Friday, October 06, 2006

Sadat Assassinated - 25 Years Later

Twenty-five years ago, at 12:40 pm on October 6, 1981, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, age 63, was mortally wounded as he reviewed a military parade commemoratingEgypt's "victory" over Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

His attackers, Muslim fundamentalists, tossed two handgrenades and directed automatic weapons fire into the reviewing stand. Sadat's deputy, Hosni Mubarak, was nearby but escaped unscathed.

I can't recall where I was that Tuesday in October. Maybe in my office in the shadow of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. Perhaps at NYU where I was a graduate student.

What particularly fascinates is to have a peek at what was going on the day before that cataclysmic event, when no one - save the assassins themselves - had any inkling of the looming calamity.

On October 5, 1981, The Jerusalem Post carried a front page analysis by military affairs reporter Hirsh Goodman, exposing divisions within the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO was a player in the ongoing (1975-1990) Lebanese civil war and controlled most of south Lebanon. Goodman was trying to get a handle on whether the PLO would maintain its temporary cease-fire with Israel or perhaps launch attacks at Jewish targets outside the region.There was no Hizbullah.

Hassan Nasrallah was 21 years old and had returned - having been expelled - to South Lebanon from Iraq where he had studied politics and theology in Iraq. By then Nasrallah had probably joined the Amal movement which had arisen to defend Shi'ite interests in the civil war.

Over in Washington, Ronald Reagan's administration (with Casper Weinberger in the Pentagon) was pushing hard to sell hi-tech AWACS early warning aircraft to Saudi Arabia, ­ a move that the pro-Israel community in the US vigorously opposed. The fear was that the kind of attack Israel had just carried out (on June 7) against the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak might have been greatly complicated had Saudi AWACS surveillance planes been patrolling the skies.

Richard Nixon famously grumbled that members ofCongress were being asked to "choose between Reagan and Begin."

Twenty-five years ago Egypt and Israel were essentially at peace. Sadat's historic November 1977 visit had cemented a new reality. Israel, however, had not yet withdrawn from all of the Sinai Peninsula. The Jewish community of Yamit had not yet been uprooted. Indeed, Knesset members were debating issues of settler compensation and Yamit supporters were actively lobbying politicians - especially those in the National Religious Party - to block the withdrawal.

And though there was peace, some Israelis complained that Egypt was not doing enough to open up its doors to Israeli tourism; it was taking too long to obtain a visa was a common complaint. Egyptians bureaucrats defended their actions, noting that in the 19 months since a consular section had been set up at Cairo's embassy in Tel Aviv some 80,000 visas had been processed.

Meanwhile, Israeli companies were trying to expand business opportunities in Egypt. Solel Boneh, the Histadrut-owned construction conglomerate, had announced plansto open a new office in Cairo.

THE ASSASSINATION took place in the age before websites. CNN began broadcasting only in 1980 and few people in New York had cable. Israel had just one television station.Most people learned about the assassination from radio.

The day after the assassination, October 7, 1981, The Jerusalem Post lead headline simply read: "Sadat Assassinated"; the sub-headline told readers: "Mubarak Pledges Continuity on Peace." Sadat, said Mubarak, had been killed "by criminal and treacherous hands."

That same morning, the staid New York Times published an exceptional three-row headline across the top of the front page (I still have the paper): "Sadat Assassinated at Army Parade as men amid ranks fire into stands; Vice President affirms 'All Treaties'.

No one outside Egypt really knew who was responsible orwhat their motives were. There were various claims of responsibility and much celebration in the various Arab capitals.

In PLO-controlled South Lebanon, gunmen set off rockets and shot weapons in the air to celebrate. Youths in Arab east Jerusalem joyfully rallied. The Soviet Union, ­drawing ever closer to Yasser Arafat, ­said Sadat had got what was coming to him - though not in so many words. Iran (the Shah, an Israeli ally, had been overthrown in 1979 and the country was now in the hands of the mullahs) hailed the killing. Tripoli Radio was practically orgasmic in its broadcast: "He lived like a Jew and died like aJew."

Yitzhak Rabin, a former general and former prime minister (his fateful second term was years away), grumbled that the Reagan Administration had contributed to the assassination by shifting its focus away from Egypt to Saudi Arabia ­-- a dig, no doubt, over the AWACS controversy.

THAT WEDNESDAY night, October 7, marked the start of Yom Kippur; further news and analysis about the assassination, the funeral, and what it all meant forIsrael had to wait. An anxious country was shutting down for the solemn Day of Atonement.I

t would be some days before the world learned for certain that the assassins were Islamists ­- a breakaway faction of the Muslim Brotherhood. In hindsight, we can almost connect the dots between Sadat's assassins and the killers of Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990 and even subsequent attacks on the West, including those carried out by al-Qaida. Some of those involved in the Sadat assassination would later be tied to some of these events.

Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration urged Israel to help calm a volatile region by ending settlement activity in Judea and Samaria (something premier Menachem Begin rejected) and to accelerate efforts to offer the Palestinian Arabs autonomy (something Palestinian Arabs rejected).

FROM THE vantage point of 2006, we can be thankful that the "peace" with Egypt has held these 25 years.

Mubarak, though, failed to socialize the people of Egypt to the idea and legitimacy of peace with the sovereign Jewish state of Israel. Perhaps this would be asking too much giving that the "Palestinian problem" was unresolved.

Mubarak's regime, moreover, has been duplicitous and thoroughly unhelpful in expanding the peace.

It was Mubarak who hardened Arafat's heart urging him not to cut a deal with Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000 and thus contributing to the second intifada.

Egypt is connected to just about every anti-Israel move at the UN and among the so-called non-aligned nations. Egyptian authorities calibrate just how many weapons to allow into the Gaza Strip via tunnels in Sinai so as to keep the area on a low boil. In doing so, they are playing with fire.

The Egyptian military is flush with the newest weapons supplied by a grateful America. Cairo's military machine poses the greatest threat to Israel of any Arab state.

But with all that, I for one worry about what will happen when the 78-year-old Mubarak leaves the scene. Egypt, even more than Saudi Arabia, is the theological home of al-Qaida; it is the birthplace of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who some say is the real brains behind Osama bin-Laden. It is also the birthplace of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik who inspired the murder of Rabbi Kahane and al-Qaida's 1993 attempt to topple the World Trade Center.

Mubarak's inability – perhaps unwillingness - to permit a reformist opposition has left the field open to Egypt's semi-legal Islamist.

Twenty-five years ago the world discovered that the Islamist genie was out of the bottle. If you reflect on how much damage the Muslim fundamentalist phenonenon (in its various manifestations) has already caused in a relatively short period, God only know what the next 25 years will bring. Clearly, the genie cannot easily be put back into the bottle.

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