Egypt, 30 Years After Anwar Sadat's Death

Lynn Neary talks to Steven Cook, senior follow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, about the 30th anniversary of the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. They discuss how the past is shaping Egypt's future.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

And I'm Lynn Neary. Thirty years ago today, the world was stunned when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was gunned down by soldiers during Victory Day celebrations in Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Cairo today.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The assassination of Anwar al-Sadat.

NEARY: Fast forward 30 years to the Arab Spring and the fall of Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, and both peace with Israel and the future direction of Egypt itself seem more uncertain than they have since that fateful day.

To learn more about what the future holds for Egypt, we turn now to Steven A. Cook, author of the new book, "The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square."

Thanks so much for joining us today, Steven.

STEVEN A. COOK: Oh, it's my pleasure.

NEARY: Let's go back to that day 30 years ago when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. What was the immediate effect of that in Egypt?

COOK: Well, I think Egyptians were shocked, as everybody around the world were shocked at this assassination. But Egyptians were profoundly ambivalent about Sadat. He had reoriented Egypt's economy, Egypt's foreign policy, Egypt's domestic politics in a way that did not sit well with a lot of Egyptians. And by the time of his assassination, Egypt's political arena was more contested than ever.

NEARY: Of course, Sadat had angered the whole Arab world by signing the Camp David peace accords with Israel. What was the effect of Sadat's death on relations between Egypt and Israel?

STEVE COOK: Well, President Hosni Mubarak, who succeeded Sadat about a week or so after Sadat's assassination, meticulously kept to the peace treaty. And over the course of 30 years, the treaty has never faltered. Peace between the two countries has become institutionalized. Yet to Egyptians the peace treaty has always been a certain source of unease and for some even a source of shame.

NEARY: Since the fall of Mubarak, relations between Israel and Egypt have become increasingly tense. Where do you see Egypt-Israeli relations heading in the future?

COOK: Well, I think it's no secret that in a more open and democratic Egypt, public opinion matters. There was an opinion poll that was conducted early in the summer in which more than half of Egyptians wanted to renegotiate aspects of the peace treaty.

NEARY: Well, parliamentary elections are coming up in Egypt next month and it looks like at this point the Muslim Brotherhood, which of course is seen as having an Islamist agenda, the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to win. What would a victory by the Muslim Brotherhood mean for Egypt?

COOK: Well, I don't think there's going to be an outright Muslim Brotherhood victory. But I think that the Brotherhood is likely to do extraordinarily well in these elections, perhaps 30 or 35 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly. That is going to be more than any other single party and this People's Assembly that will pick a committee of 100 to write Egypt's new constitution.

NEARY: But so much of the strength behind the whole anti-Mubarak movement in what we've called the Arab Spring seemed to come not from Islamists but from young Egyptians embracing these values of democracy and freedom. What's become of those goals? Are they just drifting now?

COOK: Well, there is a certain amount of drift in Cairo these days, and revolutionary groups and the new political parties that have emerged since Mubarak's fall have struggled to gain traction and to organize. But at the same time, Egypt is experiencing a robust debate about Egypt's place in the world and what Egypt stands for. And I think that you have a tremendous amount of political dynamism and creativity in Egypt, even with the kind of drift, the sense that things are taking a long time, suspicions that the military is growing comfortable with the exercise of power.

NEARY: Well, what about that, the danger of the military becoming so comfortable, as you just mentioned? Would it try and hold on to power? Could it?

COOK: I wouldn't rule anything out. After all, in the Arab world over the course of the last eight months, the unthinkable has become reality. But I think this current crop of officers are very well aware of the problems associated with holding on to power. But nevertheless, the timeline that the military has set out suggests that they could be exercising executive power until early 2014.

NEARY: Steven A. Cook is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He spoke to us from our studio in New York. Thanks for being with us.

COOK: My pleasure.

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