The Egyptian Israeli peace process during 1977-1979 was a shock to the jihadist movement in Egypt, that had been under repression ever since Nasser’s political rule. Encouraged by the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Egyptian jihadists - inspired by the ideologue Muhammad Abd Al-Salam Faraj and advised by colonel Al-Zumar (an intelligence officer) - decided to assassinate the president Anwar Al-Sadat during the military parade dedicated to the celebration of the Yom Kippur War. The attempt was to be accompanied by a popular revolt. Even though the revolutionary project failed, the assassination of Sadat had a major impact on the history of the Middle East: the Arab-Israeli peace process would stop, and the jihadists involved in the conspiracy would leave for Afghanistan and to the USA, becoming the decisive factor behind the birth of Al-Qaeda and the plan to strike down the New York twin towers.
Key words: Jihad, Al-Qaeda, the Middle East Peace Process
A Death that Changed the Destiny of the Middle East
On the 6th of October 1981, the Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat was getting ready for a triumphant, glorifying celebration. Installed in power in 1970, following Nasser’s unexpected death, Sadat went through a critical three years when no one thought he would survive as leader of Egypt. Then, in a desperate bet he attacked Israel - the Yom Kippur War – and run a extraordinary campaign in Sinai, which allowed him to restore the honour lost by the Arabic armies in the 1948 and 1967 conflicts. Proving to Israel that Egypt was still a dangerous enemy worth negotiating with, rather, Anwar al-Sadat had convinced the Israeli leaders to agree to a peace process where they gave up the Sinai Peninsula (previously taken in the Six Days War in 1967) in exchange for a peace treaty signed with an Arab state. This spectacular success earned him and the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, in 1978, the Nobel Peace Prize. Finally, Sadat the ra’is succeeded in gradually pulling Egypt out - between 1973 and 1981 - of the bloc of allies of Moscow (which was already heading towards the 1989-1991 bankruptcy) and turning it into a pro-American state (hesitantly) going to the market economy.
Under these circumstances, Sadat had every reason to believe that the traditional military parade on the 6th of October 1981, which celebrated eight years since the lightning attack against the Tzahal (Israeli Armed Forces) would represent a moment of deep affection and gratitude towards him from the Egyptian people. The series of unexpected successes and the worldwide appreciation he was enjoying boosted Sadat’s toxic confidence in himself and his historic destiny – which made him increasingly intolerant to all forms of opposition and convinced of his own perfection.
This is why, when an artillery truck stopped unexpectedly in front of the presidential tribune, halting the parade, Anwar Al-Sadat stood up, expecting the people who got off the truck and ran towards him to salute him, in an obviously improper manner that was actually meant to show how the armed forces and the people worshiped him.[i] In reality, Sadat stood at salute to accept and facilitate his own execution (had he kept out of the way he would have had a chance to survive). The four troopers who charged the official stand had no intention to honour, but slaughter him by firing and throwing hand grenades at him. The leader of the firing squad was lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, a promising artillery officer who had graduated the Military Academy. Khalid Islambouli’s brother was arrested a few weeks before by Sadat’s special services, determining him to swear revenge. Khalid Islambouli was accompanied by a group of corporals only 21 years old.
- ”My name is Khalid Al-Islambuli. I killed Pharaoh. I am not afraid to die”, shouted Sadat’s assassin before being seized by the latter’s security team - eight personal bodyguards and thousands of security troops that would have on their conscience the shocking failure of protecting their leader.[ii]
Nothing would be the same in the Middle East after the 6th of October 1981. The politicians would refrain from assuming decisive steps in the Arab-Israeli peace process, aware that they could have Sadat’s same fate. The only exception here was Itzak Rabin – and he would share the ra’is’s fate. Secondly, the group of conspirators behind the assassination of the Egyptian president would go into exile in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, following a short detention period. Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak would rather get rid of them channelling their Jihadist rage towards other horizons. It was a catastrophic choice, since among these Jihadists channelled towards new horizons were Ayman Al-Zawahiri and ”the Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman, the two Egyptian Jihadists that would inspire the birth of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden’s obsession to take down the twin towers in New York. Omar Abdel-Rahman even left for New York and settled in Brooklyn (18th of July 1990), where he lived and inspired the first attack on the World Trade Centre, on the 26th of February 1993; on the other hand, Al-Zawahiri went to Afghanistan and became Bin Laden’s mentor and his successor as the head of Al-Qaeda (which he still leads today).
