Cairo: They Don't Miss Sadat

Many Egyptians felt that their president, in his dependence on the U.S., had compromised their country’s dignity

IN THE AFTERMATH of President Sadat’s assassination, the manifest indifference of most Egyptians provided a curious counterpoint to worldwide expressions of shock and grief. In the past two years or so, Egyptian attitudes toward Sadat and his policies had undergone a sea change. The support given him by his countrymen during a decade of virtually unchallenged rule was at times considerable and even emotional. He engaged them not by the impress of his personality, as Nasser did, but by his ability to seize the moment: in 1972 by sending the omnipresent Soviet patrons packing; in 1973 by redeeming Egypt’s crushing defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967 through an initially successful invasion of Israel; in 1977 by opting out of the costly recurring cycle of death and destruction. He also promised to improve upon a faltering Nasserian socialism, through “democratization” and a shower of economic benefits that would flow from peace, the U.S. alliance, and a new, liberal, “open-door” economic approach. In each of these policies Sadat, while striving to outdistance or differentiate himself from his predecessor, appealed to sympathies widely shared by Egyptians.

By October, 1981, however, the mood of the country had soured. The pressures on Sadat grew from the economic and political promissory notes that were now coming due—on which he could probably never have made good, given the intractable material problems Egypt has traditionally faced. After the October, 1973, war, Sadat inaugurated an open-door economic policy, aimed at reinvigorating the private sector by removing government constraints and attracting private foreign capital. Announced as an explicit improvement upon Nasserian socialism, the new approach was intended to rescue the Egyptian economy from the doldrums of the “old” rigidly controlled economic order. Subsequently, Sadat held out prospective economic dividends as rewards for each successive stage of the peace negotiations with the Israelis—both the step-by-step process undertaken with Henry Kissinger and the later post-Jerusalem and Camp David talks. Peace became almost a form of currency: relations with the United States and other Western industrial nations, as well as Arab oil monies attracted to Egypt in its post-radical phase, would shower plenitude upon the Egyptian people.

Those charged with fulfilling these promises had to find a way to climb off the tiger of the “old” economic order without being politically devoured in the process. Egyptians have long been accustomed to stringent government controls on prices of commodities basic to their existence—wheat flour, corn, sugar, rice, edible oil, tea, and butane gas, (When the government tried, in 1977, to raise the cost of these commodities significantly, widespread rioting ensued.)

Domestic-energy prices are also kept below world-market levels, and prices of goods produced by public-sector industries are periodically frozen to stem inflation. In addition to the budgetary cost of the direct subsidies (for 1981-1982 they are projected at about $2.9 billion, or 11 percent of gross domestic product), other serious cost and price distortions throughout the economy inhibit investment and saddle the government with an ever-widening budget deficit.

So far, private-sector growth has occurred chiefly at the margins, in such services as banking and tourism, Egypt’s increased oil output, growingtourist industry, and sizable remittances from expatriate workers produced a strong improvement in its balance of payments in 1980 (leaving a deficit of $600 million, down from $1.7 billion in 1979). But the country remains heavily dependent on foreign aid to balance its accounts, with about $1 billion from the United States and approximately the same amount from other sources in 1980. In the longer term, the 3 percent growth of the population ensures an intensifying economic squeeze on the country’s resources. Neither limited arable land—now quite efficiently farmed but yielding only 70 percent of the nation’s needs—nor government agencies and public-sector corporations will be able to absorb the 300,000 to 400,000 new workers entering the labor force each year. Thus future economic development, and political equilibrium, may depend on Egypt’s becoming a manufactured-goods exporter—at best a difficult goal.

