Egypt: Was Sadat’s assassination an act of vengeance or a failed coup attempt?

By Mourad R. Kamel
Posted on Tuesday, 16 November 2021 20:39, updated on Wednesday, 8 December 2021 15:52

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat smiles at the start of the military parade in Cairo. Later, during the parade, Sadat was killed with eleven others when gunmen opened fire on 6 October 1981 (AP Photo/Bill Foley, File)

With the trial of Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara’s suspected assassins underway, we revisit the tragic destinies of eight assassinated African presidents. Today we look at Egypt's Anwar el-Sadat, who was killed on 6 October 1981 by a member of the military.

This is part 8 of an 8-part series

6 October 1981. It was a sunny Tuesday when President Anwar el-Sadat, dressed in an army uniform, witnessed a military parade to commemorate the success of his October 1973 battle – an offensive that saw Egypt recover the Sinai from Israel as Cairo signed a peace deal with Tel-Aviv.

It was also on this morning that the 63 year-old president would see his legacy come to an end following a 44-second attack, according to Major General Ahmed el-Fouli, a member of the president’s security team. It would become a black day in Egypt’s contemporary history.

Parade of glory to horror

During the celebration, Sadat looked up at the sky where Egyptian Air Force Mirage jets were flying, while army soldiers and troop trucks paraded by. Suddenly a military truck, containing a kill squad, stopped in front of the tribune. Khaled al-Islambouli, an officer in the Egyptian army, was the first to exit the vehicle. He began shouting and gesticulating angrily at Sadat, as recounted by one of his aides.

In response to the commotion, Sadat reportedly stood up, and shouted back to confront the young soldier. At this point, Khaled al Islamboli threw the first explosives at the Manassa (the stage where Sadat and his aides were sitting), before returning to the vehicle to grab his weapon and shoot directly at the president. His colleagues – who had stayed in the truck – followed suit and began shooting. They were: Lieutenants Abdel Hamid Abdelsalam and Atta Tayel, as well as Sergeant Hussein Abbas.

I think that the removal of Sadat is a step forward to achieve our aims, because he was a big obstacle in our way to achieve and establish democracy.

Though Aboud el-Zomor was not present during the attack, he was involved in the planning of the operation. All of those mentioned were either part of, or hired by the Jama’a al-Islameya: an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Following the assassination, they were all sentenced to death, except Zomor, who was jailed for life.

Events that followed Sadat’s assassination have led many analysts to conclude that a coup was planned in the aftermath of his death.

Islamists create and seize a moment

It was on the same day that Islamists in the country also unleashed their fury on the state. Angered by the peace deal that Cairo had signed with Israel, and inspired by the islamic revolution in Iran that had just taken in place between 1978-79, the Islamic right in Egypt wanted to hit back.

There were efforts by Islamists to take over the Maspero national TV and Radio building in Cairo as well as assassinate the interior minister, Nabawi Ismail. Two cars had driven past his home in Cairo’s Mohandeseen neighbourhood and fired live bullets at his house.

Chaos hit the governorate of Asyut. In an article dated 12 October 1981, just six days after Sadat’s death, reports state that 54 policemen were killed and more than 100 were wounded in clashes between fundamentalists and police authorities in the southern city of Asyut. The authorities downplayed the intensity of the attacks, reporting only 20 deaths.

“I think that the removal of Sadat is a step forward to achieve our aims, because he was a big obstacle in our way to achieve and establish democracy,” Saadeddin el-Shazli, a retired general exiled in Tripoli, said a couple of days after the assassination.

Shazli was Egypt’s chief of staff during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, but later broke ranks with Sadat following the peace accord with Israel. He became the leader of an Egyptian opposition group based abroad that was mainly composed of leftists, which later turned against President Hosni Mubarak.

Shazli was not Sadat’s primary problem

Just one month before his assassination, the former-inmate-turned-president had ordered the arrest of 1,536 Egyptians who opposed his politics, mainly his peace deal with Israel. Many of those arrested included personalities who originated from all over the political spectrum: the Wafd party, Socialists, Christians and the Brotherhood, including renowned Egyptians like feminist activist Nawal el-Saadawi, Pope Shenouda and journalist Hassanein Heikal.