Why Was Sadat Killed?
The Six Days War in 1967 brought Israel an outright victory against an Arab alliance whose main players were Egypt, Syria and Jordan (Iraq didn’t share a border with Israel, and Lebanon refrained, ever since 1948, from formally fraternising with its Muslim brethren). Following the war - that started with an Israeli attack justified by a continuous escalation from the Egyptian president Nasser who had re-militarised Sinai, requested the withdrawal of the “buffer” troops provided by the UN and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, thus isolating the port of Eilat - the Jewish state occupied the Egyptian Sinai, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the West Bank (according to the Israelis, the biblical Samaria and Judea). The Resolution 242 adopted by the Security Council of the UN on the 22nd of November 1967, following the war, referred to the “inadmissibility of acquiring territory by war” and “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”.[iii] At this point, to the Israeli leaders that meant all the above mentioned territories could be subject to discussion regarding their return to Arab states based on the principle “land for peace”, with the exception of Jerusalem, which had a far greater symbolic value to be given by any political leader under negotiations. Predictably, the Israeli side would have tried to obtain a series of territorial concessions in Samaria and Judea either for military reasons (as wished by the political left represented by Golda Meir or Yigal Allon) or for nationalist ideological reasons (as intended by Menachem Begin’s right) - however, beyond this objective the principle of territorial restitution was generally accepted. Moshe Dayan, the Israeli minister of defence during the Six Days War (implicitly the administrator of the newly acquired territories), stated immediately after the war that “he was expecting a phone call” from the Arab leaders.[iv] However, the position of Arab countries as stated by the resolution adopted at the Summit of the Arab League in Khartoum (1st September 1967) came down to a triple “NO”: NO to peace with Israel, NO to recognising Israel and NO to negotiating with Israel. However, they wanted to support the Palestinians in order to win back their territories, position equivalent to upholding the annihilation of Israel as a military and political objective.[v]
Since the Arabs refused to negotiate, the events have inevitably entered a phase of adjustment to the endemic conflict and to new tensions. To hide his defeat in 1967, Nasser and the Soviets started the War of Attrition on the Suez Canal (July 1967-August 1970, which reached its peak between the 8th of March 1969 and the 7th of August 1970), while the Israelis continued to further assimilate occupied territories – by either supporting demographic growth (founding of new settlements) or legislatively integrating some regions (the Jerusalem Law - Jerusalem Capital of Israel since July 1980, for example).
In 1970, the leader of the Arab alliance in the latest confrontations with Israel, Gamal Abd Al-Nasser unexpectedly died, due to heart complications generated by his diabetes. Anwar Sadat was propelled at the leadership of Egypt, a rather unknown and underestimated ruler. Contrasting with Nasser, who saw himself as a great leader of the Arab world, Sadat was more of an Egyptian nationalist. Egypt’s interests - stopping the economic recession and strengthening its own regime (clearly weak in the beginning) - were more important to him than the Palestinian issue or the Muslim solidarity against Israel (even though he was not neglecting these matters that were impossible to avoid given the pressure of the public opinion). Besides, Sadat didn’t believe in the might of the USSR as he was more of an adept of an alliance with the USA. He was willing to abandon the relationship of economic and military dependency on Moscow, if cooperation with the Americans had been guaranteed. All these calculations of Sadat’s were impossible to guess, though, in the period between 1970 and 1973, when he was perceived as an uninspiring and unconvincing temporary option at the leadership of Egypt.
To accomplish the major Egyptian foreign policy objective (winning back the Sinai Peninsula), Sadat had to overcome two apparently insurmountable obstacles: bringing the Israelis to the negotiating table and keeping the other Arab states involved in the peace process (Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian representatives) at the same table with Israel. Sadat was in fact trapped between the maximal demands of the Arab countries, who wanted major concessions from Israel without giving anything in exchange (not even its official recognition as a state) and the reduced level of willingness of the Israeli leaders to agree with major concessions to enemies who had recently been surpassed militarily. In 1973, Sadat tried, with the help of Nicolae Ceaușescu to initiate a dialogue with the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, but the Israeli side saw Sadat’s terms as unrealistic and lacking substance.[vi] This was the context in which the Egyptian ra’is launched his October 1973 Yom Kippur War. The conflict allowed Sadat to show that the Egyptian military, combined with the Syrian one represented a threat to Israel despite the catastrophic failure in 1967. The Egyptian army managed, in October 1973, a remarkable crossing of the Suez Canal, secured the strategic surprise on Tzahal and the Israeli military intelligence service (AMAN), and identified the best tactics to thwart the counterattack of the Israeli armoured vehicles and aviation (using surface to air missiles and infantry carrying portable anti-tank launchers).