Average Egyptians do not, of course, understand the connection between these structural problems and the failure of Sadat’s peace and open-door policies to produce broad economic gains. What they do seem to feel is disappointment and disillusionment that their material well-being has not improved as promised, and they are increasingly resentful of the gap between themselves and the wealthy class of Egyptian capitalists spawned by the open-door policy. In fact, by most indices, the average Egyptian is probably better off now than he was a decade ago. Improved health care has increased life expectancy (pushing up the population curve); average caloric intake is extremely high for the Third World, meeting the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s daily calorie requirements; consumer goods are readily available; the government has significantly raised the wages of those on fixed incomes (with an average increase of 38 percent projected for 1981-1982). On the other hand, attempts to loosen price controls have produced rates of inflation shockingly high to the previously protected Egyptian consumer. (A 20 percent rate of inflation in 1980, according to Egyptian officials, was brought back down to 11 percent in 1981.) In addition, acute and growing shortages of both housing and jobs affect most Egyptian families in some way.

Meanwhile, the widely reported conspicuous consumption of Cairo’s Westernized jet-setting millionaires reminds Egyptians of the shortfall between the promised and the delivered fruits of liberalization and the U.S. alliance. In effect, while nothing that Egyptians enjoyed under Nasser’s socialism has been taken away from them, a new class has been grafted on at the top, leaving the general mass increasingly resentful. Egyptians identified the Sadat family with the new plutocrats. The Sadats’ personal elegance in dress, their dozen or so official residences, their relationship through their son-in-law with the country’s wealthiest and most flamboyant fat cat, Osman Ahmed Osman—all these things distanced Sadat, in the popular view, from his self-characterization as a man of the village.

CAIRO DIRECTLY REPRESENTS the anomalies, achievements, dysfunctions, and dynamism of the Egyptian economy. This city of more than 10 million people sprawls into the desert, almost surrounding the pyramids. In its center, stately stone mansions from Farouk’s era, splendid and crumbling, crowd together with socialist office towers and new luxury hotels. Dust from omnipresent construction mingles with desert sand, underfoot and in the nostrils. Traffic snarls and pedestrians jam streets and pavements designed for a fraction of the present population.

Outside the city, scattered building sites represent government efforts to keep up with the flow of people into the urban area, but most of Cairo’s poor dwell in warren-like slums, spilling into the mud and brick tombs of the city’s aneient burial ground. The central plaza near the big hotels is dominated by a French confectionery emporium, dispensing bonbons and gâteaux; department stores and boutiques are stocked with clothing and electrical gadgets; airline offices and travel agencies stand elbow-to-elbow. Five minutes away by car (twenty-five in bad traffic) an Arabic curtain falls: streets wind among coffeehouses, food shops, small stores, lowrise office buildings.

Cairo’s life continues well into the night, with cars, trucks, and people making the run toward their final destinations hours after darkness has fallen. On the evening of the day Sadat was killed, several lavish weddings took place as scheduled at the Nile Hilton Hotel. Guests in strapless gowns and tuxedos teased the wedding parties as they smirked for photographers. Comfortable in the dark opulence of the international hotel, families and friends gave no sign that their pleasure was marred by darker feelings. That night, at least, Egypt’s wealthiest class evidently shared the political mood of their countrymen.

In the days immediately before the assassination, reasons for a widespread disaffection came through clearly. Apart from economic discontent, two themes ran through conversations I had with a variety of English-speaking non-official Egyptians. Few of them saw any real alternative to the continued leadership of Sadat or to his policy of normalizing relations with Israel. No one seriously entertained the prospect of another war with Israel. Yet most of them also felt that Sadat had compromised Egypt’s independence and dignity: that he had made Egypt a toady of the United States, and that playing his peace card had left Egypt impotent in the face of Israeli irredentism on the West Bank.

The U.S. presence in Egypt has grown mightily in the past eight years. The number of Americans connected with the embassy and the Agency for International Development (including temporary contractors) has grown to about 900 since Ambassador Hermann Eilts arrived in 1973 with a staff of six to reopen the embassy after the years of ruptured relations following the 1967 war. U.S. arms sales to Egypt totaled nearly $3 billion between 1979 and fiscal year 1982, and there are about 145 American military personnel and related civilian staff in the country. This number is likely to rise as planes and tanks on order are delivered.

