This Week in Haaretz 1981 / Egyptian President Anwar Sadat Assassinated

On Oct. 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat was gunned down by Islamic extremists at a military parade in Cairo.

Lital Levin
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In late September 1981, Haaretz's correspondent in Egypt, Oded Zarai, reported that "at first glance," Cairo seems "calmer and satisfied." Three weeks earlier, President Anwar Sadat had announced far-reaching measures "against the opposition elements accused of incitement and an attempt to damage the domestic front and national unity, to fight the chaos." But the wide-scale arrests among radical Muslim circles also sparked concern over a counter-move.

On October 6, 1981, during a military parade in Egypt, a truck stopped in front of the grandstand where Sadat was. Egyptian officials related that the leader stood up on his feet, thinking that those on the truck sought to salute him. But they were members of the radical Islamic organization, Al-Jihad. The passenger to the right of the driver "jumped from the truck and threw the grenade," Haaretz reported, quoting the Associated Press. "The three men seated on the side of the truck closest to the grandstand opened fire with submachine guns while the three men on the other side of the truck opened fire on the grandstand." The Egyptian undersecretary of foreign affairs at the time, Osama el-Baz, "acknowledged at a large press conference that the security forces were taken by surprise and they were distracted by jet planes doing aerobatics over the military procession."

Twenty-five people were injured and 11 were killed in the attack, among them Sadat. "Sadat was certain that he could overcome all his opponents," wrote Zev Schiff in Haaretz, in a commentary that was written before final confirmation of Sadat's death arrived. "And indeed, the Egyptian president exhibited great courage even in the way he allowed the opposition to let loose. Since May of this year, the deterioration reached its peak, when in addition to all of this there were ethnic clashes between radical Muslims and Copts. He was sure that there was no threat to the regime." When asked about the threat to his own personal safety, Sadat used to say that "every night he prays and says that he is not acting badly toward his people and to anyone, and therefore he is asking God to grant him a long life."

The paper's editorial opened with a quote from former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who, upon learning of Sadat's death, said he was a unique example of the impact an individual can have on history. "How many contemporary statesmen are able to get past the status quo?" the editorial posed, then answered the question: "When they do so following the example of Sadat, it is as if they switched one life form with another. He was the first Arab leader since the beginning of Zionism who breached the three famous prohibitions: no recognition, no negotiations and no peace with Israel."

After the assassination, silence draped Cairo. In Beirut, Damascus and Tripoli, Haaretz's Arabic affairs correspondent reported, there were festive rallies and celebrations. At 10 P.M., Rabbi Meir Kahane and the Kach movement headed over to the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv and displayed "joy over the death of the president of Egypt," Haaretz reported. "Some of the demonstrators opened bottles of wine and drank a toast before the puzzled faces of the Egyptian embassy officials, who watched the events from the building's windows."

Inside the embassy at 54 Basel Street in Tel Aviv, grief prevailed. On the day of the funeral, October 10, Cairo was still "stunned, shut down and sad," Zarai reported. The funeral procession "did not in any way change the thundering silence resonating throughout Cairo since last Tuesday."

In Al Tahrir Square, a large banner featuring Sadat fluttered and beside it a photo of his replacement, Hosni Mubarak, urging voters: "Yes to peace, yes to democracy, yes to prosperity." The coffin was borne on an artillery carriage and behind it, kings, presidents, prime ministers and statesmen, representatives of 80 countries marched somberly. (U.S. Presidents ) Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter led the American delegation; Prime Minister Menachem Begin headed the Israeli delegation and walking with him were Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Shamir and Yosef Burg. "Afterward, the Israeli delegation made a condolence call to Sadat's home in the Al-Jeeza neighborhood," Haaretz's Zarai reported. "It was an emotional meeting between Begin and Madame Jihan, Gamal and the three daughters." Jihan said that her husband refused to wear a bulletproof vest and used to say: "It's better to die upright than down on one's knees."