The surprise produced in the first phase of the Yom Kippur War by Sadat’s generals and the panic that Tel Aviv experienced in the first days of the conflict (Tzahal later took over initiative) secured the first major objective of the Egyptian president - the willingness of the Israeli leaders to take part in peace negotiations that had on their agenda massive restitutions of territories seized in 1967. This willingness was still there even when, after decades of leftist governance in Israel, the Likud nationalistic right led by Menachem Begin came to power unexpectedly.
The second major challenge to Sadat was the ability to reach an agreement with Israel given the fact that no less than eight diplomatic actors were expected at the negotiating table: the USA, the USSR, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and representatives of the Palestinians.[vii] These actors would combine amongst themselves following various criteria. Firstly, the Arab camp had to display solidarity. On the other hand, there were a pro-American group (Jordan, Saudi Arabia – towards whom Egypt was leaning) and a pro-Soviet group (Syria, the Palestinians – to whom Egypt was considered to belong). In their turn, the Arab states were divided by their own political and personal rivalries: the Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad was being more and more hostile to Sadat given the way the latter managed the crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973, refusing to attack in depth as he had initially promised; Jordan dreamed of taking over the West Bank, raising concern to Egypt and Syria; the Palestinians had tried to overthrow king Hussein of Jordan etc.
Taking the above into consideration, in 1977, in the context of preparations for a new extended format meeting in Geneva (where similar talks had taken place after the Yom Kippur War), in both the Egyptian and Israeli camps (where Mehachem Begin won the elections in May 1977) took shape, for the first time, the need for a direct contact. Both sides believed that collective talks – including more radical actors such as the Syrians and the Palestinians - would make impossible an otherwise feasible arrangement between Israel and Egypt. Both camps felt pressured by the USA and the USSR to accept compromises on far more than the mere dialogue between Israel and Egypt. The Sinai problem was, in reality, easier to solve than that of the Jerusalem or that of the Palestinian refugees.[viii]
The secret negotiating channels chosen by Sadat – on behalf of Egypt - and Begin and Moshe Dayan (as foreign minister) – on behalf of Israel - were, at that stage, those provided by Morocco and Romania. Sadat wrote in his memoirs: “In Romania I had a long session of discussion with the president Nicolae Ceaușescu, where he told me about an even more extensive session he had had with the Israeli prime minister Begin (eight hours long, out of which six had been private). I asked Ceaușescu what he had thought. He said Begin wants to find a solution. My main concern regarding this meeting, I said, is whether Israel truly and actually wants peace. As far as I am concerned it is obvious that I want it and I have proven it beyond the shadow of a doubt. But does the Israeli governance today - especially under Begin as leader of the fanatic bloc Likud - want peace? Can an extremist such as Begin truly wish for peace? Let me tell you firmly said again Ceaușescu that he wants peace. Ceaușescu seemed very confident and I trust this man’s judgement. Besides, the Romanian president had been maintaining a close relationship with the Israelis. The fact that he insisted on Begin’s wish for peace and on him being a powerful man confirmed that a change was now necessary.”[ix]
Sadat had said this once before, in an interview he gave in 1977 to Ranan Laurie in the house of the Egyptian president in Ismailia, when the ra’is stated that the basis for his decision to negotiate peace with Begin had been provided by Nicolae Ceaușescu’s assurance that Begin was a strong leader (unlike Rabin), who really wanted peace.[x]
Tens of documents published in 2012 by the Israeli State Archives attest that, on the 4th of September 1977, Begin told his ministers that Sadat had conveyed to Ceaușescu his willingness to meet and discuss with Begin the terms of an Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement.[xi]
