David Hirst and Irene Beeson, Sadat (London: Faber and Faber, 1981).
Ghali Shoukri, Egypte, la contre-revolution (Paris: Editions Le Sycomore, 1979).
These two assessments of the past decade in Egypt pose the question of approach: Can we most conveniently comprehend the period by studying the role Anwar al-Sadat played in it? Do this one man’s thoughts and deeds provide the lens for viewing the post-Nasser era as a whole? The two books give vastly different answers, reflecting the varying backgrounds of the authors no less than their own senses of purpose.
David Hirst and Irene Beeson’s book is premised on the idea that Sadat shaped history. Indeed, the last ten years in Egypt demonstrate “how far the personal can predominate over the political.” Because Sadat combined the qualities of superb actor and “consummate opportunist,” his very personality molded the political reality of his time. He is not an attractive figure to Hirst and Beeson; theirs is the portrait of a vain and shallow man, a two-bit character with some style who was catapulted into world prominence primarily because he made peace with Israel. Still, he is central. They pay close attention to Sadat’s psyche, explored in large part through his autobiographies (yes, two of them), and they quote him often and at length, offering very sufficient proof of his egotistical ignorance.
Hirst and Beeson are knowledgeable and seasoned English journalists, both well acquainted with Egypt. They bring to this study enough political and personal dynamite to explode Sadat’s heroic image and to expose the man’s fundamental mediocrity. Few heads of state, after all, habitually rise at 9 am, put in a work day of five or six hours, and watch two cowboy movies every night. Their experience in reporting diplomatic maneuvers serves them well: their political narratives of the Sinai disengagement process or the Camp David accords are flowing and suspenseful, yet meticulous in detail. They will long stand as a valuable record of some of the more dramatic diplomatic events of our time.
The wealth of quotes, anecdotes and current Egyptian jokes which adorn and flavor the book are not matched, however, by analytic depth. While they touch on most of the signal events of Sadat’s regime, Hirst and Beeson often fail to supply context or explanation. They mention the 1972 wave of arson and sectarian incidents, for example, without suggesting who was involved and why a country relatively free of confessional conflict should suddenly face this problem. Sometimes their failure to explore matters further distorts reality. In describing the Egyptian bureaucracy, for instance, as “languid, incompetent, obstructionist and venal,” they unwittingly offer up a classic stereotype without any consideration of in what way and why this is true. The much larger developments of the period—the ascendance of a “new class,” the promotion of private capitalism in the form of the infitah, the shift to US patronage, the ideological break with the Arab world—are discussed almost as givens, as the background to the Sadat story.
Hirst and Beeson’s decision to write about Sadat, the political personality, had the inevitable and constraining effect of focusing their attention on the diplomatic field, where Sadat had his greatest ambitions and triumphs. Their book is a powerful piece of political journalism which does not, unfortunately, shed much light on the transformations in Egyptian society that enabled a Sadat to acquire and retain power.
Ghali Shoukri shares, to a great extent, the Hirst and Beeson assessment of Sadat as showman, given to extremes of behavior. He does not see Sadat shaping Egyptian history. True, Sadat’s style did sometimes impinge upon events: the surprise putsch, for example, which ousted ‘Ali Sabri and his political allies from power and consolidated the hold of the Sadat faction in 1971, was highly reminiscent of his conspiratorial past and reflected his impulsive personality.
But Shoukri chooses to devote his attention to the overall development of Egyptian society. The author is an Egyptian leftist who underwent a highly publicized conversion to Islam in Libya in 1979 and is now in political exile in Paris. Shoukri lived Egyptian politics on the inside, and retains a considerable stake in the future of his country. Like many other Egyptians who fell out of step with the Sadat regime, he protests the manifold developments of the period including the alliance with the United States, the break with the Arab world, the desertion of the Palestinian cause, and the erosion of the Nasserist commitment to social welfare. Like many other Egyptians, he feels the need to explore precisely why all this happened and what can be done about it.
The scope of his inquiry reduces Anwar al-Sadat, the man, to relative insignificance. In feeling for the pulse of Egyptian society, Shoukri ranges widely in Egyptian history, bringing the experience of the nineteenth century to bear on the present. He examines economic developments, political structures, and the elusive but critical element of Egyptian identity and consciousness. It is a laudable undertaking, one which helps clarify the nature of Egyptian society today.
