Posts Tagged Egypt

Europe defeats Islam

I summarize four more sessions from my fall course on the introduction to the modern Middle East (Turkey and the Arab lands) at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Below are entries for sessions five through eight. For earlier sessions, go here. As before, I spice up each entry with an insight from the late Bernard Lewis.

Class Five: Islam (reformed) Then Joined Europe. The Tanzimat, the Ottoman reforms of the mid-19th century, are the centerpiece of session five of my intro to the Middle East at Shalem College. Then as now, many in the West complained of misgovernment, corruption, and repression in the East. The Ottoman empire, on the doorstep of Europe, seemed like an affront to enlightened European values. Arbitrary government, a bureaucracy for sale, discrimination against non-Muslim subjects—the list was long. Sound familiar?

Was it that bad? Debatable. But one Ottoman sultan set out both to satisfy Europe and strengthen his own position by pushing through far-reaching reforms. This was Abdülmecid I, the first sultan to speak a European language fluently (French). He reorganized imperial finances, established a civil code and courts outside the Islamic framework, opened a university, formed an education ministry, and more. Abdülmecid announced his plans in two imperial edicts, in 1839 and 1856—promissory notes to European opinion—and he bought the empire time by aligning with the British, who came to his defense, first against an Egyptian invading force, later (in alliance with France) against the Russians in the Crimean War. When it was over, the concert of Europe admitted the Ottomans and recognized the empire’s territorial integrity—until it didn’t.

But the big reform the Europeans demanded was to equalize the status of non-Muslims with that of Muslims in the empire. As Bernard Lewis wrote, in his magisterial Emergence of Modern Turkey, most Muslims viewed this as an “insult and outrage,” and as “a triumph over Islam of the millennial Christian enemy in the West.” The resulting resistance would slow the pace of reforms, but there could be no going back.

It’s hard to interest students in old treaties, but the Treaty of Paris (1856), following the Crimean War, can’t be avoided, since it recognized the Ottoman empire as part of the European system, subject to and guaranteed by its laws (which we now call “international law”).

If you visit the palace at Versailles, you can view this huge painting (three by five meters) that captures the moment. The artist, the Frenchman Édouard-Louis Dubufe, depicts the negotiators of the treaty. The two Ottoman negotiators are here: Mehmed Cemil Bey (the smallish figure by the door in the back), and Ali Pasha (seated on the far right). Contemporary reports say they came well-prepared.

Congress of Paris

Class Six: Britain’s Veiled Protectorate in Egypt. Exactly one class session: in my course on the modern history of the Middle East, that’s all the time we have to cover Egypt from the British occupation in 1882 to the First World War. Talk about compression. So what’s a must-have for this (sixth) session of the class?

Looming large is Sir Evelyn Baring, later Lord Cromer, who basically ran Egypt as British “agent” and “consul-general” from 1883 to 1907. To this day, he remains enveloped in controversy. He took a dim view of the Egyptian capacity for self-rule: “We have to go back to the doubtful and obscure precedents of Pharaonic times to find an epoch when, possibly, Egypt was ruled by Egyptians. Neither, for the present, do they appear to possess the qualities which would render it desirable… to raise them at a bound to the category of autonomous rulers.” And so he ran the country himself. He stabilized the economy, but couldn’t stop the tide of nationalism.

The pigeons came home to roost, so to speak, in 1906, when a party of British officers on a pigeon hunt clashed with villagers in a Nile delta village called Denshawai. An officer died in the altercation, apparently of heatstroke, but several villagers were tried and hanged, others were flogged and sentenced to penal servitude.

The perceived injustice caused a huge uproar. In class, we read the condemnation of Cromer by George Bernard Shaw, and the poem on the executions by Constantine Cavafy. And we read a manifesto by Egyptian nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel, as well as the warden’s report on Ibraham Wardani, the nationalist who in 1910 assassinated Boutros Ghali, by then Egypt’s prime minister, who’d been one of the judges in the Denshawai trial. The stage is set for the later eruption of nationalist revolt against all things British, good or bad.

(My Israeli students also need to hear that in 1903, Theodor Herzl tried to persuade Cromer to open up northern Sinai to Jewish settlement. Cromer feigned interest but eventually nixed the plan. Herzl called him “the most disagreeable Englishman I have ever faced.”)

We end by discussing a passage in Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958). True, he writes, Egyptians

need medical help or education before they can understand, or make use of, an increase in their freedom…. First things come first: there are situations in which—to use a saying satirically attributed to the nihilists by Dostoevsky—boots are superior to Pushkin… The Egyptian peasant needs clothes or medicine before, and more than, personal liberty, but the minimum freedom that he needs today, and the greater degree of freedom that he may need tomorrow, is not some species of freedom peculiar to him, but identical with that of professors, artists and millionaires.

But when is “tomorrow” today? It’s a question that much preoccupied Bernard Lewis. But more on that on another occasion.

Images: Above, the accused at the Denshawai trial; below, the assassinated Boutros Ghali in death. (Both, Wikimedia.)

Egypt 1900s

Class Seven: The Last Ottoman Sultan Standing. By the last quarter of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was in salvage mode. It was bankrupt, its armies couldn’t stave off defeat, and its politics stagnated. But the once-glorious empire refused to give up the ghost. This was due, at least in part, to the resolve of its last effective sultan, Abdülhamid II, who reigned for almost 33 years, from 1876 to 1909. Session seven of my intro class on the Mideast at Shalem College revolves around this enigmatic man, who was controversial while he lived, and who remains so.

The last few years have seen something of an Abdülhamid revival in Turkey. He’s been the hero of a hugely popular television drama series, Payitaht Abdülhamid. High production values combine with a sharp disregard for the record of events (plus a dash of antisemitism), to paint Abdülhamid as a devout paragon of Muslim virtue. This perfectly suits the neo-Ottoman agenda of Turkey’s present ruler, who’s more of an Abdülhamid than an Atatürk. (That’s perhaps why it was persistently rumored that the new mega-airport just opened on the edge of Istanbul would be named after Abdülhamid. For now, it’s just Istanbul Airport.)

So who was the real Abdülhamid? You know the trope of the reform-minded prince who comes to power amid great expectations in the West, only to dash them by sliding into the authoritarian mode, or worse. (Sound familiar, Syria- and Saudi-watchers?) Abdülhamid’s first move as sultan was to promulgate a constitution and convene an elected parliament. Perhaps he thought this would prevent the amputation of Christian-populated provinces in the Balkans.

It didn’t, and a year later, Abdülhamid suspended the constitution and disbanded the parliament. It was his own show after that, and as “Turkey-in-Europe” dwindled, he fell back on the Muslim masses of Asia, to whom he promoted himself as savior-caliph. Massacres of Armenians and Assyrians eventually followed, and Abdülhamid became known as the “Red Sultan” in the European press. The later architects of secular Turkey similarly took a dim view of him.

It was Bernard Lewis, in his landmark Emergence of Modern Turkey, who first took a more favorable tack. “Abdülhamid was far from being the blind, uncompromising, complete reactionary of the historical legend,” he wrote (back in 1960). “On the contrary, he was a willing and active modernizer.” Railroads, telegraphs, schools, libraries, museums—he promoted just about any innovation that wouldn’t weaken his grip on power. No doubt, Abdülhamid deserved a rethink, and some historians have done it meticulously and fairly. But the present fad for him is over the top.

As I remind my Israeli students, Herzl met Abdülhamid in a futile attempt to extract some kind of charter for Zionism. It’s the stuff for another course, but we read Herzl’s verdict from his diary: “My impression of the Sultan was that he is a weak, cowardly, but thoroughly good-natured man. I regard him as neither crafty nor cruel, but as a profoundly unhappy prisoner in whose name a rapacious, infamous, seedy camarilla perpetrates the vilest abominations. If I didn’t have the Zionist movement to look after, I would now go and write an article that would give the poor prisoner his freedom.” It’s ironic, given the Elder-of-Zion treatment of Herzl in the current Turkish telenovela on Abdülhamid.

