Commentary Magazine

Sadat and Nasser

To the Editor:

I do not wish to take issue with Barry Rubin’s perceptive review of Anwar Sadat’s autobiography, In Search of Identity [Books in Review, December 1978], but rather to supplement his observations, especially in one rather important area, Nasser’s leadership in Egypt between 1952 and 1970. What struck me, and is likely to strike many a reader, is that Sadat’s book represents, surprisingly, a massive attack on Nasser’s reputation, ruthlessly dissecting his “cult of personality.” Sadat’s criticism of Nasser closely approximates Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. Sadat makes it rather clear that it was only his own political moves which belatedly restored the 1952 revolution to its deserved glory. Throughout the book, he tries to cut Nasser down to size and to contrast Egypt’s domestic and foreign policy under his own leadership with the intolerable conditions which existed under his predecessor.

Though the 1952 revolution overthrew the monarchy and eliminated political parties and corruption, Sadat reveals its terrible shortcomings and failures. The “ugliest feature” of the new order built by Nasser, he maintains, was “the mountain of hate which accumulated in the course of the attempt to build a power-based community”; it was based upon a complete lack of human values. “The frustration, the sense of loss [felt by] young people in Egypt today,” says Sadat, “is definitely to be related to that experience.” This crescendo of criticism is obviously designed to destroy any sentimental yearning for Nasser that might perhaps still exist in Egypt, and, by contrast, to boost Sadat’s own image.

According to Sadat, to the day of his death, Nasser, always surrounding himself with an “aura of glory,” never understood the importance of personal freedom, imagining that people were happy and satisfied with his method of government. With the beginning of the Yemeni civil war (1962), there took place in Egypt further widespread “suppression of freedoms” and “any sense of democracy” was lacking. Having a “pathological view of personal security,” Nasser interpreted any criticism of his policies as a counterrevolutionary reaction that had to be “ruthlessly crushed.” He allegedly confided to Sadat that he knew the country was ruled by “a gang of thieves,” that liberty was suppressed, and that Egypt was “heading for disaster.” The officers who engineered the 1952 revolution were patriots, but they were not driven by the desire to establish a democratic government. Although they did not object to Egypt’s being ruled by a “benevolent tyrant,” they, like Sadat himself, had not anticipated a government which would flagrantly violate human rights. Sadat concludes that the last years of Nasser’s life became “a period of intense suffering, unprecedented, I believe, in the entire stretch of Egyptian history.” . . .

Sadat’s criticism of Nasser extends also to his policies leading to the Six-Day War. To establish Nasser’s guilt, Sadat virtually acquits Israel of the accusation that it launched an aggressive war, a charge that has been a carefully nurtured Arab thesis. According to Sadat, after concentrating Egyptian armed forces in the Sinai, Nasser considered that the chances of a war with Israel were about fifty-fifty, but he expected war as a “100 per-cent certainty” if he closed the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s only outlet to the Red Sea. Nasser’s decision to close the Straits, in Sadat’s view, was based upon his desire to maintain his great prestige within the Arab world.1

Sadat’s own foreign policy differs, of course, from that of Nasser because he repudiated Soviet totalitarianism; he considers Communism an expansionist ideology, the establishment of which in the neighboring Sudan he promptly rejected. “With crass stupidity,” Sadat charges, Nasserite Egypt had copied the Soviet pattern of socialism, although the country lacked the necessary resources, technical capabilities, and the required capital. When, after Nasser’s death, . . . Egyptian “agents” of the Soviets attempted to “finish off” Sadat, he struck first, having them arrested. What disturbed Sadat especially in his relationship with Moscow was Soviet arrogance and high-handed behavior; . . . Egypt’s dependence in weaponry; and, most importantly, the initiation of the new policy of détente between East and West! The policy of détente was a “violent shock to us,” Sadat writes revealingly, because it signaled Soviet unwillingness to increase the flow of weapons to Arab countries. The expulsion of Soviet military experts in 1972, prior to the October war, had been widely interpreted not only as a sign of Egyptian independence vis-à-vis the USSR, but also, erroneously, as a sign that Sadat’s policy was turning to more peaceful pursuits. But, according to Sadat, one of the reasons behind his decision to expel the Soviet military experts, aside from “the Soviet attitude to me,” was “that within the strategy I had laid down, no war could be fought while Soviet experts worked in Egypt.” Thus the expulsion of these experts was a conditio sine qua non of Egypt’s resuming the battle! He shrewdly anticipated that the expulsion of the Soviets would be falsely interpreted by Israel and the West and thus help him to prepare a surprise blow against the former.

While Sadat received praise in the West for his seeming independence from Moscow, he reveals that on the eve of the 1973 war, the Cairo government “went so far as to ask the Soviet Union to appoint a Soviet commander for the Egyptian air-defense system and another for the Egyptian air force.” It is well to keep in mind Sadat’s tactical flexibility, the “gambler’s” talent for surprises and for a zig-zag course, before abandoning oneself to wishful thinking that his diplomatic break with the USSR is irreversible. Sadat’s agility as well as his ability to make friends in the West make him a more dangerous opponent than Nasser ever was. It is to be hoped that his giving apparent priority to Egyptian national interests over all-Arab endeavors, to which Mr. Rubin points, may still push him toward the road to peace.

Alfred D. Low
Marquette University
Milwaukee, Wisconsin



1 For a further discussion of Sadat’s version of these events, see Theodore Draper’s article, “How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East,” beginning on p. 23—Ed.

About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.