Monday, April 21, 2003
It being Passover, let us now praise famous Egyptians.
There is a reason that I consistently take a more optimistic line on Egypt than pretty much anyone else who is as pessimistic as I am about the Middle East. The reason: Egypt produced the Arab world's only patriot.
I'm not sure that's an overstatement. Anwar al-Sadat is the only Arab leader I can think of who chose to take real personal risks not for personal survival (plenty have done that) or for personal glory (a few have done that, too), but for the national interest - in his case, the interest of Egypt. People should remember that once upon a time, Egypt mattered in the world. It was the vanguard Third World nation, led by the charismatic and genuinely popular Gemal Abdel Nasser. When Nasser threw his lot in with the Soviet Union, it was a huge coup for the Soviets, and the Soviets pretty much gave Nasser's regime anything it wanted. Egypt has the largest population in the Arab world, contains the oldest and most prestigious Islamic university, had its largest military, etc., etc.
Nasser squandered all this potential and nobody noticed. He devoted his energies to grandstanding and to a disastrous war with Israel. No Arab country suffered as much from the 1967 war as Egypt, and no country had less reason to start the war. Egypt lost a large and somewhat valuable swathe of territory, lost effective independent control of the Suez Canal, lost its entire air force, much of its army, huge numbers of lives - and for what? Apparently, because they thought Israel was going to attack Syria and didn't want the dishonor of not helping out a fellow Arab state. Jordan, meanwhile, lost a big headache (also known as the Palestinians) and Syria lost the ability to rain shells down on Israel.
Sadat, when he assumed power, rebuilt the Egyptian military, and led it to its only battlefield victory in the country's modern history: the crossing of the Suez Canal at the outset of the 1973 war. It was a limited achievement, but nonetheless a success, and it had a profound psychological effect in both Egypt and Israel. From the beginning, the October War was conceived as much in political as military terms - the objective was not to overrun the Sinai but to force a negotiated solution to Israel's occupation thereof on terms favorable to the Egyptians. Given subsequent events, one can only conclude that Egypt won the 1973 war.
Sadat won that war, ultimately, by waging peace. He threw out the Soviets and invited in the Americans, making an early and extremely prescient call on who was to be the likely victor in the Cold War. Sadat surely knew that switching sides in the Cold War meant ending the hot war with Israel. But he went further, and dramatically announced his willingness to go to Jerusalem to meet with the Israelis. No Arab leader has ever been so bold in rejecting the ideology of anti-Zionism that has poisoned Arab politics and culture for three generations. It is not that Sadat had any predisposition to be friendly to Jews or Israel. Sadat had professed his admiration for Hitler both during and after the Second World War, and had devoted himself to a political movement organized around rejection of Zionism and the unification of the Arab "nation." He turned his back on all that, for the sake of Egypt. He chose his country over his ideology, which took a surprisingly clear view of reality for a dictator. But he also turned his back on his own personal glory for the sake of his country. He was villified to the end of his life for betraying the Arab cause - not only elsewhere in the Arab world but in Egypt as well. Had he persisted in war, he would have been praised for his constancy. Had he simply toned down the hostility but refused to make peace, he would have gotten some of what he ultimately got, but he would have escaped villification. Instead, he behaved like a real patriot, and reaped assassination for it.
Now, I don't mean to make Sadat out to be some kind of saint. He was corrupt, among other things. But that's not my point. My point is not that he was a holy man; he wasn't. My point was that he was a patriot. Contra M. Villepin, idolator of Napoleon Bonaparte those who love their country are not those who bleed her for the sake of their own glory, not even if the glory is, in some sense shared with the nation. That was Nasser's way, and the Egyptians loved him for it. No, one who loves his country is one of subordinates his own interest to that of the nation, who renounces personal glory and even personal safety for the good of his people. That's what Sadat did, in a very fundamental way. It doesn't make him a saintly man. But it makes him very exceptional in an Arab world dominated by thugs and demagogues.
There are other Arab leaders who have been "good guys" - who have promoted some degree of liberalization, who have been friendly to the West or to Israel, who have been slow to wage war and resisted demagoguery, and so forth. I can say nice things about Abdullah of Jordan and his father, about Hassan of Morocco; I can muster up praise for some Qataris and Bahrainis and certainly for the Tunisians. But Egypt is the only country to have produced a patriot. And that is why I continue to be optimistic about the country. Because if it produced one, why not two? Why not a generation, a generation of leaders dedicated not to national glory and imperial war, nor to corruption and the looting of their people, but to their people's welfare. They have a native example to emulate.