This is our one hundredth issue, and our tenth anniversary. The variety and scope of the articles, and the size of the magazine, go beyond anything we have attempted before. At the same time, this issue incorporates and represents much of what MERIP has tried to do over its ten years past. We are very pleased to feature here Roger Owen’s insightful assessment of the Arab world’s last decade in the economic sphere. Fred Halliday addresses head on the official contentions of US policymakers concerning the Soviet role in the region, and situates the “new cold war” in the global and regional upheavals of the past ten years. Gavin Kitching’s provocative critique of the theory of imperialism enters one of the major debates that has influenced our own course over this period. Finally, we call attention to the continued centrality of the Palestine question, to our purpose and to the most shattering developments of the decade, with Salim Tamari’s candid discussion of politics and social forces in the West Bank and two reviews of Edward Said’s Question of Palestine. Portions of this important book were excerpted and published first in MERIP Reports 70 (“The Idea of Palestine in the West”), and it represents a project and a sensibility very close to our own.
The first article of the first issue of MERIP Reports, in May 1971, was titled “Sadat on Top.” We tried to analyze then the political shakeup within the post-Nasser collective leadership that left one former vice president, ‘Ali Sabri, in prison and another, Anwar al-Sadat, as the unchallenged head of state. Today, a little more than ten years later, comes the stunning news of Sadat’s assassination.
The hail of bullets that cut down Sadat and others in Cairo left the US political establishment and media gasping. “An utter disaster for Americans,” NBC’s John Chancellor exclaimed. The host of the Today show wondered aloud about “life after Sadat.” Present and former policymakers, from Gen. Alexander Haig to Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger, betrayed the snarling fury of the wounded beast of state, proclaiming Libyan responsibility and Soviet connivance. The Rapid Deployment Force was placed on “enhanced readiness.” (A member of the RDF command was among the US military officials wounded in the attack.)
In a decade of setbacks to US interests and prestige that stretched from Indochina to Central America, from southern Africa to Afghanistan and Iran, Sadat’s realignment of Egypt with the US represented an achievement of striking proportions. Beyond this, Sadat was a deft practitioner of coups de theatre, and his most appreciative audience was here in the United States. He was popularly revered as “a hero of peace.” Indeed, his assassination seemed to prompt far more genuine grief and regret than did, for instance, the shots that almost claimed President Ronald Reagan’s life last March. Sadat, for his audience, was a model Third World leader — courteous and respectful to his Western counterparts, unsurpassed in his eagerness to accommodate, and second to none in his vociferous anti-communism and hostility to the USSR. Nowhere was this structure of virtue more appreciated than with respect to Palestine and Israel. After decades of apparently unfathomable Palestinian and Arab defiance, a defiance very much identified with his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sadat was the very picture of sweet reason. Here was a leader whose “boldness” and “vision” rendered him capable of almost any compromise. In truth, he was all too susceptible — fatally so — to the blandishments of his “good friends” — the Jimmy Carters and Henry Kissingers, the bankers and financiers who came to call. They nurtured his self-image of a “world statesman” in exchange for his readiness to marginalize the Palestine question and conclude a separate peace.
The widespread adulation of Sadat as a man of peace was less an accurate reflection of Sadat’s role in the Middle East than a testament to the power of the state and the media to define peace in patently self-serving terms. Far more grotesque than the carnage at the Cairo reviewing stand was the sight of Menachem Begin, the bomber of Beirut, calling Sadat’s killers, without a trace of irony or shame, “the enemies of peace.” Sadat, the man of peace, played the witting accomplice to Israeli terror in Lebanon for the last six years, to the annexation of the West Bank, and to the bloody repression of Palestinian political forces there. Sadat, the man of peace, negotiated between $4-6 billion in US military credits over the last two years alone: He was reviewing some of his spanking new M-60 tanks and supersonic warplanes when he was killed. And Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel, ratified in Washington, was nothing so much as a trilateral military pact. Sadat’s eagerness to provide Egypt as a doormat for US military intervention in the region is perfectly in keeping with the peace he represents.
The day before Sadat was assassinated, President Reagan had assembled at the White House most of the secretaries of state and defense, national security advisers, and chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff going back to the Kennedy administration. They stared at us from the front pages of Tuesday morning’s papers, as the first news of the assassination reached us over the radio. It was a virtual rogue’s gallery of the gentlemen responsible for the last 20 years of US policy and strategy in the Middle East and the world — from Walt Rostow, McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara to Harold Brown and Zbigniew Brzezinski. The occasion was to endorse President Reagan’s embattled plan to sell another $8.5 billion in advanced weaponry, including AWACs, to Saudi Arabia. The men who brought us the war in Vietnam, the Gulf gendarmerie of Pahlavi Iran, Camp David — they were all there. If any senator in his/her wisdom ever lacked a reason to oppose this large step toward US military intervention in the Gulf, this confirmed that Reagan’s policy was in the mold of his predecessors, a plain recipe for disaster.
The repercussions in the Arab world of Sadat’s assassination will be greatest for the regimes most aligned with the US. The extremely reserved reaction of the the Saudi ruling family was predictable. They are, most surely, gravely shaken. For all of the public enmity between them and Sadat in recent years over the separate peace, Sadat’s open connivance with the US buffered their dealings with Washington and allowed them to assume an ill-fitting mantle of Arab patriotism. Their room for maneuver in this regard is now much reduced.
Sadat’s assassination is a momentous development, its full implications still quite unclear. Almost certainly, though, it signals a further unraveling of the web of alliances of different regimes and classes in the Middle East which have sustained US interests and policies in the region since the end of World War II. Coming at a time of resurgent US militarism, it portends a period of grave danger for peoples everywhere.