The Ottoman Empire outlasted Abdülhamid (he was thrown out in a revolution in 1909), but not by long. That it lasted as long as it did, may well have been to his credit.

(Image: Abdülhamid on his way to, or back from, Friday prayer. Herzl gives a vivid account of this spectacle in his diary. “Within less than an hour the most magnificent images rushed past us…”)

Abdulhamid at Selamlik

Class Eight: The War that Made the Middle East. It’s no small challenge to pack the entire First World War into one session (the eighth) of my intro to the Mideast at Shalem College. So I always fail, and end up running over into the next session. In large measure, the Middle East today is the product of that war, so it’s not remote history at all.

There’s the pre-war calculation that put the Ottomans into the war on the side of Germany. There’s the war itself, on multiple fronts, from Gallipoli to Mesopotamia, from Allenby in Palestine to the Arab Revolt (advised by Peter O’Toole… oops, Lawrence of Arabia). There’s the Ottoman-Russian struggle and the internal war on the Armenians.

In parallel, there’s the (double?) dealing: the British promises (such as they were) to the Arabs, the Sykes-Picot partition accord, the Balfour Declaration. Lots of maps to decipher, lots of texts to parse, and it can overwhelm the undergrad student. On top of that, part of the session gets eaten up explaining what the wider war was all about. That involves explaining why 20 million died, just as an aside.

In the end, I try to impress upon the students one major takeaway: the war tore up the old map, and the new one, based on a mix of great power interests and “national self-determination,” produced an endemic instability. But as I also remind my Israeli students, for the foresighted (such as the Zionists), the war provided a one-and-only opportunity to realize fantastic plans. The upset was total; no one in 1914 could have imagined what the Middle East would look like only 20 years later.

One aspect of the war was a source of grief for Bernard Lewis. He took the view that the Ottoman regime didn’t have a plan to destroy the Armenians, whose wholesale expulsion and massacre in 1915 didn’t constitute genocide. He said as much in an interview to France’s leading newspaper in 1993, and Armenian groups took him to court over it. It’s a complicated story; you’ll find Lewis’s side of it in chapter 11 (“Judgment in Paris”) of his memoirs.

His own final verdict is interesting: “If the word ‘genocide’ is to be used in its original and legal meaning… then the appropriateness of this term to the Armenian massacres of 1915 remains unproven. However, language changes, and looking at this again twenty years later it is clear that the word ‘genocide’ has developed a broader and less precise meaning today.” I suppose that meant Lewis came to acquiesce in the historicity of the Armenian genocide, in line with current-day usage. The question is, at what point does the term “genocide” become so elastic and ubiquitous in common usage that it ceases to move us? We may be past that point already.

Image: General Allenby, fresh from his conquest of Jerusalem, reads his proclamation to the city’s inhabitants, December 11, 1917 (Wikimedia).

Allenby in Jerusalem

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Emulating the West

This term, I’m teaching the introduction to the modern Middle East (Turkey and the Arab lands) at Shalem College in Jerusalem. I’ll try to post something from each class, with an insight from the late Bernard Lewis, who passed away in May. Below are entries for the first four classes of the semester.

Class One: The Retreat of Islam. Before Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, the Ottomans suffered unprecedented defeats at the hands of the Habsburgs and the Russians. In my opening, I dwell on the Treaty of Carlowitz, 1699, in which the Ottomans signed off on the loss of Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia, Morea, and more.

Lewis placed great importance on Carlowitz: “The disastrous retreat that followed the second Ottoman failure at Vienna, in 1683, was the first clear and unmistakable defeat. At Carlowitz the Ottoman Sultan, for the first time since the foundation of the Empire, was compelled to accept terms dictated by a victorious infidel enemy.” “The defeat… sealed at Carlowitz inaugurated a long period of almost unrelieved Muslim retreat before Christian power.” It’s hindsight, and “Turkey in Europe” lasted another 200 years. But it’s a good point to begin the saga of Ottoman retreat.

This engraving, from 1700, shows the victorious Christian allies with a map of Europe spread before them. The Turkish negotiator, on the left, looks detached; in fact, he salvaged quite a bit. And as I tell my students, at least the Ottomans were in the room. Two centuries later, the maps would be drawn without them. (Image reproduced in Hans-Martin Kaulbach’s Friedensbilder in Europa 1450-1815.)

Treaty of Carlowitz

Class Two: Bonaparte in Egypt. In the second session of my introductory course, I analyze the French invasion of Egypt, 1798. Because it was led by Bonaparte (later, Napoleon) it’s the subject of much myth and iconography. The future emperor repackaged this military disaster as a moral triumph of the Enlightenment. It’s a lesson in spin.

Still, it’s often viewed as the starting line of the modern history of the Middle East, or at least the Arab part of it. And it’s not just historians. Edward Said took 1798 as the departure point of his book Orientalism: “With Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt processes were set in motion between East and West that still dominate our contemporary cultural and political perspectives.”

So it’s interesting that Bernard Lewis, who had a much stronger sense of history, thought otherwise. “The French occupation proved to be of brief duration,” he noted (three years, to be precise), “and Egypt was subsequently restored to Muslim rule.” “In 1798, the process of defeat and withdrawal had already been going on for some time,” he emphasized—in fact, “the debate among Muslims about what had gone wrong and how to put it right began immediately after the retreat from Vienna” in 1683. But that debate “was limited to the Turks who had borne the main brunt.” Yes, the French invasion of Egypt shook up the Arabs, who’d been “sheltered from reality behind the barrier of the Ottoman Empire, still, even in its decline, a formidable military power.” But the Arabs were still a sideshow.

Lewis would always point out that the French invasion must have been particularly alarming to Muslims: Bonaparte’s small sea-borne force conquered and occupied a huge country, and it took a British force to drive the French out. But Lewis put 1798 on a timeline that’s longer and wider. Unlike the Ottoman retreats in Europe, Egypt was only a setback. So I warn my students not to be overly impressed by Napoleonic glitter. It would take much more, and many more decades, to awaken the Arabs to their predicament.

A prime piece of Napoleonic propaganda is this heroic portrayal among his plague-infected soldiery at Jaffa, by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1804 (here, detail). As the Louvre website notes, “Gros has given Bonaparte the luminous aura and gestures of Christ healing the lepers.”

Bonaparte in the Pesthouse, Jaffa

Class Three: Ottoman Modernity. In the third session of my modern Mideast course at Shalem College, I present the major reformers of the first half of the 19th century: Muhammad (Mehmet) Ali Pasha in Egypt, and Sultan Mahmud II in the Ottoman Empire.

Murdering opponents has an old history, and both of these reformers did a thorough job of it—Muhammad Ali, to the remnants of the Mamluks (1811), and Mahmud II, to the Janissary corps (1826). Then as today, there were plenty of Westerners who made excuses. “If judged wholly by our notions,” wrote one former British consul in Egypt, “the massacre of the [Mamluk] Beys was, indeed, an act of inhuman treachery. But it cannot be looked upon with the same feelings of horror that we attach to similar crimes which have been perpetrated by Christian princes.” Why? Over there, “they are accustomed from infancy to bloodshed, and punishments such as make civilised natures shudder.” Make of this what you will, it certainly evokes the shrug of the shoulders that’s greeted Bashar Asad’s liquidation of his opponents in our time.

The purpose of reform was to aggrandize the power of the ruler. I have the students ponder these words by Adolphus Slade, a British naval officer who became an Ottoman admiral:

When a nation, comparatively barbarous, copies the finished experience of a highly civilized state, without going through the intermediate stages of advancement, the few are strengthened agains the many, the powerful armed against the weak…. The sovereign’s subjects, who before had a thousand modes of avoiding his tyranny, have not now a loop-hole to escape by.