In the introduction of the joint declaration Begin-Mănescu on the 30th of August 1977, in Bucharest, the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry stated: “at the invitation of prime minister Manea Mănescu, Mr. Begin spent six days in Romania (25-30 August) and had talks with the leaders of this country, including long talks with president Nicolae Ceaușescu. The talks focused on ways to start peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt. Mr. Begin presented Israel’s position and emphasized his willingness to compromise in exchange for a real peace. The Romanian president later met with president Sadat and told him what the Israelis thought of him. Both prime minister Begin and president Sadat later entrusted president Ceaușescu with a vital role in making Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem possible.”[xii]
Morocco had been sharing a special relationship with Israel ever since 1961, when king Mohammed V of Morocco set a flexible way of allowing Moroccan Jews to make aliyah. From that moment on, when times were hard, the Tzahal and the Mossad offered protection to his young and vulnerable successor, Hassan II. He received military support in the fight against Algeria and intelligence support against Libya – country that planned for his assassination. Being educated in France, in Bordeaux, Hassan II had a particular affinity for the Semite and made reference to an alliance between the “Jewish genius and the Arab strength” as well as about the “Semite brotherhood”.[xiii] Given the fact that the Moroccan king was holding the presidency of the Arab League, the first serious attempt of Tel-Aviv to negotiate with Sadat took place via Rabat, considered by the Israeli socialists a more reliable avenue than Bucharest- suspected of being too deeply infiltrated by the Soviet espionage.
In October 1976, wearing a wig and sun glasses, Ytzhak Rabin visited Hassan II and established a first mediated contact with Sadat. However, Sadat didn’t accept Rabin as partner of dialogue, thinking he was too “weak” to take on major political endeavours. Shortly after, however, Menachem Begin took over from Rabin as head of the state. Based on this, as seen above, Ceaușescu assured Sadat that Begin was a strong leader who had the ability to make peace. Besides, Sadat and Begin shared the same past; they had both been underground fighters for national liberation and political prisoners. Sadat believed he understood Begin better, even though the latter had been considered an “anti-Arab”. This is why Moshe Dayan, Begin’s foreign minister and a fine connoisseur of military and intelligence relations with Morocco, resumed the Moroccan avenue initiated by Rabin. Dayan described extensively the negotiations conducted via Morocco: “On the fine and sunny afternoon of the 4th of September 1977 I left for what was to be the first of the three secret visits to an Arab leader, King Hassan II of Morocco. It wasn’t his first meeting with a representative of the Israeli government; however, with a new government in power, led by Menachem Begin, the old contact had been renewed and I had received an invitation from the king. Begin had approved my trip and we had agreed on the issues we were to discuss during the meeting. Our main purpose was to secure Hassan’s support in establishing a direct meeting and conducting peace negotiations with Egypt’s representatives.”[xiv] On the 9th of September 1977 King Hassan sent the Israelis Sadat’s agreement for this meeting, that would take place on the 16th of September in Morocco as well, in the presence of the king. The Egyptian vice prime minister Tuhami (one of Sadat’s middlemen) and Moshe Dayan were to attend the meeting, where both parties would express their requirements for the signing of the peace treaty.[xv]
The end of this process is well known all over the world: in the summer of 1978, Begin and Sadat met at Camp David and reached a historical deal, thanks to the mediating abilities of president Jimmy Carter. There follows the Nobel Peace Prize and the signing, in March 1979, on the front lawn of the White House, of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, countries whose rivalry had lasted ever since Moses left Egypt … For this historical undertaking, in October 1981 Sadat would be killed by the Islamists.
Who Killed Sadat? The First Al-Qaeda
The decision of the Egyptian Islamist to kill Anwar Sadat took shape between 1977- 1979, in the context of two major events. After Sadat flew to Tel Aviv and spoke in the Knesset, agreeing two years from then to sign a peace treaty with Israel, his “punishment” at the hand of the Jihadists became unavoidable. The Islamic Revolution in Iran, in 1979, made the Egyptian jihadists hope that the assassination of Sadat would become the opening for a coup d’état that would turn Egypt into the first great Sunni theocracy (as opposed to the Iranian Shi’ite regime).
