A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, October 6, 2011

It Was 30 Years Ago Today: Remembering the Sadat Assassination

As I already noted earlier today, October 6 is not only Egyptian Military Day, it is also the day on which Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981: 30 years ago today. I already reflected on Sadat's mixed legacies at home and abroad on last October 6, .but this excerpt from an unfinished novel by Maria Golia, consisting of memories of that day.is posted at The Arabist today, and it reminded me of another such reminiscence,by an old colleague now in Burundi who blogs as Diana Buja, who was working on a project in Upper Egypt at the time, where the security jitters were particularly intense. During the Revolution in February, she posted her memories, appropriate enough since that moment in 1981 also marked the beginning of the almost (but not quite!) endless Mubarak era. [Belated correction: correct link is now here. It didn't previously work.]

One needs to remember, too, that this was before the wave of poltiicial assassinations by Islamist militants in the early 1990s. Despite occasional failed attempts in the Nasser and Sadat eras, in 1981 no senior official had been killed in a political assassinstion since the days of the monarchy.  Egyptians and foreigners living there were equally shocked.

Do read both of these accounts. I might as well tell my own. I was then in Washington, but preparing to go to Cairo for a military equipment exhibition scheduled for a couple of weeks later. The publications group I then worked for was a co-sponsor of some sort, and we had even prepared a bilingual program with me and some Arabic translator colleagues having to learn military equipment vocabulary in order to edit it. An old friend and fellow Cairo hand woke me with a phone call to tell me about the first confused reports coming in. In those pre-all-news-channel days we were dependent on television networks, and information coming out of Cairo was scarce.An old Egyptian journalist friend, Muhammad Hakki, had just become Sadat's spokesman a short time before and I saw him several times on television; then he disappeared. I later learned that though he was new in the job, Mubarak wanted his own man in and sacked him.

My own memories are more relevant if I move on to the stay in Cairo (about a week I think), which would have been around the third week in October, with the assassination still fresh. Field Marshal Abu Ghazala, the patron of the military exhibition and the Defense Minister, had been standing next to Sadat on one side (with Mubarak on the other), but was determined that the show must go on. However, since it was well within the 40-day period of mourning, the parties and receptions that defense firms usually stage for such shows were canceled or toned down. (Everything was taking place on an Air Base, so of course security was high.)

I remember seeing armored vehicles in Tahrir Square, which had for the moment been renamed Midan Anwar al-Sadat. Thankfully, that did not last (though the subway station s still Sadat Station). "Sadat Square" just would ot have worked as a rallying symbol.

A funny story made the rounds at the time and was pretty universally believed to be true among the attendees at the defense exhibition, though as usual in these cases there was no public record. In the confusion of the assassination's aftermath (or perhaps just because of an Egyptian bureaucratic turf war), the Gumruk, the customs authority, was holding up all the military equipment at the airport claiming the Defense Ministry hadn't cleared the paperwork. All the big defense firms were desperately greasing palms to get the equipment in the country.

As the story goes, due to the customs hangup, the French armored vehicle firm Panhard did not get one of their armored fighting vehicles cleared until sometime well after midnight. Though a wheeled vehicle, the Panhard had a turret with a gun and thus, while not a tank (it didn't have treads) most people would call it a tank. It was on a flatbed truck, or so the story went, and the drivers started into town from the airport looking for the military base where the show sas being held. They didn't know the way and everything was closed. Finally they saw a big building with lots of lights on in the wee small hours and decided to pull up to it and ask directions. So they pull up to the lighted compound with their armored fighting vehicle, complete with cannon, in plain view . . .

It was ‘Uruba Palace, where Mubarak was staying.

According to the various versions I heard, Egyptian security hit all their panic buttons and the French found their truck a subject of considerable excitement. Eventually, it sank in that it wasn't a coup attempt but some lost French.

Now, I wasn't there. I'm sure officially it never happened, and I didn't see it (though I had the vehicle in question pointed out to me several times). But that's my anecdote about the jitters the assassination provoked, even if his happened two weeks or so later.

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