Slade would have mocked the idea that modernization advances freedom.

But the reformers won some battles, dug canals, expanded cities, opened schools and hospitals, sent missions to Europe, and (inadvertently) set the wheels of nationalism in motion. Bernard Lewis tilted a bit against the usual European celebration of these achievements. “We may question the assumption,” he wrote, that the effect of the reforms “represented an improvement on what had gone before.” But could it have been done differently? It’s a question that dogs the Middle East even today.

Below: Mahmud II at first robed himself like his traditional Ottoman forebears (left, around 1809). He later exchanged the elaborate turban for a modern-style fez, and the robes for Western jacket and trousers (right, 1830s?).

Mahmud II

Class Four: Opera, Canal, and Debts. The fourth session brings us through Egypt’s Westernizing push under the Khedive Ismail, which some see as a belle époque, and others regard as the pride before the fall. It was something of both. The Paris-educated Ismail opened the country to European experts, enterprise, capital, and (in the end) intervention. “Egypt is part of Europe,” he announced.

It certainly might have seemed that way, in the new quarters of Cairo modeled after Paris, and in the grand celebrations marking the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, attended by a large swath of European royalty. But in the end, Ismail took on so much debt from English and French lenders that the country sank beneath its weight. A foreign debt commission took over the country’s finances, Ismail was pushed out, the Egyptian military revolted, and the British occupied the country (1882) to protect foreign interests. This temporary measure turned into more than half a century of tight British control.

One of the episodes that always fascinates students is Ismail’s building of an opera house in Cairo. If Paris had one, Cairo had to have one too, and to get it going, Ismail commissioned the famed Giuseppe Verdi to produce an opera suited to Egypt. The result: Aida, which had its first performance in Cairo in 1871. Set in the reign of the pharaohs, the idea for the plot was inspired by the renowned French Egyptologist, Auguste Mariette (Pasha). Opera performances found a small but devoted audience in Egypt, and after the opera house burned down in 1971, Egypt built another one, a gift of Japan.

In an easy-to-miss footnote to his bestseller What Went Wrong?, Lewis made the kind of astute observation about the opera that was his trademark:

One of the central problems of the story is the dilemma of the victorious Egyptian general Radamès, torn between the loves of two women—Amneris, the daughter of Pharaoh, and Aida the Ethiopian slave, the daughter of the Ethiopian king with whom Egypt is at war. Caught between these two women, Radamès is driven to treason and finally to death. For a 19th century European Christian, this was indeed an agonizing dilemma. It would have been meaningless in Egypt, either in the time of the pharaohs or in Verdi’s own day, and the hero could have had both ladies; the princess by marriage as a wife, the slave by gift or purchase as a concubine and perhaps later, as a secondary wife. Were Verdi and his librettist trying to send a subtle message to their Egyptian patrons; or, more probably, were they simply uninformed or unconcerned about the situation of women in Egypt?

Lewis, irreplaceable as usual.

Below we see the spectacle of the opening of the Suez Canal, in the presence of the A-list. Ismail deployed tens of thousands of forced (corvée) laborers to build the Canal, but they weren’t invited to the party. It’s a point Nasser stressed when he nationalized the canal company in 1956.

Inauguration of the Suez Canal

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Anwar Sadat’s Visit to Jerusalem, 1955

Martin Kramer, “Anwar Sadat’s Visit to Jerusalem, 1955,” in Nationalism, Identity and Politics: Israel and the Middle East. Studies in Honor of Prof. Asher Susser, eds. Meir Litvak and Bruce Maddy-Weizman (Tel Aviv: The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, 2014), pp. 29-41.

In Anwar Sadat’s English-language autobiography In Search of Identity (1978), there is an insert of photographs, including one depicting the young Sadat wearing a suit and standing with a group of notables against the backdrop of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The caption of the photograph explains that it was taken during his visit to Jerusalem in 1955, as secretary-general of the Islamic Congress.1

Anwar Sadat with Jordanian hosts at the Dome of the Rock, December 1955.

Anwar Sadat with Jordanian hosts at the Dome of the Rock, December 1955.

What was Sadat doing on that visit? The question is left unanswered in the autobiography, where Sadat simply notes that his famous 1977 visit was his second to the city.2 The 1955 visit is similarly omitted in the biographical literature on Sadat. Analysis of the visit, aside from satisfying curiosity about the episode itself, sheds light on the situation of divided Jerusalem prior to 1967, and the status of Jerusalem in Islam.

A day in Jerusalem

The December 1955 visit was part of a longer itinerary, which brought Anwar Sadat to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The declared purpose of this excursion was to mobilize support for the idea of holding an Islamic conference, of governments and peoples, under the auspices of the Islamic Congress, a Cairo-based organization which answered to Sadat himself. On December 11, after stops in Lebanon and Syria, Sadat arrived in the Jordanian capital of Amman. There he explained to journalists that the sole purpose of his visit was to advance the cause of the Islamic Congress, and in particular to discuss a possible time and site for a conference of Islamic states. There he met with Shaykh ‘Abdullah Ghusha, president of Jordan’s religious board, to discuss the visit to Jerusalem scheduled for the next day.3

The following day, December 12, Sadat arrived in Jerusalem by motorcade, where he was received by the governor of Jerusalem and local notables, including Shaykh Ghusha; Sa‘d al-Din al-‘Alami, mufti of Jerusalem; and Shaykh Muhammad al-Amin al-Shinqiti, the chief qadi (religious court judge) of Jordan. Sadat prayed in the Aqsa Mosque and also in the Dome of the Rock, heard explanations about both sites, and received some published materials about them. He also pronounced the fatiha over the tomb of King (formerly Sharif) Hussein Ibn Ali.4

Subsequently, Sadat issued a statement, announcing that Egypt pledged 75,000 Egyptian pounds for renovations of the Aqsa Mosque, and another 75,000 to establish a permanent office for maintenance of the mosque and shrine. Egyptian engineers were already on their way to oversee the work of renovation. Sadat also promised that the Islamic Congress would assist Islamic education in the city by providing textbooks, teachers, and expansion of schools.5

But his most ambitious plan was the establishment of an Islamic cultural center, with Egyptian funding, which would be larger and grander than the cultural centers established by the Western powers. The cultural center would be a meeting place for Muslims from around the world, and would even draw students from as far away as Pakistan and Indonesia. The Islamic Congress had already budgeted 250,000 Egyptian pounds for the establishment of the center, Sadat announced. He anticipated the construction would begin within a year, and would be completed within three years.6

As for the location of the building, Sadat had already set his sights on an appropriate tract. Standing above the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Dome of the Rock, he asked who owned the promontory. He was told that it belonged to the waqf, the authority for Islamic religious endowments. Sadat expressed his desire that the Islamic cultural center be built there. The holy city, he said, had to reflect the greatness of the Arabs and Islam, and so it had to expand. But he added that the precise site of the center would be determined in consultation with the Jordanian authorities and the Egyptian consulate in Jerusalem.7 He then proceeded to visit Hebron, and returned to Amman.

Only in Amman did Sadat make a political statement. This was a moment of heightened tensions between Israel on the one hand, and Syria and Egypt on the other. Sadat announced that there was an appropriate response to Israeli provocations: force and the strengthening of Arab armies. The armies of Syria and Egypt would respond in a coordinated fashion to any Zionist provocation, and he also called for the military recruitment of Palestinian refugees to the struggle.8

Defeating the Baghdad Pact

The visit may be interpreted on a number of levels. First, it occupies a place in the history of the organization—the Islamic Congress—in whose service Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem. More broadly, the Islamic Congress may be located in the context of the Egyptian struggle against the Baghdad Pact.

