Fouad Serageddin (1911-2000) , the cigar-chomping Egyptian aristocrat and wily machine politician, known to one and all as Fouad Basha, was reputed to have described Nasser and Sadat a few days after the July 1952 coup as “Al Zabit wa al Suffragi”, or “The Officer and the Butler”. This cruel remark was characteristic of the pain Sadat endured at the hands of his fellow Egyptians for most of his long career in public life. In return, Sadat sought to woe, rule, serve and occasionally terrify the country that bore him but never unconditionally loved him. A consummate actor given to the grand gesture, he was easy to anger and easy to appease. He thought of Egyptians as “his children”, and especially so of the political Islamists, of whom he was once a member and occasionally a sympathizer. In his last moments he stood up in surprise, resplendent in an operatic uniform, to see his children commit an act of oedipal rage.

Leaders of the world walked behind Sadat’s casket, but few Egyptians bothered to look up. Many writers attuned to Egypt’s peculiarities, such as Naguib Mahfouz and Foud Ajami, have struggled to understand Sadat. All have found it difficult to come to anything more than ambiguous conclusions about the man. Sadat passed through life playing ever larger roles, and strove to deliver what the audience demanded. The sonorous voice, the fine Arabic diction, the well-cut suits, the thoughtful puffing on a pipe, the days in the countryside clad in a Galabyia were all tools of the trade. What outraged him was that the frequent applause of the Egyptians was never heartfelt.  He would always languish in the shadow of Nasser, who could effortlessly woe the Egyptians even as he oppressed them. He probably understood the reasons behind that, but would never own up to them, for he too was complicit in them. In 1958 he wrote, in a rare moment of transparency, that “In Egypt, personalities have always been more important than political programs“. He lived his life by those words. He had become a master improviser, and with protean talent he could produce master performances, as well as occasional duds.

In late August 1981, a short visit to Egypt found a twitchy country on edge. The master performer had run out of tricks. Peace produced no prosperity. The Americans, once thrilled with his act, had found their own actor as President and moved on. The Israelis showed no appreciation, but were their usual prickly and bumptious selves. His own people were at each other’s throats, in part because of his own incitement. The air was thick with impending rumors of arrests and “purges”. Everyone waited to see what the denouement of a decade of magic would be. They did not wait long.

Egypt has yet to come to grips with Sadat’s assassins. Neither giving them a place of honor on a dais, as we done last year, nor gunning them down in the streets, will work in favor of the country. If there is any hope it would be in upending Sadat’s words and finally putting political programs ahead of personalities.

— Maged Atiya

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