One name that had been flagged was that of Mohamed al-Islamboli, Khaled’s younger brother. He was an influential youngster within Jama’a al Islamiya who knew how to agitate his associates. There were strong sentiments among Islamists that saw Iran’s revolution as the start of an effort to push out nationalist strongmen, starting with Sadat. His efforts to make peace with Israel, and host Iran’s ousted (and ailing) Shah were taken to be major actions of provocation by Egyptian Islamists.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat leads a prayer at Abdine Palace in Cairo, Egypt at the funeral of Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on 29 July 1980. (AP Photo, File)

Khaled’s radical opposition to a peace deal with Israel is the major reason that led him to pull the trigger on Sadat. The arrest of his younger brother undoubtedly added to his will to “kill the Pharaoh” – a statement that he shouted after killing the president. Nevertheless, he was not unknown to the Egyptian government. In fact, Mohamed Abu Ghazala, then minister of defence, said military intelligence had been watching Khaled Islambouli “for suspected religious leanings”.

By unleashing the Brotherhood, Sadat opened Pandora’s box

When Pandora opened her husband’s container, she unleashed a slew of curses, according to Hesiod, the Greek poet who wrote the poem ‘Works and Days’. Her curiosity pushed her to open the forbidden box. Sadat’s story with the Muslim Brotherhood followed a similar explosive outcome. He knew that in opening certain boxes, he may not be able to shut them closed again. But he was willing to take the risk.

Sadat was faced with formidable enemies in the aftermath of the passing of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. These included loyal Nasserists, who viewed Sadat as a weak leader, and pro-soviet officials, who doubted Sadat’s socialist leanings. Egypt’s leftists were very vocal in universities and public spaces, chanting pro-Palestine, pro-democracy and anti-US slogans. Following Nasser’s death, Sadat was at the helm of taking over from Egypt’s most charismatic president in (some could argue in the Middle-East’s) modern contemporary history. He was undoubtedly faced with an epic challenge.

While Nasser embraced a pan-Arab Middle-East and forged ties with the Maghreb as well as African states, Sadat turned to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states  – key steps to opening relations with the US. Nasser had cherished his alliance with the Soviets, but Sadat broke Cairo’s ties with Moscow. Nasser believed in gathering third world countries, while Sadat favoured a go-it-alone foreign policy.

Sadat consolidated his shaky rule by unleashing the power of the Islamic right as a hammer against the left, with the generous financial assistance of Saudi Arabia…

Sadat faced an increasingly difficult battle to find new support as he realigned Egypt’s alliances.

He thus needed Egypt’s scattered Islamist community, which had been heavily repressed under Nasser, to help him silence his political opponents. Although the Muslim Brotherhood was not allowed to regain legality or participate as a party in elections, under Sadat it emerged from its repression with a carte blanche to intimidate Egypt’s young liberals and leftists at universities, run for student and professional unions, while appearing more frequently in the media.

“Sadat consolidated his shaky rule by unleashing the power of the Islamic right as a hammer against the left, with the generous financial assistance of Saudi Arabia […] Sadat welcomed the exiled Muslim Brotherhood back to Egypt, reinvigorated the organisation, and built its institutional presence within universities. Before Sadat, Islamists were for the most part fringe-dwelling marginalised radicals, after Sadat, the Muslim Brotherhood and its more radical youth wing, were part of mainstream politics in Egypt,” writes Robert Dreyfus, in his book The Devil’s Game.

Initially, this Islamist community, which had no central leadership, served as an ally to Sadat. However, the re-establishment of ties with the US after the 1973 war, his voyage to Jerusalem to address the Knesset that led to the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and last but not least, his support for the US in Afghanistan against Soviet troops would gradually turn the Islamists against Sadat.

Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir presenting President Anwar Sadat of Egypt with a gift for his new grandchild. Sadat became the first Arab leader to set foot in Israel in its 29 years of existence when he arrived in Tel Aviv at the start of his two day visit in November 1977

On the morning of his assassination, Jihan al-Sadat asked her husband to wear a bullet proof jacket. The president refused adding he doesn’t need it, because he would be “among his children”. Unfortunately for the president, not all his “children” felt the same way about their new father figure.

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