The Islamic Congress was the product of a tripartite initiative, of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. In August 1954, a meeting took place in Mecca, during the pilgrimage season, among Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, King Sa‘ud, and Pakistani Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad. The three leaders came to an agreement to establish the Islamic Congress, out of different and even contradictory expectations. Egypt hoped to create a neutral Afro-Asian block, using Islam as a unifier. Pakistan, in contrast, sought to use Islam, and the Islamic Congress, as the foundation of an anti-Soviet Muslim alliance supported by the Western powers. Saudi Arabia at that time was aligned with Egypt, and saw the Islamic Congress as a counter-balance to a possible Iraqi-led union of the Fertile Crescent. King Sa‘ud was accorded the symbolic title of president of the Congress, and Anwar Sadat, at the time minister of state in the Egyptian government and editor of the daily newspaper Al-Jumhuriyya, was appointed the secretary-general of the organization.9 The Islamic Congress established its headquarters in Cairo, in the opulent royal Palais Toussoun in the fashionable Zamalik neighborhood. (Sadat’s first renovation was to turn Prince Said Toussoun’s well-appointed bar into a prayer room.)10

The Islamic Congress almost immediately split in February 1955, when Pakistan joined the Baghdad Pact and Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Cairo. Egypt strongly opposed the Baghdad Pact, and conducted a vigorous campaign to prevent the accession of other Arab countries. Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jordan in December 1955 took place at the height of the crisis surrounding the question of Jordan’s possible accession to the Pact. Sadat was immediately preceded in Amman by a British emissary, Sir Gerald Templer, chief of the Imperial General Staff, who tried to persuade King Hussein to join the Pact. Sadat’s visit (like that of Egyptian chief of staff ‘Abd al-Hakim ‘Amr to the Jordanian capital earlier that same month) had the intent of thwarting British plans, in particular by mobilizing Palestinian opinion against the Pact. An Israeli press report went so far as to describe the Islamic Congress as “a fictitious file,” behind which Sadat pursued Egypt’s effort to counter the pro-Western alliance.11 

How did Sadat operate in Amman? The first secretary of the British embassy there suspected that Sadat personally bribed the Palestinian ministers in the government to threaten resignation over the Baghdad Pact, describing Sadat as “one of the direct causes of the breakdown of the negotiations with the Jordan government.”12 On December 14, just after Sadat’s departure, serious riots broke out on both banks of the Jordan, putting the regime in peril. The American ambassador to Jordan had no doubt about the causes of the unrest: “During the internal crisis and riots of December 14-21, 1955, the strength of Egyptian influence was manifest. Very revealing also is public acceptance and even approbation of subversive character of Egyptian activity.”13On his return to Egypt, Sadat claimed he had succeeded in uncovering a vast British conspiracy to recruit the Arabs to the Baghdad Pact.14 In his memoirs, he wrote: “It is no exaggeration to say that I played an important part in the frustration of the Baghdad Pact.”15 Indeed he did.

It was oddly ironic that Sadat used his position as Secretary General of the Islamic Congress to block an effort to organize an Arab front against Soviet expansion. In his book The Game of Nations, CIA agent Miles Copeland revealed that the Americans had a clandestine link to the Islamic Congress:

The Islamic Congress was founded in 1954 with Anwar Sadat as its head, Hassan Touhami becoming his deputy a year or so later. It sent Koranic literature to Africa, and held conferences on such subjects as Islamic law, Islamic art and Islamic archaeology. Religious attachés were sent to various Egyptian missions abroad and assigned the task of watching for opportunities use common religious interests to achieve at least tactical “union” against one or another of the Great Powers on some specific issue. The American Government at first gave limited encouragement to the program, on the theory that the Egyptians could help persuade some of the countries of Africa (northern Nigeria, for example) that progress wasn’t inconsistent with the teachings of Islam. The encouragement was discontinued in the early 1960s when it became apparent that the religious attachés were less concerned with progress than with developing ties that would be helpful in “the struggle against our common enemy, imperialism.”16

The meaning of the words “encouragement” and “support” in the lexicon of Copeland was usually financial rather than moral. Hassan Touhami, one of Nasser’s most trusted aids, was also Copeland’s own link to Nasser. Copeland’s hint receives some validation from a report of the French ambassador to Egypt, dating from 1954, which relates rumors to the effect that “American circles” viewed the establishment of the Islamic Congress favorably, seeing it as something useful for its own future political plans.17 Just how the Americans rationalized this support is an unknown.

Sadat at the Aqsa Mosque during the same visit.

Against the Brotherhood

Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem also occurred on another plane: that of the struggle between the Free Officers regime in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood preceded Sadat to Jerusalem. In December 1953, an international Islamic conference had been held in Jerusalem, bringing together Muslim Brotherhood activists from Egypt and Syria, as well as from like-minded movements throughout the Muslim world. In this manner, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to place itself at the forefront of the continuing struggle against the state of Israel, and to transform Jerusalem into a hub for the Muslim Brotherhood everywhere. The 1953 conference evoked an earlier Islamic conference, held in 1931 in Jerusalem, and organized by the then-leader of the Palestinian national movement, Hajj Amin al-Husayni. It even had the same name: the General Islamic Congress. (The organizers had hoped that Hajj Amin himself would head of the conference—at the time, he was residing in Damascus—but the Jordanian authorities prevented his entry.)18

Participants in the 1953 conference included Sayyid Qutb, the chief ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood; Mustafa al-Siba‘i, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria; ‘Allal al-Fasi, head of the Moroccan Istiqlal party; and Navab Safavi, head of the Iranian Feda’iyan-e Islam. The conference passed resolutions condemning the existence of Israel and rejecting proposals for the internationalization of Jerusalem.19 Navab Safavi paid an emotional visit to the Palestinian refugee camp of Deheisha, and Sayyid Qutb visited Qibya, site of a large-scale retaliatory raid by Israeli commandos in October 1953 that resulted in the deaths of scores of civilians. “I returned from Qibya,” he said, “and I doubt whether we are men. I hope this doubt will not last.”20 (Both Safavi and Qutb would eventually be executed for their political activities, by the regimes in Iran and Egypt, respectively.)

The Jordanians, in permitting such a conference, faced a dilemma similar to that confronted the British authorities in Jerusalem twenty-two years earlier. The Jordanians feared that the conference would turn into an anti-imperialist, anti-British, anti-French, and anti-Soviet demonstration—and a diplomatic embarrassment. At the same time, they wished to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to show solidarity with Jordan against the Zionist enemy. The authorities therefore set limits to the scope of the conference. Its resolutions were to relate only to the struggle against Israel. The participants held an informal gathering after the conference, in Amman, where they vented their opposition to various forms of imperialist oppression (British, French, and Soviet).21 Following the conference, a secretariat was established in Jerusalem, which was supposed to organize future conferences. Sa‘id Ramadan, a leading Egyptian Muslim Brother, was elected secretary general of the conference, and Kamil al-Sharif, another Egyptian Muslim Brother, was named his deputy.

During the course of 1954, the relationship between the Nasser regime and the Muslim Brotherhood deteriorated rapidly, especially after a failed assassination attempt against Nasser on October 26. As the crackdown evolved, Egypt also tried to create difficulties for the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, and especially in Jerusalem. Cairo pressured Amman to close the secretariat of the Islamic Congress, and when Sa‘id Ramadan entered Jordan in April 1954, Jordanian intelligence detained and interrogated him. Ramadan threatened to transfer the secretariat to another country.22 He later moved to Syria, where he felt more secure. In September 1954, he and Sharif were stripped of their Egyptian citizenship, and Sharif was expelled from Jordan in November 1954.23 In the summer of 1955, authorities shut down the office of the conference, in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Despite this, a number of mediation efforts were undertaken, especially by Syrian ulama, in order to resuscitate the Jerusalem conference. Against this background, it is possible to detect a second hidden mission in Sadat’s visit, and especially in his proposal to establish an Islamic cultural center on the Mount of Olives. The center, under Egyptian supervision, would assure that Jerusalem would not be turned again into stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood in future—a firm base from which the Brotherhood could operate against the Egyptian regime. The center would also have established Egypt as champion of the struggle to preserve the Islamic character of the city against Zionists enemy.

