The day before, and after

It's been 25 years since the Islamist genie first went on the rampage.

October 8, 2006 21:54
The day before, and after

Al Zawahiri 88. (photo credit: )


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Twenty-five years ago, at 12:40 p.m. on October 6, 1981, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, aged 63, was mortally wounded as he reviewed a military parade commemorating Egypt's "victory" over Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. His attackers, Muslim fundamentalists, tossed two hand grenades and directed automatic weapons fire into the reviewing stand. Sadat's deputy, Hosni Mubarak, was nearby but escaped unscathed. I can't recall where I was that Tuesday in October. Maybe in my office in the shadow of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. Perhaps at NYU, where I was a graduate student. What particularly fascinates is a peek at what was going on the day before that cataclysmic event, when no one - save the assassins themselves - had any inkling of the looming calamity. The day of the assassination The Jerusalem Post carried a front-page analysis by military affairs reporter Hirsh Goodman exposing divisions within the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO was a player in the ongoing (1975-1990) Lebanese civil war and controlled most of south Lebanon. Goodman was trying to get a handle on whether the PLO would maintain its temporary cease-fire with Israel, or perhaps launch attacks against Jewish targets outside the region. There was no Hizbullah. Hassan Nasrallah was 21 years old and had returned - having been expelled - to south Lebanon from Iraq, where he had studied politics and theology. By then he had probably joined the Amal movement, which had arisen to defend Shi'ite interests in the civil war. Over in Washington, Ronald Reagan's administration (with Casper Weinberger in the Pentagon) was pushing hard to sell hi-tech AWACS early warning aircraft to Saudi Arabia - a move the pro-Israel community in the US vigorously opposed. The fear was that the kind of attack Israel had recently (on June 7) carried out against the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak might have been greatly complicated had Saudi AWACs surveillance planes been patrolling the skies. Richard Nixon famously griped that members of Congress were being asked to "choose between Reagan and Begin." TWENTY-FIVE years ago Egypt and Israel were essentially at peace. Sadat's historic November 1977 visit had cemented a new reality. Israel, however, had not yet withdrawn from all of the Sinai Peninsula. The Jewish community of Yamit had not yet been uprooted. Indeed, Knesset members were debating issues of settler compensation and Yamit supporters were actively lobbying politicians - especially those in the National Religious Party - to block the withdrawal. And though there was peace, some Israelis complained that Egypt was not doing enough to open its doors to Israeli tourism. A common complaint was that it took too long to obtain a visa. Egyptians bureaucrats defended their actions, noting that in the 19 months since a consular section had been set up at Cairo's embassy in Tel Aviv some 80,000 visas had been processed. Meanwhile, Israeli companies were trying to expand business opportunities in Egypt. Solel Boneh, the Histadrut-owned construction conglomerate, had announced plans to open a new office in Cairo. THE SADAT assassination took place in the era before Web sites. CNN had begun broadcasting only in 1980 but few people, even in New York, had cable. Israel had just one television station. Most people learned about the assassination from radio. The day after, October 7, 1981, The Jerusalem Post's headline, across five of its seven columns, read: "Sadat assassinated." The sub-headline told readers: "Mubarak pledges continuity on peace." Sadat, Mubarak said, had been killed "by criminal and treacherous hands." That same morning, the staid New York Times published an exceptional three-row headline across the top of the front page: "Sadat Assassinated at Army Parade as Men Amid Ranks Fire into Stands; Vice President affirms 'All Treaties.'" NO ONE outside Egypt really knew who was responsible for the attack, or what their motives had been. There were various claims of responsibility and much celebration in Arab capitals. In PLO-controlled south Lebanon gunmen set off rockets and shot weapons in the air to celebrate. Youths in Arab east Jerusalem rallied joyfully. The Soviet Union, drawing ever closer to Yasser Arafat, said - though not in so many words - that Sadat had got what was coming to him. Iran hailed the killing. (The Shah, an Israeli ally, had been overthrown in 1979 and the country was now solidly in the hands of the mullahs.) Tripoli Radio was practically orgasmic in its broadcast: "He lived like a Jew, and died like a Jew." Yitzhak Rabin, a former general and former prime minister - his fateful second term was 11 years away - grumbled that the Reagan administration had contributed to the assassination by shifting its focus away from Egypt to Saudi Arabia; a dig, no doubt, over the AWACS controversy. THAT WEDNESDAY night, October 7, marked the start of Yom Kippur; further news and analysis about the assassination, the funeral, and what it might all mean for Israel would have to wait. An anxious country was shutting down for the solemn Day of Atonement. It would be some days before the world learned for certain that the assassins were Islamists - a breakaway faction of the Muslim Brotherhood. In hindsight, we can almost connect the dots between Sadat's assassins and the killers of Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990 and subsequent attacks on the West, including those carried out by al-Qaida. Some of those involved in the Sadat murder would later be tied to some of these events. Egypt, even more than Saudi Arabia, is the theological home of al-Qaida. It is the birthplace of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who some say is the real brains behind Osama bin Laden. It is also the birthplace of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheikh who inspired the murder of Kahane and al-Qaida's 1993 attempt to topple the World Trade Center. FROM THE vantage point of 2006 we can be thankful that the cold peace with Egypt has held for a quarter of a century, though Mubarak has failed to politically socialize the people of Egypt to the idea of peace with the Jewish state. (Perhaps this is asking too much given that the Palestinian problem remains unresolved, thanks largely to Palestinian intransigence.) More than that, however, Mubarak's regime has been thoroughly unhelpful - outright duplicitous, in fact - in nurturing even the idea of peace. It was Mubarak who hardened Arafat's heart, urging him not to cut a deal with Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000 and thus helping to ignite the second intifada. Egypt is implicated in just about every anti-Israel move at the UN and among the non-aligned nations. On the ground, Egyptian authorities calibrate just how many weapons to allow into the Gaza Strip via tunnels from Sinai so as to keep Gaza on a low boil. In doing so they must surely realize that they are playing with fire, since Gaza-based Muslim fundamentalism could have a blowback effect on them. The Egyptian army is flush with state-of-the-art weapons supplied by a grateful America, making Cairo's military machine the greatest threat to Israel of any Arab state. On top of all that Israelis need to worry about what will happen when the 78-year-old Mubarak leaves the scene. His inability - perhaps unwillingness - to permit a reformist opposition has left the field exclusively to Egypt's semi-legal Islamist movement. Twenty-five years ago the world discovered that the Sunni Islamist genie was on the loose. Reflect on how much damage the Muslim fundamentalist phenomenon in its various manifestations has already caused, and God only know what tomorrow will bring.

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