Forty years ago, on October 6, 1981, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist terrorists in Cairo. I was then the Egypt analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and had just published an internal paper on the prospects for succession if Sadat was killed, which I judged to be likely given the deep opposition to his unilateral peace deal with Israel. Sadat’s death set in train the disastrous road to the war in Lebanon in 1982, the creation of Hezbollah, and the seeds of al-Qaida.
Sadat enjoyed celebrating the anniversary of the start of the Ramadan War (or Yom Kippur War) every October, reliving the day — October 6, 1973 — that Egyptian soldiers crossed the Suez Canal. He was “the hero of the crossing.” Earlier in life he was Gamal Abdel Nasser’s right-hand man. He and Nasser had led Egypt into a disastrous war in Yemen in the 1960s, a quagmire where Cairo was bogged down when it stumbled into the catastrophe of the 1967 war with Israel. In 1973, Sadat and the Egyptian military had redeemed both themselves and Egypt.
He was an unpredictable leader, deliberately and thoughtfully so. His famous 1977 speech offering to visit Jerusalem was dismissed as a rhetorical flourish by the CIA in the President’s Daily Brief the next morning; a week later Sadat was in Jerusalem. He made peace with Israel at Camp David with the stellar support of U.S. President Jimmy Carter. But for most Arabs he had betrayed the Palestinian cause at the Maryland summit meeting and was considered a traitor and an outcast by 1981.