Twenty-five years ago, on Oct. 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, was gunned down while attending a military parade commemorating the Yom Kippur War (also known as the Ramadan War) of October 1973 between Arabs and Israelis.
Sadat's murderers belonged to the extreme fanatical sect, Takfir wal-Hijra (translation: excommunication and flight) -- an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main fundamentalist party in Egypt.
The fanatics infiltrated the army, and Sadat's killer was an artillery lieutenant who yelled out after unloading the clip from his machine-gun into the president's body, "I am Khalid al-Islambuli, I have killed Pharoah, and I do not fear death."
Sadat was a military dictator succeeding another, Gamal Abdel Nasser, on his death in September 1970. Sadat was succeeded by his handpicked vice-president, Hosni Mubarak, an air force officer who still rules Egypt.
But as dictators go in the Arab-Muslim world, Sadat was relatively benign. His great crime, for which he paid with his life, was being open to Israel after having waged war with the Jewish state.
In November 1977, Sadat reached out to Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin and traveled to Jerusalem. It took the world by surprise, and stunned the political leaders and people of the Middle East who denounced Sadat and expelled Egypt from the Arab League.
Awoke to reality
In his memoir, Search of Identity, Sadat explained his motive. He awoke to the reality, as he described it, that peace in the region required scaling the walls that enclosed Arabs and Israelis in a relationship of mutual distrust, fear and hate. He had waged war boldly for Arab honour, he said, and would strive for peace for the children of Arabs and Jews with no less courage.
Sadat's gesture in speaking directly to Israelis was reciprocated by Begin. It reflected the deep yearning of Israelis, despite the brutal surprise on their high holiday when Sadat launched the Yom Kippur War, for peace after a generation of conflict with their Arab neighbours.
Sadat's embrace of Begin culminated in the Camp David Accord of 1978 between Egypt and Israel,, brokered by U.S. President Carter and signed in Washington. Sadat implored Yasser Arafat, then leader of the PLO, to join the Camp David negotiations and settle with Israelis according to requirements of the UN Resolution 242 of November 1967.
Israel withdrew from Sinai, which it had occupied since the June 1967 war. In 1978, the situation in the West Bank and Gaza was entirely different from what would emerge later as a result of the Jewish settler movement. Begin could have reached an agreement with Palestinians, as Sadat and Carter indicated, if Arafat had been willing to follow the example set by Egypt's president.
But Arafat, brutal and corrupt, turned his back on Sadat and rejoiced at his murder, declaring his killers to be Arab heroes. Nevertheless, Sadat's legacy of making peace with Israel has held firm despite the troubles and fanaticism in the region.
Sadat was the most prominent casualty of the politics of religious extremism and violence that slowly had begun to gather steam in the Arab-Muslim world. Two years earlier in 1979, a revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran, a close ally of the U.S., and the monarchy in Tehran was replaced by the clerical authoritarianism of Ayatollah Khomeini.
When Sadat was killed, the Cold War was still on and the Soviet Union had dispatched its forces into Afghanistan, triggering a war that ironically would spawn the Taliban and bring the fascist killers of al-Qaida to congregate in Kabul and Kandahar. The West, however, paid scant attention in those dirty years to the murderous rage of Sadat's killers that was an ugly prelude to what was to befall the region in the decades to come.