Sadat several times had to clarify the position of the Islamic Congress vis-à-vis the parallel organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. Earlier, in 1954, he had been asked whether the Muslim Brotherhood would be welcomed in the Islamic Congress. He replied that the goals of the Congress and the Brotherhood differed. The Islamic Congress rejected “fanaticism,” whereas the Brotherhood stood for stagnation and against the development and renaissance of Islam.24 

On his 1955 trip, he slightly moderated his tone. In Damascus, prior to his arrival in Jordan, he said he saw no obstacle to unifying efforts with those who had held their conference in Jerusalem, provided that they first distance themselves from politics, since only harm came to Muslims by inserting religion in political affairs.25 In Jordan, in response to a question, Sadat said that his organization wished success to “those who organized their last conference in Jerusalem”—that is, the Muslim Brothers—and that there was a need for “tens” of such conferences.26 In this manner, Sadat avoided direct public criticism of the efforts of the Muslim Brothers, who had enjoyed the cooperation of the religious establishment in Jerusalem. But the timing of Sadat’s visit—shortly after the closure of the conference office in Jerusalem and the expulsion of its organizers—indicated that Sadat did not expect to operate alongside the Muslim Brothers in Jerusalem, but in their place.

Not that the Islamic Congress really intended to convene a conference in Jerusalem. A collection of documents from the papers of ‘Awni Abd al-Hadi, who served as Jordanian ambassador to Egypt in the early 1950s, quotes correspondence from the ambassador indicating that the Jordanian Foreign Ministry pressured him to promote the idea of holding an Islamic conference in Jerusalem. (‘Abd al-Hadi was unenthusiastic about the idea, hence the need to pressure him.) The ministry believed that such a conference, of Islamic states in Jerusalem, would strengthen Jordan’s international position and would constitute Islamic validation of Jordan’s annexation of the city and the West Bank to the kingdom of Jordan.27

But Nasser poured cold water on the idea. In a conversation with ‘Abd al-Hadi, Nasser warned of the downsides of holding an Islamic conference in Jerusalem. There was a danger that the Christian world would react negatively to such a conference, viewing it as an attempt to enforce the supremacy of Islam over the holy places. He also doubted that the Arabs would receive any meaningful support from non-Arab Muslims, who so far had extended no material or moral assistance to their Arab brethren.28 It seems likely that Nasser also did not wish to rule out other options for solving the Jerusalem question, which might have involved internationalization of the city. 

So it was no surprise that Anwar Sadat, during his visit, evaded the question of whether the Islamic conference might be held in Jerusalem itself. Such a decision, he stated, rested with the higher council of the Islamic Congress. As a gesture to his hosts, he said that he personally preferred Jerusalem, but also made it clear that this preference was his alone.29In fact, there was never a serious plan to convene an actual conference in Jerusalem (or anywhere else). Egypt’s aim, through the Islamic Congress, was to prevent future Islamic conferences in Jerusalemspecifically, those organized by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Aftermath: Success and Failure

Upon the conclusion of his visit to Jerusalem, Sadat continued on his way to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and Iraq. He left Jordan in a state of turmoil, having successfully done his part to block its path to the Baghdad Pact.  

But the Islamic Congress spent itself in the process. Nasser later presented the Islamic Congress itself as a casualty of the Baghdad Pact, in a speech in 1966: “When the Baghdad Pact was formed early in 1955 it became impossible for the Islamic Congress to be convened as a political conference not linked with imperialism… After the creation of the Baghdad Pact and the joining of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq, it became difficult for the Islamic Congress to meet on a political basis. We therefore pursued the idea on a popular level.”30  By 1956, Saudi Arabia had also dropped out, leaving the Islamic Congress as a purely Egyptian propaganda tool, devoted to spreading Egyptian influence in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Sadat himself moved on in 1961, to be replaced by Kamal al-Din Husayn, a Free Officer known for his Islamic leanings. By that time, the Islamic Congress had disappeared from public view.

Likewise, nothing ever came of the plan to establish an Islamic cultural center on the Mount of Olives. Egyptian-Jordanian relations began to deteriorate, and in the course of 1956, Nasser sought to undermine the very foundations of the Hashemite Kingdom. The Jordanians, a few years later, permitted the construction of the Inter-continental Hotel (today, the Seven Arches) precisely where Sadat had envisioned the site of the Islamic cultural center.

The Jordanians also allowed the Muslim Brothers to return and reestablish themselves in Jerusalem. Signs of reconciliation were evident already in 1956. The Jordanians did not permit the Muslim Brothers to convene their conference in Jerusalem that year, so it was held in Damascus. But the participants received permission to visit Jerusalem after their conference, and the conference bureau reopened in Jerusalem.31 The Muslim Brothers subsequently held three more conferences in Jerusalem between 1960 and 1962. Among the participants were some of the most notable figures in the pantheon of radical Islam. In addition to those who participated in 1953, mentioned earlier, additional participants included Abu al-A‘la Maududi, leader of the Jama‘at-e Islami of Pakistan; Ayatollah Mohammad Taleqani of Iran; Fathi Yakan from Lebanon; and many others. As the hostility between Nasser and King Hussein grew, so did the criticism of the Egyptian regime unleashed at these conferences. They served not only the purposes of the Muslim Brothers, but also those of King Hussein, against his enemies both at home and abroad.

In 1962, the Muslim Brotherhood convened its last conference in Jerusalem. Many members had moved on to Saudi Arabia, and there they took to convening in the holy cities, and especially during the pilgrimage season. Saudi Arabia had become a more secure base from which to conduct their campaign against the Nasser regime. The office of the conference nevertheless continued to operate in Jerusalem. After 1967, it relocated to Amman, where it became an appendage of the Jordanian Ministry of Religious Endowments.

In summation, during the Jordanian period, the uneasy alliance between the Hashemite monarchy and the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded but little in advancing the cause of Jerusalem on the Islamic level. The divisions in the Arab and Islamic worlds, over the Baghdad Pact and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, prevented the creation of an organized framework for strengthening the position of the city, raising funds for its Islamic sites, and convening gatherings in solidarity with the struggle for an Islamic Jerusalem. Such frameworks were established only after 1967, and especially after an act of arson damaged the Al-Aqsa mosque in 1969. 

It was the fire that finally brought about the creation of an Islamic organization of states, from which there emerged the Jerusalem Committee in Morocco, the Jerusalem Fund, and a wide range of activities on behalf of Jerusalem in the Islamic world. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, according to its constitution (article 21), is committed to moving its seat from Jedda to Jerusalem upon the “liberation” of the city. Whether it will seek to do so in the way that Sadat proposed in 1955, or in the way he paved in 1977, remains to be seen.

Anwar Sadat prays in the Aqsa Mosque on his second visit to Jerusalem, November 1977.


1. Anwar el-Sadat, In Search of Identity: An Autobiography (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), insert between pp. 216-17.

2. “I left early in the morning, Sunday, for al-Aqsa Mosque to perform the Bairam prayers. I was in Arab Jerusalem for the second time in twenty-two years. (The first time was when I was Minister of State and secretary-general of the Islamic Congress.)” El-Sadat, In Search, p. 310.