Shoukri sometimes lapses, however, into historical hyperbole, as in his blanket condemnation of Ottoman rule or his claim that the Egyptian people secured the throne of Egypt for Muhammad ‘Ali. These two standard nationalist positions jibe rather poorly with the facts. He focuses with more precision on the Nasser period. It was Nasserism, a national revolution that introduced a state capitalist system with “economic” and “social” but no political democracy for its people, that led to degeneration in the Sadat period. Shoukri promotes a view widely held by Egyptian leftists: that the absence of real democracy and mass mobilization under Nasser allowed social forces hostile to the revolution—rich peasants, large landholders, high-ranking technocrats, bureaucrats and officers, and a nascent comprador bourgeoisie—to be nourished and strengthened within the revolution itself. The absence of mass political mobilization allowed these forces to take power when the time was ripe, to wage a “preventive” counter-revolution against the threat of a “real” revolution. Sadat was simply their man.
Why didn’t the left, perceived as the majority of the population—the students, workers, peasants and soldiers in Shoukri’s expansive scheme—react more forcefully to this reversal? He pins the blame on the debilitating purges of the Nasser period which sapped the strength of the leftist leadership in university and factory alike, coupled with the historic compromise of the Egyptian communist movement in deciding to disband its organizations and work with the Nasser regime, thereby associating itself with a non-democratic and repressive regime. His analysis of the left under both Nasser and Sadat is highly colored by his own experiences as a student and a member of the Egyptian Writers’ Union. It may well be that the development and problems of the student and writers’ organizations reflected issues of left organization in general, but the almost exclusive focus on them—to the neglect of working class, peasant and military politics—suggests that Shoukri simply wrote about what he knew firsthand.
The Nasser period is less implicated in the growth of sectarianism and a religious form of political expression. Although Shoukri faults Nasser for avoiding religious questions when he had the opportunity to champion secularism outright, the state did tend to reduce sectarian friction by promoting social equality. The Sadat regime, on the other hand, desperate for legitimacy, sought to wear the mantle of Islam and thus introduced religious questions into the highest levels of political discourse. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that Sadat was to reap what he had sown. Despite the ostensibly “religious” character of Sadat’s end—indeed, despite Shoukri’s own conversion after this book first appeared—the author’s insistence that Egyptian political consciousness remains non-confessional rings true. As he points out, the single mass uprising of the period—the events of January 1977—were inspired by economic concerns and assumed the form of class, not sectarian, warfare.
When he turns to the future, Shoukri expresses the view, common on the Egyptian left, that Egypt needs a national front to unite the masses and the national bourgeoisie. Democracy again plays a central role: The politics of front building presuppose democratic rights which were absent under Nasser and falsified under Sadat. This is the content for the wait-and-see attitude of some Egyptian leftists toward Mubarak until the regime’s position on political democracy is fully defined.
Although Shoukri’s book is thus consciously concerned with political strategy, his analysis leaves some serious questions open. First, the “national bourgeoisie” is not well described. Many members of the Egyptian opposition have long viewed this group as a critical part of a national front, but we lack information on its current economic and political base. Has a genuine national bourgeoisie survived the internationalization of Egypt’s economy? Secondly, the national front strategy requires democracy, but there is little to suggest that the current regime is likely to head in that direction. According to Shoukri’s analysis, the “counter-revolution” of the 1970s was not an internal reactionary triumph as much as an international event, a takeover of Egyptian political structures by forces organically linked to the West. These forces are staunchly opposed to any democratization: Sadat’s political “liberalization” soon proved illusory. Can the left really bargain with Mubarak for democratic rights? Must the regime, which retains the basic orientation of the Sadat years, first be radically altered?
Although we are left with rather large strategic questions, Shoukri’s book captures many of the concerns of the Egyptian opposition. It is a highly synthetic account, in which he draws heavily on the critical literature of the 1970s. His footnotes comprise a solid bibliography of works in Arabic which subject the Nasser and Sadat years to critical scrutiny. Neither he nor other Egyptian writers dwell on the glory or infamy of Anwar al-Sadat: They seem to assume that the future will judge him a pawn, not a master, of history.