Today is an important day in the minds of many Arabs. Landmarks across the Arab world are named after the Sixth of October. It marks a questionable sense of pride for launching a war on Israel on Yom Kippur in 1973. The Egyptian army made significant inroads against Israel on this day—but what is often forgotten is that Israel very quickly reversed those Arab gains. To my mind, this day is also important because in 1981 Islamist extremists gunned down the Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat. Arab leaders have lived in fear of assassinations ever since.
“I am Khaled Islambouli. I have killed Pharoah, and I do not fear death” were the words of the lieutenant who masterminded and killed Sadat. Thirty years later, the mindset behind the killing and the killer’s declaration are still alive in parts of the Middle East. The modern suicide bomber reminds us almost daily that jihadi murderers do not fear death. The idea of declaring the president of Egypt a modern-day pharaoh came from the Muslim Brotherhood’s bestselling author and female prisoner, Zainab al-Ghazali. Her torturous prison experiences in Nasser’s Egypt were described in her memoirs The Return of the Pharaoh.
Sadat led the war effort against Israel, with Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, and it was the same Sadat that signed the Camp David peace treaty with Israel. The Egyptian radicals that killed him were infuriated by the agreement with Israel, but they were already committed to Sadat’s removal due to his granting women civil rights in 1979, failing to implement the sharia as state law despite promising to do so, and imprisoning 1,536 Islamists in 1981.
In today’s post-revolutionary Egypt, the conditions that led to Sadat’s killing are ripe once more. Unlike any other time since 1952, Egyptian Islamists and Salafists are exerting their numerical, political muscle with calls for sharia as state law. Arrests and detention under the decades-old emergency law continues. Women’s groups, rightly, continue to demand greater equality under the law. Relations with Israel are tense as presidential candidates try to outdo each other by competing in anti-Israeli rhetoric. And ongoing stand-offs between Muslims and Copts, secularists and Islamists, liberal Islamists and hardline Islamists have raised expectations from all quarters.
As we have seen in Iraq, and Pakistan more recently, it only takes a tiny number of frustrated and angry individuals to unleash mayhem in society. The lesson from the Sixth of October for Arabs is not to plan on more wars with Israel, but how to prevent extremism from flourishing in their countries.