Originally appeared in The Daily.
No one can be sure how long Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt from 1970 to 1981, remained conscious after the bullets tore through his body. If he lived a minute or two, he might have heard the triumphant words of his assassin, who, after running out of bullets, screamed: “I am Khaled Islambouli. I have killed the pharaoh, and I do not fear death!”
Islambouli chose those words carefully, since in Egypt at the time, “pharaoh” — with its suggestion of a pre-Islamic king, answering to multiple gods — was a word even dirtier than “dictator” is today. Sadat’s security detail tackled the assassin moments later, but 11 people, Sadat included, lay dying. Political assassinations rarely succeed so grandly: In addition to taking out their target at Cairo’s military parade grounds on Oct. 6, 1981, the four killers managed to make their act public and bloody.
Eight years prior, Sadat had led Egypt in driving Israel out of the Sinai during the Yom Kippur, or Ramadan, War, which is still the country’s only real military win since the Egyptian Republic’s founding in 1953. Sadat insisted on being present at this commemorative parade, despite the urging of his security advisers and Vice President Hosni Mubarak, who was standing by his side, and who would go on to succeed him as president.
By 1981, Sadat was marked for death. Arabs loved him for presiding over the Israel war, but over the next eight years he had squandered his credibility on the Arab street by pursuing peace with Israel and the United States. In 1977 he visited Israel and began to normalize relations with the state he had attacked just four years earlier. He followed up with a series of crackdowns on dissidents, chief among them the Gama’a al Islamiyya, or the Islamic Group.
Sadat never let up pressure on the Gama’a al Islamiyya — in the month before his death, he had roughly 1,500 suspected dissidents arrested — but he did seem to realize that the Egyptian people were unhappy and needed to be appeased. Sadat made peace with Israel for reasons that were largely economic: In 1977, Egyptians rioted violently over the removal of subsidies for bread; they were the biggest protests in the country’s history, only now exceeded by this year’s revolt against Mubarak’s regime. The Camp David Accords that sealed the peace provided for a robust aid program from the United States, guaranteeing Egypt a dollar for every dollar sent to Israel.
After Camp David, Egypt suddenly had American and Western European weapons, including a fleet of French-built Mirage attack aircraft, to add to its arsenal of bulky old Soviet T-72 tanks. Sadat intended to use the Oct. 6 parade to showcase his newly-equipped forces and demonstrate to his restive officer corps that peace with Israel had been worthwhile.
Exactly how Islambouli, 26, managed to sneak live ammunition onto the parade ground is not clear. As a lieutenant in charge of an artillery unit, he would not have been out of place in the cavalcade of Soviet howitzers. Midway through the procession, he and three accomplices drove their truck up to the review stand. Many thought they had mechanical difficulties and were pulling aside to fix their vehicle. Sadat himself appeared to believe the officers were simply overzealous fans who wanted to stop to salute their leader. He stood up to return the salute.
Islambouli and his men threw three grenades into the stands. The other three assassins provided covering fire, and Islambouli charged Sadat and opened fire from point-blank range. Sadat was so startled that he stood board-stiff during the first second or two of automatic fire. Sadat wore no bulletproof vest, reportedly because he thought the vest’s bulky frame ruined the lines of his resplendent full-dress uniform. Islambouli took another 45 seconds to finish off his ammunition before being taken alive. Two of his co-conspirators were captured immediately, and a third was shot and killed. Mubarak, wounded only lightly, was whisked to safety.
Since he spoke out at his own trial, there can be no doubt that Islambouli and his three accomplices were Gama’a al Islamiyya supporters who wanted Sadat dead because he refused to implement sharia law. Killing Sadat was in many ways counterproductive to their goals: When Mubarak took power formally a few days later, he initiated a massive crackdown on the Islamic Group that included the imprisonment and trial of Omar Abdel-Rahman (the infamous “blind sheik” and spiritual leader to the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, who now shares a prison with Bernard Madoff in Butner, N.C.) and the imprisonment and torture of Ayman al-Zawahiri (the second-in-command of al Qaeda, who now shares a safe house with Osama bin Laden, probably somewhere in Pakistan). Meanwhile, Arab leaders like Yassir Arafat took the assassination as a cautionary tale about the lethal backlash that awaited anyone who made peace with Israel. That lesson has proved enduring, and no one save King Hussein of Jordan has dared accept or offer rapprochement since.
Now that Mubarak is on the brink of losing power himself, it’s instructive to look back at how his predecessor fell. Mubarak has faced as many as five more assassination attempts, ranging from a halfhearted stabbing attack to a nearly successful strike against his presidential convoy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. These attempts may explain why he is so skittish (city streets are closed to traffic and roar with heavy armored vehicles whenever his convoy passes). But they also illuminate why he’s held on as long as he has. Being spattered with your former boss’ blood concentrates the mind and compels you to plan for brutal threats from all sides. This time, of course, the major threat comes not from rogue Islamists but from ordinary people. As a coalition, they appear to be on course to do what Islambouli’s successors couldn’t manage, even after nearly 30 years.
Compared to the tactics used by Sadat’s assassins, those of today’s pro-democracy activists have been relatively bloodless. Whether their gains will also be more enduring is a question not yet answered.