Anwar Sadat (1918-1981) was the president of Egypt from October 1970 until his assassination in October 1981. He oversaw significant change in his own country, forging a peace agreement with neighbouring Israel and reorienting Egypt away from Soviet influence and towards the United States.
Anwar Sadat was born in a small village in the Nile delta, the son of a clerk at the local hospital. When Sadat was six the family moved to Cairo, after his father gained a job in the British colonial bureaucracy. After completing high school Sadat joined a military academy and later obtained a commission.
Sadat was a fervent nationalist who opposed British colonial rule. He joined the Free Officers Movement, a cabal of young military officers seeking a free, self-governing Egypt. Sadat was jailed twice in the 1940s for his anti-British activities, which included collaborating with the Germans and Italians. In 1952 he participated in a coup, led by Gamal Nasser, that deposed the weak and corrupt King Farouk.
Under Nasser’s rule (1954-70), Egypt became an ally and a client state of the Soviet Union, receiving financial aid and technical advice on projects like the Aswan Dam. Sadat served as an important member of Nasser’s government. He occupied several significant positions, including the editorship of the state-owned daily newspaper, Minister of State and vice president.
When Nasser died in September 1970 the presidency passed to Sadat. In May 1971, Sadat launched what he called a “Corrective Revolution”, a series of purges and reforms that steered Egypt away from Soviet influence and left-wing policies. Pro-Nasser politicians and bureaucrats were dismissed, Nasser’s secret police agency had its powers curtailed, while around 20,000 Soviet advisors were sent home. These reforms, along with Sadat’s gains in the Yom Kippur War with Israel (October 1973), made him very popular with the Egyptian people.
In 1977, Sadat became the first Arab leader to visit Israel. Two years later he signed a groundbreaking peace deal with Israeli leader Menachem Begin, for which both leaders were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Sadat’s willingness to compromise with Israel drew Egypt closer to the United States. In the late 1970s US president Jimmy Carter authorised an aid package for Egypt. This economic and military aid continued for the duration of the Cold War.
Many militants in the Middle East were outraged by Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel and his acceptance of US aid, however, considering it a betrayal of Arabic and Muslim interests. In October 1981, Sadat was assassinated during a military parade in Cairo, by Islamists who had infiltrated the Egyptian army. Sadat’s funeral was attended by three former US presidents and Western dignitaries but was snubbed by Arab leaders.