the way that the Egyptian political leadership dealt with its constituency. One example is in the domestic management of the war. The Egyptian media distanced itself from the propagandistic coverage of 1967, such as the notorious claim that "we will be drinking tea in Tel Aviv in 15 minutes." Rather, in 1973, domestic coverage was as accurate as that of the foreign media. Sadat's address to the Knesset was a world-class lesson in pacifism, religious and ethnic tolerance, patriotism, pragmatism, reasonableness, daring and dignity, unmatched in the history of Arab foreign or regional policy. Sadat acted in conformity with the supreme presidential obligation to recover occupied territory, by whatever means necessary, and avoid unnecessary loss of the lives of his citizens. Further, his pursuit of peace with those who truly seek it conforms to the basic teachings of the principal religions of the state. The common belief that Sadat's signing of the peace treaty was a "separate deal" that "left out" the Palestinians and hence "betrayed" a united Arab cause is to be reviewed for historical accuracy, or at least re-evaluated from the perspective of the timeliness of peace and the un-readiness of some Arab regimes to engage in peace talks at the time. Today, Arab leaders, not only of "moderate" Arab states, but also of those described as "extremist", are following in Egypt's footsteps. Without Sadat's courage, vision and political talent, and that of others who shared his taste for taking action rather than giving speeches, peace in the region could not be attainable today.

Workable peace, like sustainable development, cannot be achieved by wishful thinking or mere words or symbolic acts. A durable peace requires a popular basis of conviction in its present virtues and future necessity or inevitability. It is surprising how little importance is given to this defining period of our history in scholarly works and our school and university curricula. Bridging this knowledge gap in the education of our youth is crucial. The implementation of peace also requires an institutional framework to support it, both economic and political. Egypt's experience in the peace process is a significant asset and a model to build upon. Further, the idea of economic cooperation as a technique of peace- building should be given special emphasis. Proposals such as the US-Middle East Free Trade Area, which the US government called for in the region by 2013, should be rehabilitated and integrated within a comprehensive vision of peace. The challenge of planning and implementing a durable peace creates a field of study in itself. The creation of a Middle East Centre for Peace Studies may be a very important step in the right direction, which I would submit to Egyptian, Israeli and Arab authorities for serious consideration.

As hopes are rising that the peace started by one man, in whose memory this article is written, could become multilateral, it is important to remember that a faithful commitment to peace by politicians is a prerequisite. Sadat's legacy demonstrates that timing is crucial. In problems as complex as those in the Middle East, historical opportunities for real breakthroughs rarely happen. When they do, it is the moral responsibility of all sides to seize upon them. In assessing the juncture for peace, the region's leaders should have before their eyes accumulated missed opportunities, the unnecessary prolongation of the conflict at the cost of untold lives and wealth, and the fact that the entanglement of difficulties and the remoteness of a final solution tend to increase with time. To say that we need a Sadat on the Israeli side for peace to materialise is an overstatement. Sadat has carved a path to peace that did not exist before him. Today's political leaders only need to answer the call of reason and history to walk that path to the end. This is a much less difficult task and failing in it would be unforgivable in the judgment of history.

As Sadat said at the 1979 signing ceremony of the Camp David Accords: "Let there be no more wars or bloodshed ... Let there be no more suffering or denial of rights. Let there be no more despair or loss of faith. Let no mother lament the loss of her child. Let no young man waste his life on a conflict from which no one benefits."

* The writer is an assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Law at Cairo University and JSD candidate at Yale Law School.