3. Filastin, al-Difa‘, December 12, 1955.

4. Filastin, December 13, 1955.

5. Filastin, December 13, 1955.

6. Al-Difa‘, December 13, 1955; Al-Ahram, December 13, 1955.

7. Filastin, December 13, 1955; Al-Ahram, December 13, 1955.

8. Al-Difa‘, December 14, 1955.

9. Sadat press conference, Al-Ahram, September 17, 1954; “Congrès islamique annuel,” Cahiers de l’Orient contemporain (Paris), no. 30 (2d semestre, 1954), pp. 146-47; “Le Congrès Islamique,” Mélanges de l’Institut Dominicain d’Études Orientales du Caire (Cairo), vol. 3 (1956), pp. 471-78; Mahmud Brelvi, “The Islamic Congress (Al-Mo’tamar al-Islami), Cairo: A Brief Survey of its Work,” The Islamic Review (Woking, England), vol. 44, no. 10 (October 1955), p. 13,

10. Al-Ahram, August 25, 1953.

11. Davar, December 12, 1955.

12. Heath Mason, first secretary, dispatch of December 31, 1955, FO371/121476.

13. Lester D. Mallory, U.S. ambassador to Jordan, dispatch of January 5, 1956, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Volume XIII, Near East: Jordan-Yemen (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1988), p. 13;

14. Al-Jumhuriyya, December 24-27, 1955.

15. El-Sadat, In Search, p. 136.

16. Miles Copeland, The Game of Nations (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969), pp. 185-86

17. Maurice Couve de Murville, French ambassador to Egypt, dispatch of September 22, 1954, archive of the French Embassy in Cairo, carton 70, 12/, “Congrès Islamique,” now at the Centre des archives diplomatiques in Nantes, France.

18. Al-Ahram, December 10, 1953.

19. Al-Ahram, December 10, 1953.

20. Ha-Po‘el Ha-Tza’ir, December 22, 1953.

21. Filastin, December 12, 1953.

22. French consul in Jerusalem, despatch no. 340 of April 12, 1954, archive of the French Embassy in Cairo, carton 70, 12/5C, “Frères musulmans,” now at the Centre des archives diplomatiques in Nantes, France.

23. French consul in Jerusalem, despatch no. 1045 of November 29, 1954, archive of the French Embassy in Cairo, carton 70, 12/5C, “Frères musulmans,” now at the Centre des archives diplomatiques in Nantes, France.

24. Al-Ahram, September 17, 1954.

25. Al-Ahram, December 12, 1955.

26. Al-Difa‘, December 13, 1955.

27. ‘Awni ‘Abd al-Hadi, despatch of May 19, 1954, quoted by Khayriya Qasimiya, ‘Awni ‘Abd al-Hadi: Awraq Khassa (Beirut: PLO Research Center, 1974), p. 199.

28. Ibid.

29. Al-Difa‘, December 12, 1955.

30. Address by President Gamal Abdel Nasser at the great popular rally held by the Arab Socialist Union in celebration of the anniversary of Unity Day, Cairo, February 22, 1966 (Cairo: National Publication House, 1966), pp. 37-38; Al-Ahram, February 23, 1966.

31. Filastin, July 2, 1956.

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35 years after the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty

This post first appeared as an article for Commentary on March 26.

Sadat, Begin, and Carter on White House Lawn

Today, March 26, marks the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, most famously evoked by the three-way handshake on the White House lawn that changed the Middle East. Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat put war behind Israel and Egypt, and in so doing, ended the Israeli-Arab conflict. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, and so too does the Israeli-Iranian struggle. But Israeli-Egyptian peace put an end to the destructive battlefield wars between Israel and Arab states, of the kind that erupted in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. Since the famous handshake among Begin, Sadat, and Jimmy Carter, there has been no destructive battlefield war between Israel and a conventional Arab army. And Egypt and Israel now have been at peace longer than they were at war.

It has often been said of Begin and Sadat that the two men were like oil and water. “The two men were totally incompatible,” recalled Jimmy Carter, describing the Camp David negotiations that produced the treaty. “There was intense perturbation between them, shouting, banging on the tables, stalking out of the rooms. So for the next seven days, they never saw each other. And so we negotiated with them isolated from one another.”

Yet in a briefing paper prepared for the U.S. team prior to the Camp David, these sentences appear: “Both Begin and Sadat have evidenced similar personal and national objectives throughout their familiar transformation from underground fighter to political leader. Despite their often vituperative comments, each should be able to recognize the other as a politician basically capable of change, compromise, and commitment.” The idea that the similarities between Begin and Sadat made peace possible has been scanted in that interpretation of the negotiations that features Jimmy Carter as hero.

This is no surprise. No two leaders could have seemed more different, and it is almost too easy to enumerate the contrasts. For starters, Anwar Sadat came from a poor village in the Nile Delta, a place of almost immemorial permanence. Begin came from the crumbling world of East European Jewry, later erased from the earth. Sadat was an Axis sympathizer during the Second World War. Begin’s parents and brother were murdered by the Nazis. Sadat made a career of the military, and even died in a military uniform. Begin was a civilian through and through. Americans found Sadat to be alluring and easy-going, a gregarious man in a leisure suit. They regarded Begin as rigid and ideological; one American official remarked that, even at Camp David, Begin was always dressed “as though he were about to go to a funeral.” Sadat was an authoritarian dictator who sent his opponents to prison. Begin was a classic liberal with a firm commitment to democracy and the law. Etcetera.

But the similarities between the two are just as striking—perhaps even more so—and it may be precisely the personal parallels that brought them together at the crucial moment, and made the achievement of peace possible.

Marginal Men

One obvious similarity is the one to which the U.S. briefing paper alluded, in describing both as “underground fighters.” In fact, both entered politics through the back door, as conspirators who planned political violence and who were steeled by long stints in political prison.

Sadat, as a young revolutionary, immersed himself in conspiratorial plots, both against the British (who then controlled Egypt), as well as against Egyptian leaders he regarded as collaborators. As a result, he found himself in and out of prison. In 1945, the 27-year-old Sadat and his friends decided to assassinate the on-and-off prime minister of Egypt, Nahhas Pasha. Here is Sadat describing the decision to kill him:

When we were schoolboys we had gone out twice a day to have a look at Nahhas, cheering and applauding as he rode down to work and back. He had been a mythical hero—a peerless symbol of patriotism, self-sacrifice, and devotion. But then he lost everything and we came to regard him as a traitor. His disloyalty to Egypt and her people made his removal a national duty. We therefore decided to get rid of him.

The group staked out Nahhas’s motorcade; one of the members threw a grenade, but luckily for Nahhas, it missed his car. The group was quite disappointed; eager to assassinate someone, they decided to kill the former finance minister, Amin Osman Pasha. This succeeded, and while Sadat was not the triggerman, he was tried as part of the conspiracy and was acquitted only after a lengthy trial.

During eighteen months in the isolation of Cell 54, Sadat experienced his political epiphany. But what did he say about the deed that put him there? “The assassination of Amin Osman achieved its objective,” he wrote. “We had managed to mar the image of effective colonialism, with unprecedented decisiveness, in the eyes of the people.”

Menachem Begin had the more famous “underground” career. He was first sent off to prison during the Second World War by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD—an eight-month travail he recounted in his memoir White Nights. By then, he too had been initiated into a life of clandestine conspiracy—methods of operation he would bring with him to Palestine in the last days of the British mandate. There, at the age of 31, he would rise to leadership of an underground organization, the Irgun, which would be responsible for the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which killed 91 persons. (Begin would always claim that a telephone call had been placed to warn that the bombs had been planted.) In 1947, Begin ordered the retaliatory hanging of two kidnapped British sergeants. It was, he said, “the most difficult decision of my life,” and an act of “cruel revenge.” Begin managed to stay underground throughout this campaign, pursued by the British who never caught up with him.

Clandestine nationalist “underground” activity, involving violence against the British Empire and its collaborators, represented a clear parallel in the careers of Sadat and Begin. So, too, was their eclipse during their middle years, as the British Empire retreated from the Middle East and Egypt and Israel gained full independence. Both men spent many years on the political margins, overshadowed by charismatic leaders who had a stronger grip on the imaginations of their peoples.

