Born into a family of 13 children in 1918, Anwar al-Sadat grew up among average Egyptian villagers in the town of Mit Abul Kom 40 miles to the north of Cairo. Having completed a grade school education, Sadat's father worked as a clerk in the local military hospital. By the time of his birth, Anwar's Egypt had become a British colony. Crippling debt had forced the Egyptian government to sell the British government its interests in the French engineered Suez Canal linking the Mediteranian Sea with the Indian Ocean. The British and French had used these resources to establish enough political control over Egyptian affairs to refer to Egypt as a British colony.
Four figures affected Sadat's early life. The first, a man named Zahran, came from a small village like Sadat's. In a famous incident of colonial rule, the British hanged Zahran for participating in a riot which had resulted in the death of a British officer. Sadat admired the courage Zahran exhibit on the way to the gallows. The second, Kemel Ataturk, created the modern state of Turkey by forcing the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. Not only had Ataturk thrown off the shackles of colonialism, but he established a number of civil service reforms, which Sadat admired. The third man was Mohandas Gandhi. Touring Egypt in 1932, Gandhi had preached the power of nonviolence in combating injustice. And finally, the young Sadat admired Adolf Hitler whom the anticolonialist Sadat viewed as a potential rival to British control.
In 1936, as part of a deal between the British and the Wafd party, the British agreed to create a military school in Egypt. Sadat was among its first students. Besides the traditional training in math and science, each student learned to analyze battles. Sadat even studied the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point in America's civil war. Upon graduating from the academy, the government posted Sadat to a distant outpost. There he met Gamal Abdel Nasser, beginning a long political association which eventually led to the Egyptian presidency. At this outpost, Sadat, Nasser and the other young officers formed a revolutionary group destined to overthrow British rule.
Commitment to their revolution led Sadat to jail twice. During his second stay in jail, Sadat taught himself French and English. But the grueling loneliness of jail took its toll. After leaving prison, Sadat returned to civilian life. He acted for a bit, and he joined in several business deals. Through one of his deals, Sadat met Jihan whom he would eventually marry.
Sadat recontacted his old associate Nasser to find that their revolutionary movement had grown considerably while he was in prison. On July 23, 1952, the Free Officers Organization staged a coup overthrowing the monarchy. From the moment of the coup, Sadat began as Nasser's public relations minister and trusted lieutenant. Nasser assigned Sadat the task of overseeing the official abdication of King Farouk. Working with Nasser Sadat learned the dangerous game of nation-building in a world of superpower rivalries. Egypt eventually became the leading "non-aligned" country in the world, giving a voice, through Nasser, to the desires of the undeveloped and post-colonial societies. Their most important trial came over the Suez Canal, which Nasser nationalized in 1956. In a coordinated effort, the British, French, and the new nation of Israel launched an attack on Egypt hoping to reestablish colonial control over the Canal and its profits. The 1956 war ended only after the United States pressured its allies to withdraw. Egypt emerged from the war a hero of the non-aligned countries, having successfully resisted colonial powers and maintained its control of the Suez.
Nasser's prominence suffered greatly from the debacle of the Six Day War. In it, the Israeli military completely destroyed the Egyptian air forces (mostly caught unawares on the ground) and swept through the Sinai to the Suez Canal routing the Egyptian army, killing at least 3,000 soldiers. The devastation also threatened to bankrupt the government. Internal squabbling among Arab nations and the growing Palestinian movement eventually strained Nasser's abilities to the limit. Under the strain, Nasser collapsed and died on September 29, 1970.
When he succeeded Nasser, Sadat was completely unknown and untested. Over the next 11 years, however, Sadat proved his leadership abilities. His first trial on the international scene involved the aftermath of the Six Day War. Sadat openly offered the Israelis a peace treaty in exchange for the return of the Sinai lands taken in the attack.
Domestic crisis and international intrigue presented Sadat with seemingly insurmountable problems. The Egyptian economy continued to reel from war with Israel and the Egyptians' continuing relationship with the Soviet Union deteriorated as the Soviets proved unreliable allies. When pressed for more military support to replace the devastation of the Six Day War, the Soviets simply ignored Sadat's requests. In a bold move, which soon became his trademark, Sadat expelled the Soviets. This grand gesture solidified Egyptian internal support at a time when the average Egyptian suffered greatly.
Behind the scenes, however, Sadat plotted to retake the Egyptian Sinai if the Israelis continued to refuse the Egyptian peace initiative. On October 6, 1973, Sadat struck. With exceptional military precision, the Egyptian army crossed the Suez back into the Sinai and began driving the Israeli army into the desert. Though short-lived, the attack created a new momentum for peace both in Egypt and in Israel. These pressures coincided with continued domestic problems in Egypt.
The deteriorating economy in Egypt, accompanied by a growing distance between rich and poor, led to internal strife, riots, strikes, attacks on the rich. These internal pressures raised the attention of the international community, particularly the United States, concerned that internal strife would weaken Sadat's moderate policies.
Convinced that peace with Israel would reap an enormous "peace dividend," Sadat initiated his most important diplomatic ploy. In a speech to the Egyptian parliament in 1977, Sadat affirmed his desire to go anywhere to negotiate a peace with the Israelis. Even, he affirmed, he would go to the Israeli parliament to speak for peace. The Israelis responded with an invitation to do just that and Sadat's speech to the Israeli Knesset initiated a new momentum for peace that would eventually culminate in the 1978 Camp David Accords and a final peace treaty with Israel in 1979. For his efforts, Sadat won the Nobel Prize for Peace.
At home, Sadat's new relationship with the west and his peace treaty generated considerable domestic opposition, especially among fundamentalist Muslim groups. In 1980 and in 1981, Sadat took desperate gambles to respond to these new internal problems. He negotiated a number of loans to support improvements in everyday life. And he simultaneously enacted laws outlawing protest and declared that the Shari'a would be the basis of all new Egyptian law. Sadat died at the hands of Muslim fundamentalist assassins on October 6, 1981, during a military review celebrating the Suez crossing in 1973. He was succeeded by his Vice President, Hosni Mubarak.