On September 3 and 4, 1981, just four weeks before he was assassinated, President Anwar al-Sadat launched a crackdown that overnight swept nearly 1,600 Egyptians into prisons. Hundreds more were detained under house arrest, or stripped of official positions in professional associations. Sadat attributed the crackdown to the “national emergency” created by sectarian tensions between Muslim and Coptic communities, but those arrested included persons such as Nawal El Saadawi, the prominent physician and feminist writer. MERIP editor Judith Tucker spoke in London with Lutfi el-Kholi, a left opposition leader, shortly after the arrests. “If Nawal El Saadawi has been arrested for stirring up tensions between men and women,” he said, “I might believe it. But to accuse her of sedition by fomenting sectarian strife is preposterous.”

El-Kholi and Mohamed Sid Ahmed, another prominent left opposition leader who escaped the dragnet and talked with me in Washington on October 1, called attention to the unprecedented sweep of this latest assault by the “hero of democracy.” (“Hero of democracy” is not the spontaneous chant of Cairo demonstrators, but the headline of a full-page ad placed in the Washington Post and other major US newspapers by the Egyptian-American Transport Company on the occasion of President Sadat’s August visit to the US. The Egyptian-American Transport Company, it turns out, was set up as a sideline by a high-ranking CIA official and had secured an exclusive and lucrative contract for shipping US military supplies to Egypt.)

“In the past,” Sid Ahmed said, “Sadat was always careful to clamp down on a particular tendency by rallying other groups and isolating his target. This time he moved against the whole spectrum of political life in Egypt.” In el-Kholi’s view, Sadat’s policies — the separate peace with Israel, Egypt’s political and economic isolation in the Arab world, and the discontent with domestic economic policies — had created a virtual “circle of opposition” around the regime. Fundamentalist Muslim groupings were perhaps the most numerous, el-Kholi said, but the opposition was quite broad, and included many former state officials and right-wing businessmen as well as the Tagammu‘ (Progressive Assembly of National Unionists), with which both he and Sid Ahmed are associated. The crackdown was an effort to smash decisively this “circle of opposition” before it grew more threatening.

Tensions between Muslims and Copts did erupt into civil disorders last June, in the al-Zawiya al-Hamra quarter of Cairo. Scores of people were killed and hundreds injured. Sid Ahmed believes that this strife was only a pretext for Sadat’s September move. The events of al-Zawiya al-Hamra were nearly three months old, he noted, and had not been followed by other serious incidents. Sadat had already released from prison most of those arrested as responsible in June, and the president himself had traveled to Europe and the United States in the midst of this “emergency.”

According to Sid Ahmed, the policies of the regime itself are responsible for the sectarian strife. In order to bolster his credentials with Saudi Arabia, Sadat had more than tolerated the activities of Muslim activists in the early years of his reign. Now these same forces of Islamic resurgence have come out squarely against the separate peace, which Sadat promotes as a strategy to join “the three monotheistic religions against atheism.” As a practical result, in Sid Ahmed’s view, Sadat “has built up strains and stresses between the religious communities that go beyond anything Egypt has known before.” [1]

Sid Ahmed felt that the timing of the crackdown was closely related to the last August meeting between Prime Minister Begin and President Sadat. The final Israeli military evacuation from Sinai, scheduled for April 1982, is a cornerstone for Sadat’s Camp David strategy. According to the treaty, “normalization” of relations with Israel must precede the withdrawal. “The idea of the trade-off between military evacuation and normalization,” Sid Ahmed said, “is that Israel should be present in Egypt, militarily or otherwise. But evacuation is a concrete logistical operation, with a schedule and a completion date. Normalization, on the other hand, is a process which matures or it doesn’t. Normalization is the official policy of the Sadat government, but has it become real? The Israelis know better than anyone that it is not becoming real, that there is great popular resentment. Of course, their policies — the attack on Baghdad and the massacre of civilians in Beirut — make it more impossible than ever for it to become real.”

Sid Ahmed sees the sectarian tensions of the last few months as just one manifestation of the “de-normalization” that Sadat’s separate peace has nurtured. He stresses that the opposition is an extremely broad-based phenomena, “a question of Egypt’s identity. It would be wrong to believe that the basis or extent of opposition to the treaty is limited to some racist or even anti-Semitic elements, though those are there. The Israelis could see that normalization was not proceeding. Of course, the meetings of Sadat and Begin were private and secret, and I have no inside information of what happened there. But my strong sense is that Begin insisted that Sadat take unambiguous measures against opponents of the normalization if he expected Israel to complete its pullout in April. There were other factors, no doubt, but this was the key element.”

With regard to other possible factors, Sid Ahmed said that the Egyptian president may have wanted to reassert his own prominence as a “strategic partner” of the US. The policy of the Reagan administration promotes Saudi Arabia as the key Arab party and downgrades the significance of Egypt and its relations with Israel. Sadat needed US support in forthcoming negotiations with Israel, and this was a way of demonstrating his decisiveness and domestic strength. And any inhibitions on grounds of “human rights” were certainly not a factor with Reagan in the White House.

When I asked Sid Ahmed about the probable impact of the crackdown on the course of the opposition, he replied that it would probably grow and its activities accelerate. “Hitting both the secular and religious opposition simultaneously — this could be dynamite,” he said. The arrests remove an important political buffer, and increase the likelihood of underground and terrorist activities. To a much greater extent, he believes, the regime now rests on the its repressive apparatus. Sid Ahmed told me that opposition among liberals and former officials under Sadat and Nasser — including businessmen and lawyers with ties to US corporations and banks — has been growing in response to Egypt’s isolation in the Arab world, and was made more acute by developments in Iran. “If we want our Bakhtiars to survive,” he quoted one as saying, “we have to act now” to create a “responsible” opposition that can relate to the US, Europe and the conservative Arab regimes.


[1] Sid Ahmed did not mention that just weeks before the crackdown the Tagammu‘ felt obliged to respond publicly to the communiqué one fundamentalist Islamic group issued at the end of Ramadan. The communiqué denounced “Jewish plots against Islam abroad” and Christian plots against Islam in Egypt, accusing Egyptian Copts of wanting to make Egypt “another Lebanon.” The Progressive Unionist paper, al-Taqqadum, strongly contested the fundamentalist charges as “a dangerous delusion,” stressing the patriotic credentials of the Copts and pointing out that the Israelis were an enemy because they are Zionist, not because they are Jewish. Agence France Presse, August 23, 1981.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "Massive Arrests Precede Sadat’s Assassination," Middle East Report 100 (October-December 1981).

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