Sadat was a member of the Free Officers conspiracy in 1952, and was part of the cabal of young officers who overthrew the monarchy. But after Nasser emerged decisively as the leader, Sadat came to be regarded as the most colorless man in the ruling clique. He was socially conservative, rather more religious than his colleagues, and seemingly a bit less sophisticated because of his rural origins. He spent eighteen years in the looming shadow of Nasser, and became his number two only in the year before Nasser’s death. No one could have guessed, during Nasser’s long-running high-wire act, that Sadat would succeed him. (Sadat’s deferential posture may have spared him being purged by Nasser, who never considered him a threat.) When Sadat became president, he was 52 years old—the same age as Nasser on his death.

Begin languished even longer on the margins. The Zionist revolution was credited to David Ben-Gurion, the man associated most directly with Israel’s war of independence and institution-building. The Revisionists led by Begin would always claim to have played a crucial role in Israel’s struggle for independence, by their acts of resistance—some would call them terror—against the British and the Arabs. But this was a disputed narrative—one put forward by Begin in his book The Revolt—and one that left the great majority of Israelis unmoved. The evidence for this was the performance of Begin’s political party in Israeli elections. Begin was a perpetual denizen of the opposition benches in the Israeli parliament. In a political landscape dominated by the Labor Party, he spent decade after decade delivering speeches and doing little else.

His opening only came after the 1973 war, launched by Sadat, which finally precipitated a crisis of confidence in the Labor Party leadership, and opened the door for Begin. (Here was a paradox: it was an decision of Sadat that cleared the way for Begin.) When Begin became prime minister in 1977, after leading his own party to defeat in eight election cycles, the world was astonished. He was 64 years old when he assumed the premiership.

Sadat and Begin thus spent decades in the shadow of men who effectively issued the declarations of independence of their countries. (Ben-Gurion actually declared Israel’s independence in 1948, and Nasser effectively declared Egypt’s independence by nationalizing the Suez Canal in 1956.) But neither of these giants had managed to bring peace to their peoples. Nasser drove Egypt to defeat in 1967, while Ben-Gurion, despite leading Israel to victories in 1948 and 1956, had been unable to translate military prowess into peace, and this was true of his Labor Party successors as well. They left unfinished legacies, which provided the openings for Sadat and Begin.

Who Dwell Alone

Begin and Sadat also shared a strongly pro-Western, anti-Soviet orientation. Begin had been thrown in prison by the Soviets, and although it was the struggle against the Nazis that formed him, his animosity toward the Soviet Union, while less in degree, was similar in kind. A champion of Jewish peoplehood first and foremost, he saw the Soviet Union as an oppressive regime of antisemitic evil—in contrast to many on the Israeli left at the time, who remembered the Soviet Union as the great ally of the Second World War, and who persisted in admiring its (supposedly) socialist values.

This aversion to the Soviets also held true of Sadat. During Nasser’s years, Egypt aligned itself squarely with the Soviet Union, which became Egypt’s major arms supplier, financier of the Aswan dam, and principal source of diplomatic backing. But Sadat never trusted the Soviets. He was certain they represented another form of colonialism, and that their policies were meant to keep Egypt subservient. He came to power as president in 1970, and already by 1972 he had expelled thousands of Soviet advisers, whom he regarded as agents of a foreign empire, no different than the British of an earlier era. It would be his desire to align Egypt with the West—and particularly the United States—which would set the stage for his decision to visit Jerusalem.

Both men also relied heavily on the technique of the strategic surprise. Sadat had attempted, through his first few years in power, to achieve the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt through back-channel diplomacy. He ultimately concluded that what had been taken by force could only be restored by force. That led him to the bold decision to launch war against Israel in October 1973, in cooperation with Syria. His war goals were limited: to compel Israel to come to the table and force the United States to take Egypt seriously as its potential Arab partner. The war produced just enough military success to be portrayed to the Egyptian people as a victory, so that Sadat could claim to have achieved the battlefield triumph that had eluded Nasser. But to translate his (limited) military achievement into something more, there had to be a political move of comparable audacity. This would come in the form of his surprise decision to violate all the norms of Arab political conduct, and pay a visit to Israel where he appeared in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and made a famous speech of reconciliation.

Begin also was given to the audacious act. Three of them marked his premiership. First, there was the decision to withdraw from all of Sinai, involving the demolition of Yamit, a large Jewish settlement there. It was the first time Israel had ever dismantled a settlement, and it came as a shock, especially to his admirers. Second, there was his decision in 1981 to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor—a complete surprise to the world, driven by an inner conviction that he was acting to save Israel. This was followed by his decision to invade Lebanon—a move intended by Begin to complement the peace with Egypt, in remaking Israel’s strategic environment. (If it did so, it was for the worse.) Begin, like Sadat, could also surprise both friends and adversaries with bold moves.

Both men were also driven by an almost isolationist nationalism. Nasser had placed Egypt squarely in the Arab circle: Egypt was to lead the Arab world, and the Egyptians were first and foremost Arabs. In 1958, he even briefly subsumed Egypt in something called the United Arab Republic, which joined Egypt and Syria in a single polity. Sadat, in contrast, extricated Egypt from its Arab commitments. He regarded it as a civilization unto itself, so weighty that it could stand aloof and alone. Yes, it would engage in alliances and relationships with other Arab states, but Sadat was determined to put Egypt first, even if that meant that other Arabs might shun it.

Begin proceeded from a similar set of assumptions. The Jews were alone in the world, they were a people unto themselves, and they had been repudiated by East and West, even in those lands where they had been first emancipated. Begin did not regard this as tragedy, but as destiny. The Jews were destined to dwell alone, and he accepted the fact with equanimity. Here too there would be alliances and relationships, but Israel did not belong to any larger club, and ultimately it could rely only upon itself. This set the stage for the bilateral agreement between two leaders seeking to isolate their peoples from the threats around them. (It also meant that the peace itself, as much as it was intended to reconcile Egypt and Israel, was also bound to isolate them from one another.)

The two men also had a shared concept of the territorial limits of peoplehood. For Sadat, Egyptian territory was sacred, and the Sinai Peninsula was part of Egyptian territory. The commitment to the Palestinians, in contrast, was vague—diminished, in no small measure, by Egypt’s overall withdrawal from the Arab world. For Begin, the West Bank was sacred—not occupied territory, but Judea and Samaria, Israel’s patrimony. Yet the Sinai was foreign land. Had Begin been driven only by security considerations, he might have resisted withdrawal from the valuable strategic buffer represented by the Sinai. (Some of his advisers thought he should.) But his precise sense of where the Jewish homeland began and ended made possible an agreement based on a total Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.

Triumph and Tragedy

The saga of Camp David and the Israeli-Egyptian peace has been told many times (and, currently, in a play running at Arena Stage in Washington). That Jimmy Carter faced a formidable challenge in bringing Sadat and Begin to an agreement is indisputable. Begin himself, in remarks that immediately followed negotiations, said that the Camp David conference “should be renamed the Jimmy Carter conference.”

But the parallels in the lives of Sadat and Begin may have worked, in ways subtle but strong, in favor of an agreement. Here were two men forged by prison and violence into believers in their own destiny, but who had been written off politically for decades. By the time they came to power, they were in a hurry to achieve something that would transcend the legacies of their celebrated predecessors. Here were two men who believed that their peoples were fated to struggle alone, but who were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to cement relations with the United States, in the interests of their peoples but also in order to shut the Soviet Union out of the Middle East. Here were two men who did not shy from the bold gamble, and who actually saw a greater risk in inaction. And above all, here were two men possessed not only by a strong sense of peoplehood, but of its geography, which they conceived in ways that left no overlapping territorial claims.