However, resentment of American dominance does not, as in Iran, stem chiefly from abrasive contact with a large U.S. presence. For one thing, the private American contractors, salesmen, entrepreneurs, and hustlers who thronged the shah’s kingdom have found Egypt’s pickings much slimmer. Only about 10,000 Americans now live in Egypt, compared with 40,000 to 50,000 in Iran in 1978 and 40,000 in Saudi Arabia today.

More important, intense popular feelings have been directed less against the United States than against the Egyptian president who took in the Americans’ shah; who offered military facilities to the U.S.; who did not protest American shelving of the West Bank/Palestinian issue; who returned from a triumphal state visit to Washington to face a new U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation agreement. Sadat seemed, to Egyptians, almost pathetically eager to proclaim loyalty to his U.S. ally. In their view, the Americans did not, however, manifest a corresponding sense of responsibility toward Egypt. Instead, they left their new ally alone on the limb of a failed peace process during almost two years of election campaigns and rhetorical regrouping by the new administration. Sadat permitted the Americans to take Egypt for granted.

Furthermore, Egyptians quietly asked, how long would the United States be willing to sustain its largescale aid? Wouldn’t the Americans decide, sooner or later, to turn the jerrvbuilt Egyptian economy over to the ministrations of the International Monetary Fund? In that case, it would have been smarter to stick with the Arabs: the wealthy oil powers’ manifold ties to Egypt would have ensured longer-term commitment.

Now AND FOR THE future, Egyptian attitudes toward the United States correspond closely to the state of their relations with Israel. Since the signing of the Camp David accords, the country has been figuratively holding its breath until the final transfer of Sinai territory next April. Officials involved in the negotiations express patient understanding of Israeli fears, and some hope that an open border with Egypt may help to allay them. Before the assassination, at any rate, the Egyptian foreign ministry stood firmly committed to continuing Camp David negotiations with Israel (more firmly, perhaps, than the United States): Sadat needed to achieve something for the Palestinians, and if he ceased to try he would have to say he had failed.

Outside the government, however, Egyptians don’t hide their anger at what they see as Israeli stonewalling on West Bank autonomy. While Egyptians continued to insist that the autonomy arrangement be treated as a transition to ultimate Israeli surrender of the territories (as agreed to previously in UN Resolution 242), the Israelis rejected all formulations that might weaken an eventual Israeli claim to sovereignty. This fundamental difference blocked virtually all progress on the West Bank and Gaza, thus validating (in Egyptian minds) the other Arabs’ accusations that Sadat was selling out his brothers to get back the Sinai. In effect, the separate peace seemed to Egyptians to have liberated Israeli irredentism, as seen in the proliferating West Bank settlements and in the air raids on Iraq and Lebanon. The image of a toothless Egypt lyingsomnolent while the Israelis strode forth with impunity greatly affronted the Egyptians’ sense of pride.

THE RESIDUAL EGYPTIAN hostility toward the rest of the Arab world— whose battles they had fought, whose dues they had paid—vigorously expressed in 1977, seems to have disappeared.

Sadat often excoriated the Arabs for not supporting him, and apparently he felt extreme bitterness at their denunciations of him after Camp David. Shortly before his death, few of his countrymen appeared to share his largely personal animus. Instead they insisted on Egypt’s place in the Arab world, and often added, wishfully, that relationships had not changed that much—except officially. (Heavy Saudi and Kuwaiti investment in Egyptian real estate reportedly continues at about the same rate as before, and large numbers of Egyptians still man the infrastructure of Arab oil production. Sizable grants from several Arab states have, however, been cut off, and Egypt has been excised from the roster of participants in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy in the Middle East.)

Normalized relations with Israel, on the other hand, struck most Egyptians as a pretty cold proposition. Despite Sadat’s personal warmth for his “brother Menachem,” Egyptians generally evinced no interest in expanding ties with Israel in the absence of real progress toward a general peace. Very few Egyptians have visited Israel (fewer than 2,000, out of a population of 43 million in 1980), whereas Israeli tourists have streamed to Egypt (about 13,000, out of a population of 4 million, in 1980— jumping to 12,000 in the first four months of 1981). Egyptians say that their bonds with European countries are much stronger and of longer duration, and that “normalization” of relations with Israel will have to develop normally. Some express the hope, though, that Israel’s desire for “real” normalization, with expanding trade and exchange of peoples, might change the current balance of power between the two countries, giving Egypt some leverage over Israel on the West Bank and Gaza issues.

