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The rule of Sadat

The rule of Sadat (1970-1981)

Anwar Sadat had been one of the original "Free Officers Group" and served as Nasser's vice-president and chosen successor, but he had never been taken seriously until he assumed control of the government. Sadat began to systematically reverse the failed socialist policies of his predecessor, ultimately expelling the Soviets and reforming the economy. But it was Sadat's surprise attack against Israeli forces in the Sinai on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on October 6, 1973 which gave Sadat the credibility which earned the respect of his countrymen. The "October War" shattered the image of Israeli invincibility which had persisted since the Six-Day War and gave the Arab world a tremendous psychological boost. Although the war turned against the Arabs and ended in a stalemate, Sadat emerged as a hero.

Sadat then set about liberalizing the Egyptian system. Political prisoners were granted amnesty, censorship of the press was lifted and political parties were allowed. Sadat also made a show of reversing the harsh secularism which was beginning to alienate the still traditionally religious middle classes by strongly identifying himself as a devout Muslim. At the same time, he instituted the Infitah, or "Open Door" policy, encouraging foreign investment and the development of the private sector. Gulf Arab investments began to flow into the country and international investment and foreign aid increased.

Still, the spectre of another debilitating war with Israel loomed. After years of socialist privation and militarism the Egyptian people had had enough. Although there were still echoes of pan-Arabism, the booming oil-producing Gulf economies had undergone a shift in attitude. At the same time, Egypt was facing pressure from the International Monetary Fund to remove the food subsidies, which were sapping the country's financial reserves. Sadat knew that this would undermine his political power so, instead of graduating the removal of subsidies, he did it in a single day at the beginning of 1977, causing prices to double suddenly and igniting what have been called the food riots. It was a brilliant ploy that caused the IMF to back down and reschedule Egypt's loans and the US to increase its foreign aid to the country. Food subsidies were immediately reinstated.

Sadat made his most dramatic and controversial political move later the same year. On November 19, 1977 Sadat suddenly traveled to Jerusalem with overtures of peace to Israel. On a global level the move was brilliant, catapulting Sadat to the front ranks of international diplomacy. He became the darling of the west and gave the Arab world a new image of moderation.

On a domestic and regional level, Sadat's peace initiative was to outrage the Arab world and alienate the president from many of his people. Never as charismatic as his predecessor, Sadat was perceived as a traitor, toadying to western interests. Egypt was the first Arab state to recognize Israel's right to exist and the subsequent Camp David agreements, which won Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin the Nobel Peace Prize, further isolated Egypt from the rest of the Arab world. The Arab League relocated from Cairo to Tunis and many Arab countries severed diplomatic and trade relations.

Sadat's cultivation of the West, which was initially greeted with enthusiasm by most Egyptians, began to backfire after the peace initiative. Economic liberalization, which brought wealth to the upper and middle classes, brought inflation to the country and increased the poverty of the lower classes.

Sadat's support for Islam also began to backfire as groups like the Muslim Brotherhood gained wider support and became more vocal in their criticism of government economic policies and the Camp David agreements which were portrayed as a sell out to the Zionists. Militant fundamentalist groups throughout the Arab world and in Egypt began to call for Sadat's overthrow or assassination. After relaxing government repression Sadat resorted to wide-scale arrests and the western media who had coddled him since Camp David, suddenly turned on the president.

In October 1981 Sadat was assassinated at a military parade. He had become so isolated from his people by this time that his death and funeral elicited little reaction from a people that had poured into the streets in grief when his predecessor Naser had died.