There is one more parallel. Both men finished their lives tragically. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 on the reviewing stand during the annual celebration of Egypt’s October 6, 1973 military offensive. While world leaders attended his funeral, the Egyptian crowds stayed home and so too did Arab leaders. He died in splendid (personal) isolation, mirroring that which he brought upon Egypt. Begin also died in isolation—one he had imposed on himself after he resigned the premiership in 1983, in the wake of the Lebanon war. In the decade between his resignation and his death, in 1992, he went into seclusion. He was buried, as he wished to be, not among Israel’s leaders on Mount Herzl, but on the Mount of Olives, and not in a state funeral, but in a simple Jewish ceremony.

For many Egyptians, Sadat’s achievement in war was tainted by an ill-conceived peace. For many Israelis, Begin’s achievement in peace was tainted by an ill-conceived war. The two men who, with Jimmy Carter, shared the world’s stage on March 26, 1979, to thundering accolades, departed this earth to mixed reviews.

But the peace treaty signed 35 years ago today has turned out to be the most durable feature of the Middle Eastern landscape, and the bedrock on which the stability of the region rests. Two “incompatible” men forged it—perhaps because, ultimately, they were so much alike.

Addresses by Begin and Sadat at the White House State Dinner on March 26, 1979.

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Worst-case scenario in Egypt

A Muslim Brother, Muhammad Morsi, has entered Egypt’s presidential palace and taken his seat in the chair once occupied by Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. This is a stunning development—a slow-motion Islamic revolution that few envisioned back in January 2011, when the crowds filled Tahrir Square.

The experts systematically underestimated the Muslim Brotherhood for a simple reason: they saw the revolution as they wanted it to be, not as it was. The distorted optic of the Tahrir stage seduced and misled them. But it was even more than that: the Muslim Brotherhood itself conducted a campaign of deliberate deception. They claimed they wouldn’t try to dominate the parliament, that they wouldn’t run candidates for every seat—and then they did. They said they wouldn’t run a presidential candidate of their own—and then they did. The credulous believed these reassurances—they seemed so rational and pragmatic. Marc Lynch, an estimable expert on these matters, actually chided the Brotherhood when it defied his analysis of its best interests and nominated a presidential candidate. It was, in his words, a “strategic blunder.”

In fact, it was a strategic master-stroke. From the beginning of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood has understood that the fluid situation created by the fall of Mubarak won’t last forever, and that now is the time to seize every possible position they can, before alternatives take form. They want power, they crave power, and they won’t let it slip through their fingers by sitting out even a single contest. At the end of the day, all of the arguments for holding back have fallen by the wayside. They’re going for broke.

And have no doubt about the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood seeks to restore Egypt to the glory it once knew, by implementing Islamic social and legal norms. The translation of Islamic ideology into practice is the point of holding political power. The Brotherhood might not be able to effect an exact translation—that would be difficult—but a translation of ideology into practice it will be. This worries secular Egyptians, the international community, and Israel. At this early stage, many will say that such worries are overblown, that the Brotherhood will adapt and compromise. To consolidate power, it might. But at a later stage, many may regret having been so nonchalant.

No one can stop Brotherhood. You say: what about the military chiefs? The military, at times, has appeared to be winning. The revolution got rid of Gamal Mubarak, Husni Mubarak’s son and presumed successor, and that suited the military fine. The parliamentary elections, won by Islamists, demolished the liberals by revealing their weakness. That suited the military fine.

This left standing the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Everyone assumed that they wouldn’t dare put forth a candidate for the presidency. The new president was to have been a consensus personality above party politics—an ElBaradei or Amr Musa. It was the Brotherhood’s decision to run a presidential candidate that threw the military off-balance, and they have been scrambling ever since. The first Brotherhood candidate, the formidable deputy-guide Khayrat ash-Shater, was disqualified—he would have won a sweeping victory. His replacement, Muhammad Morsi, basically a stand-in, had less appeal, and against him, the unlikely Ahmad Shafik stood a chance. But it gradually became evident that even the stand-in might defeat Shafik, hence the drastic measures by the military chiefs, stripping the presidency of most of its powers even before the first ballot was counted.

The military’s efforts to contain the Muslim Brotherhood, at this late date, can only buy limited time. The parliament has been dissolved, but it will have to be reconstituted, and then what? The rewriting of the constitution can be delayed, but the constitution will have to be written and approved by the legislature, and then what? And if the president isn’t to be the supreme commander of the Egyptian armed forces, then who will be? The simple truth is that Egypt isn’t going to revert to military rule—it’s too late, the polls show that a vast majority of Egyptians want a transition to civilian, constitutional rule. For the military, the question is, what are the terms of this transition? What will guarantee their economic enterprises? What will assure them that they won’t be prosecuted and purged? This is now the core of Egyptian domestic politics: the terms on which the military will exit. And with each passing day, the hand of the Muslim Brotherhood is strengthened in this negotiation, because it grows more legitimate and the generals grow less legitimate. There are those who think that the Muslim Brotherhood can still be outmaneuvered by gerrymandering the system. In the long term, it can’t. Egypt is headed toward populist Islamist rule, and it is just a matter of time before the Brotherhood checkmates its opponents.

So how will the Muslim Brotherhood rule? It is the misfortune of the Muslim Brotherhood that, having waited more than 80 years for power, they have come to it at perhaps the lowest point in the modern history of Egypt. The country teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, the result of decades of bad decisions, corruption, and the absence of the rule of law. The Muslim Brotherhood is in a bind, because it has to deliver. For the masses of people who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, the revolution wasn’t about democracy and freedom. It was about bread and social justice.

The Brotherhood has a so-called “Renaissance” plan for the overhaul of the Egyptian economy. I won’t pretend to judge its feasibility. Could modernization of tax collection double or triple tax revenues? Can Egypt double the number of arriving tourists, even while contemplating limits on alcohol and bikinis? Can a renovation of the Suez Canal raise transit revenues from $6 billion a year to $100 billion? Can Egypt’s economy surpass the economies of Turkey and Malaysia within seven years? These are all claims made at various times by the economic thinkers of the Muslim Brotherhood, who trumpet Egypt’s supposed potential for self-sufficiency.

If you think this is pie in the sky, then it isn’t difficult to imagine the “Plan B” of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is to find ways to raise the rent Egypt collects from the West and rich Arabs for its geopolitical position. Call it a shakedown, call it a bailout, it doesn’t matter. The message Egypt is sending is that it’s too big to fail, and that the world, and especially the United States, owes it. The deputy guide, Khayrat ash-Shater, put it directly: “We strongly advise the Americans and the Europeans to support Egypt during this critical period as compensation for the many years they supported a brutal dictatorship.” Egypt, which is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, is thus owed compensation.

A key part of this narrative is that Mubarak sold peace with Israel on the cheap. In Egypt it is believed that the $1.3 billion that Egypt receives a year in military aid, and hundreds of millions more in economic aid, are just a portion of what Egypt’s adherence to peace is worth. To get more, the plan of the Muslim Brotherhood is to persuade Washington that it can’t take Egypt for granted. The strategy will be to stimulate crises that will be amenable to resolution by the transfer of resources. No one can predict what those crises will look like. It’s hard to imagine that some of them won’t involve Israel.

So the question the United States faces will be this: is Egypt indeed too big to fail? Is the United States now not only going to talk the Muslim Brotherhood—which it is already doing—but actively work to help it succeed? The question comes at a time when the United States has become frugal. And there is no superpower rivalry that Egypt can exploit. When John Foster Dulles informed Nasser in 1956 that the United States wouldn’t finance his great dam at Aswan, Nasser went to Moscow. Today there aren’t any alternatives to the United States.

That being the case, the only way for Egypt to get the attention of Washington is to threaten to spin out of American orbit and into the opposing sphere of radical Islam. At no point will it be indisputable that the United States has “lost Egypt.” But at every point, Egypt’s loss will seem imminent. In that respect, the Muslim Brotherhood has already made its mark on history: from this day forward, Egypt can’t ever be taken for granted again.

For future reference, Marc Lynch stands by his analysis:


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