WITH THE ASSASSINATION of Sadat, the Islamic fundamentalist assailants clearly attempted to disrupt this gradual trend toward normalization. Hard information about the fundamentalists is difficult to come by. After the assassination, Egyptians and the foreign press could at best trade private rumors and anecdotes about its roots and effects; the extent of real support for the fundamentalists remains obscure. Increasing numbers of female students at Cairo University are donning the veil: the headmen of a village recently reviled Jihan Sadat for immodesty, in not properly covering her shoulders and head while visiting with them; Islamic leaders were able to turn out 100,000 for a prayer meeting in the plaza before Abdin Palace (the Egyptian White House) last August, whereas the government was able to assemble fewer than 10,000 rather surly demonstrators for a proSadat rally after the September crackdown on Islamic leaders and other critics of the regime.

On the whole, activists are said to be few; but estimates of general support within the population range up to 20 percent. Before the assassination, neither government officials nor private experts apparently speculated much about fundamentalist infiltration of the military. In the ordinary run of things, outsiders seldom sense the political currents within an army until after a coup has occurred, and penetrating the Islamic movements is very difficult— their adherents do not talk to outsiders willingly, even about their ideology. Moreover, many Westernized Egyptians do not like to think about Moslem activism. Islam is part of their cultural and social, if not religious, milieu, as well as a recurring element in Egyptian nationalism. Their emotional response is complicated in many cases by their sympathy for the frustrations propelling adherents into the fundamentalist camp. Yet if fundamentalist power should grow in Egypt, their life-style, values, and even their mode of thought will come under siege.

While the capacity of Egypt’s governmental structures for absorbing or resisting this movement cannot be known until it is tested, uncertainty—about the size, shape, and force of the movement—begets free-floating anxiety. From 1977 to 1979, a team of Egyptian academics, led by Professor Saad Ibrahim, of the American University in Cairo, amassed perhaps the largest and most reliable collection of information about the Islamic fundamentalists by interviewing a group of their leaders who were jailed in 1974 and 1977. These leaders (who agreed to the interviews only after subjecting the scholarly interlocutors to a rigorous test of orientation and competence) emerged as tough, righteous, and fiercely single-minded. They came from middleand lower-middleclass rural families, and demonstrated high motivation and ability: for the most part they were students or had received degrees in engineering or science—majors that in Egypt require very high grades on the qualifying examinations. They aimed to replace the present corrupt political system with leaders who would rigorously apply the Koran and Hadith in solving the country’s problems, and create a truly Moslem social order. While envisioning an Islamic polity as vaguely egalitarian with no excessive wealth or excessive poverty, they had not formulated a clear idea of how it would be structured politically.

Clearly, this select group was both ambitious and sincerely convinced that its vision called it to power. The religious revival offers leaders and followers satisfactions that the material world has withheld. While Egypt loses its place in the Arab world and villagers lose their way in the city, Islam can locate them in an order of righteousness.

To an outsider, however, the Islamic vision appears to offer its adherents an irresistible license to remove the “ins” and install the “outs” at the center of power. Thus the Islamic movement poses a threat to Egypt that is unlikely to diminish until it is played out—or accommodated—in some further way. At present its dynamism appears largely negative: in effect, it is an extremely potent form of anarchy.

President Hosni Mubarak must now confront a series of harsh realities. But Sadat did leave his successor a significant legacy: so thoroughly were Sadat’s policies and promises identified with the man himself that his death clears the books of numerous liabilities. He took mortal risks and did not evade their price. If his peace lasts, his country may one day acknowledge its enormous debt.

Jennifer Seymour Whitaker