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Who Is EgyptÆs "Hero of War and Peace"?: The Contest over Representation

From: History & Memory
Volume 15, Number 1, Spring/Summer 2003
pp. 150-183 | 10.1353/ham.2003.0004

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History & Memory 15.1 (2003) 150-183

[Figures]

The representation of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat (1918-1981) as the "Hero of War and Peace" (Batal al-Harb wa-'l-Salam) combines the two most crucial decisions he made: the 1973 October War, and peace with Israel—which opened with Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 and culminated in the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in March 1979. As a result of the dominant role of the Egyptian state and its agencies over the public sphere during the last three decades, the official narrative has overwhelmingly influenced the historical memory of prominent political and national figures. In addition, mainly as a result of political needs, both Sadat and his successor, Hosni Mubarak, sought to differentiate their own image from that of their predecessor. As elsewhere, historical representation in Egyptian official discourse and practices is not totally separate from the one prevailing in different sectors within Egyptian society. In fact, the various memories are mutually constitutive. However, it is all too easy for observers of contemporary Egypt to confine their investigation to official historical representations as expressed in official events and ceremonies, overlooking nonofficial and oppositional sources, statements and sites of memory, and thus failing to gain insight into the complexities of Egyptian representations of the past. Only the study of a wide variety of sources can enrich our understanding of the constitution of historical representations, as well as of the complexity of reception of these representations by different groups. Accordingly, this article examines

Sadat's representation as the "Hero of War and Peace" as the product of varied practices initiated by diverse individuals and institutions in Egypt following the October War. In studying the continuous remaking of this representation, I examined a variety of written sources, memorial sites (Sadat's burial place, the October Panorama) and the National Museum of War. In addition, I collected data about the reactions of spectators to the film Ayyam al-Sadat (Days of Sadat), which played at cinemas in the summer of 2001 and provoked an intensive public discussion of Sadat and his policy. On the basis of these different sources I describe the changes this representation underwent, mainly after Sadat's death. I identify those who challenged the portrayal of Sadat as the "Hero of War and Peace" during his lifetime and after his death and examine the counter-narratives of the Nasserites, the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and the al-Jihad militant Islamic group, which made the fatal attempt on Sadat's life on 6 October 1981.

Sadat was elected president of Egypt upon the death of Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser on 28 September 1970. It was generally felt that because Sadat represented a compromise, he would have almost no chance of holding power for long. No one imagined the changes that the third president of the Arab Republic of Egypt would instigate. He certainly had to deal with numerous problems. Internally, social and economic distress signals were apparent; depression was exacerbated by the defeat in the 1967 war with Israel and by challenges to Sadat's decisions from various sectors. Externally, Egypt's political maneuverability was restricted because of its unstable relations with many Arab states and with the superpowers (including the severing of its relations with the United States). In the struggle against Israel, the negative status quo of "neither peace nor war" had continued since the cease-fire of August 1970. All these disparate problems were so closely intertwined that it was almost impossible to suggest a solution to any one issue in isolation from all the others. In the early stages of his rule, it seems that Sadat recognized that dealing with the problematic internal situation in Egypt would entail adopting an overall economic and political policy that would differ from the one identified with his predecessor. Despite the failure of his peace initiative in February 1971, which proposed an interim settlement that would lead to a peaceful accommodation with Israel, this act can be seen as the first sign of the comprehensive reorientation he wished to promote. Yet, the real change came after the October 1973 war, which for most Egyptians was an unquestioned...



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