‘I, Anwar el-Sadat, a peasant born and brought up on the banks of the Nile—where man first witnessed the dawn of time—present this book to readers everywhere.’ The tone of voice is lofty. The gaze that seems, in the cover photograph, to be both inward to some hidden wisdom and outward beyond the world, is balanced, grave and calm. From the Nile flows an untroubled certainty. From it springs too an identity that is presented as organic: ‘I can never lose my way because I know that I have living roots there, deep down in the soil of my village, in that land out of which I grew, like the trees and the plants’, and historic: ‘this is the story of my life, which is at the same time the story of Egypt since 1918, for so destiny has decreed.’footnote1

This andante serioso is not the marking for the first few bars of the piece only, but establishes the overall unchanging tempo and rhythm. Essentially, despite the questioning that is hinted at in the title ‘In Search of Identity’ but nowhere else, this is a Heldenleben rather than a quest. And it is a hero’s life in one key, without modulations. Above all, it is a work without contradictions, at least for its composer. It is an autobiography in which chronology and history, even more significantly perhaps any of the social transformations of the society which the author now leads through one of the most complex periods of its long and complex progress, are curiously underplayed, even disregarded. Since mere sequence or event are of hardly any fundamental importance, the book can be opened and read at any point and started again at any other, like a series of meditations.

Such a deliberately unproblematic book confronts any reader with a real puzzle. What exactly is this text one is reading, so opaque in its generality, so unparticular, non-specific, so full of silences? Does its studied refusal to ask questions, analyse self or society, say a great deal or very little about Sadat’s own position and the balance of social forces in Egypt? Is it, in short, as unproblematic as it seems? One of the answers to these basic questions lies in the treatment of the ghostly figure that flits uneasily in and out of some of these pages. President Nasser presents President Sadat with a dilemma that has arisen in other régimes of the modern world (Russia and China in their very different ways are only the two most obvious examples). How do you kill a dead king? And when you are his recognized successor, the victor in an internal power struggle for his throne, how do you both consolidate his legacy, since you are structurally part of it, and dismantle that same legacy, since you represent different constellations of social, political and economic interests?

Sadat is a product of the revolution of 1952 that removed the monarchy. But he is profoundly hostile to ‘Nasserism’, and especially to the revolution’s post-1961 phase, the ‘socialist’ or—as he would express it—‘Russian’ and ‘power-centre’ phase. He was a member, a founder member, of the group that made the revolution. In some ways, indeed, he is a much more typical figure of it than Nasser himself. Sadat is the conservative, pragmatic, pious respecter of private property and wealth: a product of a village élite, for his father had some land, secure government employment and education, all very much the exception to the rule in the Egyptian countryside. As a young officer he was nationalist, religious and anti-imperialist, but with no theoretical or developed ideology beyond the need to drive the British from Egypt. He had no political background, but was profoundly hostile to the old political class of large landed estate owners (the pashas) and their allies based on the banks, the professions and the upper reaches of commerce and industry.

There was no Lenin among these men of 1952, so often drawn from the provincial petty bourgeoisie and finding their inspiration in army groups that welded them effectively together within a common framework and provided the organization and means to realize the dream of Egyptian independence from foreign domination. Neither was it a revolutionary army, formed in conflict with entrenched ruling classes by a Mao Tse-tung for the purposes of transforming society at the base. It was rather a pre-existing organization and means of control, an apparatus of the state, a machine without either programme or ideology: an instrument without a party, and which had to become its own political arm, as it were, though the Free Officers (as they were called) had not originally thought through the implications of such a development. There were grounds for a Stalin, then, if one may put it that way, but a Stalin without the predecessors to provide the legitimation and theory of Marxism and Lenin’s teachings as a foundation. All attempts at imposing a party from the top, of course, were ultimately and inevitably ineffective. No such party ever had, or was intended to have, even semi-autonomy from the state apparatus of control and decision-making: it never had any organic link to the mass of the people.

‘Arab socialism’, and even more ‘Nasserism’, crystallized in opposition to imperialism in the Middle East, especially in the conflict with Israel, which was seen as a colonial and military society and a bridgehead of the West. If Russia became the great power helpmeet of Egypt, it was not because of a worked-out and inevitable logic of the revolution, but because the West, correctly seeing in Nasser and the heterogenous social forces he represented a threat to its traditional forms of domination of the area, drove him into Russian arms by backing off the Aswan dam project and by the politically infantile fantasy of the Suez invasion. Nasser became, and deservedly, a symbol and charismatic emblem of the colonized, the non-aligned, the Third World.

The cult of the leader went hand-in-hand domestically with a build-up of the instruments of control and organization—the military intelligence services and the bureaucracy. The latter was a means to absorb thousands into guaranteed government positions, and eventually became, because of its sheer size and inefficiency, a source of frustration of the régime’s policies and a constant object of vain fulminations by government and press. ‘The Army’ became even more the bearer of the revolution, the ideal career for an aspiring member of the new élite, and the political centre and source of power and legitimacy. And, in all these aspects, it was profoundly affected by two crucial moments: the war in North Yemen in the early sixties, in which it struggled often unsuccessfully at great cost against the royalist guerrillas; and the débâcle of the 1967 Six Days’ War against Israel. That latter humiliation traumatized Egypt in a way, and to a depth, which it is still difficult for an outsider to grasp.