The ideological muse of the Jihadist conspiracy in 1981 was Muhammad Abd Al-Salam Faraj, the spiritual father of Al-Jihad. Faraj was in fact, along Sayyid Qutb, the most influential Jihadist thinker that would inspire Al-Qaeda’s ideology. In The Neglected Duty (Al-Farida Al-Gha’iba), his defining publication, Faraj proclaimed Jihad (as warfare, not only as an inner effort) as the fundamental obligation of every Muslim - an obligation that had been ignored for the last centuries, which led to the downfall of the Islamic power. Jihad should be conducted not only against non-Muslim enemies but also against Muslim political leaders that can’t accept the fact that the state must be in the service God. These leaders were called by Faraj “apostates” and compared with Genghis Khan or to the Pharaoh. As such, it is every Muslim’s duty to kill them, in order to make possible the instauration of an authentic Islamic theocracy. Muhammad Abd Al-Salam Faraj would not be a mere theorist of “regicide”; he would actually organize the Al-Jihad, uniting under its umbrella a Jihadi group from Assiut (Southern Egypt) and a group from Cairo, where Ayman Al-Zawahiri was from.[xvi]
To succeed in their plot against Sadat, Al-Jihad needed two key characters: an important military leader, willing to take part in the conspiracy, but also an important theologian and cleric, willing to issue a fatwa authorising the assassination of Sadat. The first was colonel Abbud Al-Zumar (military intelligence) who, in 1979, was convinced that Sadat would share the fate of the Iranian Shah and would be removed from power through an Islamist popular revolution. Al-Zumar would use his influence to ensure the participation of Lt. Islambouli’s platoon in the military parade, in October 1981. The Fatwa that authorized the assassination of Sadat was written by “the blind sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Imam of a mosque in Al-Fayyum, a theology professor in Assiut and the spiritual leader of the Islamist group Al-Gama Al-Islamiyya (“The Islamic Group”).[xvii]
After the death of Sadat, the project of a Sunni Islamist revolution failed rapidly, as it wasn’t supported by the population. Egypt did not have Iran’s fate. The conspirators were caught and put to trial. Faraj and Islambouli were executed and Al-Zumar was sentenced to a long imprisonment, extended until nowadays (he was recently released from prison). On the other hand, the lower ranking leaders of Al-Jihad that haven’t been directly involved in the assassination, such as Abdel-Rahman and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, would be released and encouraged to find other Jihadist strongholds.
Their exile will lead to the birth of Al-Qaeda and the globalization of Islam.
[i]Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, PENN, Philadelphia, p. 33
[ii]Randall D. Law, Istoria Terorismului: de la asirieni la jihadiști (“Terrorism: A History”), Corint Publishing, Bucharest, 2017, p 460
[iii]Terje Rod-Larsen, Nur Laiq, Fabrice Aidan, The Search for Peace in the Arab-Israeli Conflict: a compendium of Documents and Analysis, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014 , p 612
[iv]Zeev Schiff, A History of the Israeli Army, New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1995, p 144
[v]Anita Shapira, Israel: A History, London, Weidenfeld&Nicolson, 2015, p 319
[vi]Joseph Finklestone, Anwar Sadat – Visionary Who Dared, London, Frank Cass, 2003, p 74
[vii]Peter Mansfield, O istorie a Orientului Mijlociu (“A History of the Middle East”), Bucharest, Humanitas Publishing 2015, p 308-319
[viii]Gerald M. Steinberg and Ziv Rubinovitz, Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2019, pp 70-71
[ix]Anwar Al-Sadat, In Search of Identity: An Autobiography, New York, Harper&Row Publishers, 1978, pp 305-306
[x]Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Sadat Says He Decided to Negotiate with Begin after Ceausescu Told Him Begin Genuinely Wanted Peace, 29 December 1977
[xi]Ofer Aderet, Behind the Scenes of Anwar Sadat's Historic Visit to Jerusalem, Haaretz, 27 November 2012
[xiii]Jewish Telegraphic Agency - JTA, The Hassan-Israeli Connection, 24 July 1986
[xiv]Moshe Dayan, Breakthrough: a Personal Account of the Egypt-Israel Peace Negotiation, New York, Albert Knopf, 1981, p 38
[xv]William B. Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics, Washington D.C. The Brookings Institution, 1986, p 206
[xvi]Euben Roxanne L., Zaman Muhammad Qasim, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thoughts, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2009, p 327
[xvii]Ibid, p 345
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