Egypt's "Autumn of Fury": The Construction of Opposition to the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Process between 1973 and 1981

M.Phil Thesis in Modern Middle Eastern Studies
By Dominic Coldwell
St Antony’s College, University of Oxford
May 2003

Full Thesis (PDF format—204 k)
Appendix (html format)


  I. Introduction  
  II. Toward a Constructivist Approach  
  III. The Lessons of October  
  IV. Engagements and Disengagements: Octobeer 1973-September 1975  
  V. "Peace" and Authoritarianism: September 1975-March 1979  
  VI. "No Peace for Egypt": March 1979-October 1981  
  VII. Conclusion  
  VIII. Appendix  



The people of Egypt could be easily manipulated by Sadat and their beliefs and attitudes could be shaped by their leader.”



Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David after being told that the Egyptian public would tolerate no further concessions. From Telhami. Power and Leadership in International Bargaining. 143






Isn’t power a sort of generalised war which assumes at particular moments the forms of peace and the state? Peace would then be a form of war, and the state a means of waging it.


Michel Foucault in Rabinow, Paul (Ed). The Foucault Reader. 65






1. Introduction



In the small hours of 3 September 1981, Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat ordered the arrest of 1,536 opposition figures. As the feminist Nawal al-Sa‘dawi later said, those who shared a prison cell had nothing in common other than their opposition to the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel. The president planned to release the detainees on 26 April 1982- the day on which Israeli forces were scheduled to complete their withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula occupied in the June War of 1967. But as Sadat confessed to his daughter, he had a strong premonition that he would not live to see the day. [1] On 6 October 1981, Khalid al-Islambuli- a lieutenant in the Egyptian Army- gunned Sadat down at a military parade commemorating the October War of 1973 in which Egyptian troops had launched a successful assault against Israeli forces occupying the Sinai. The President’s fate appeared to be tragically intertwined with the dynamics of Egyptian-Israeli relations. His widow was “one hundred per cent certain” that her “husband was killed because he made peace with Israel.” [2]

Sadat’s untimely death presents a paradox. Reflecting on Egypt’s defeat in 1967, Mohamed Heikal wrote that former President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir “failed in one of the fundamental duties of any ruler- he failed to defend the borders of his country. By that failure the legitimacy of his régime was flawed.” [3]   Yet when Sadat launched the October War six years later, he appeared to retrieve much of the legitimacy his predecessor had lost. By signing the Camp David Peace Accords in March 1979, Sadat freed the Sinai from Israeli occupation and insulated Egypt’s eastern borders from future attack. Yet two years later, the country became engulfed in what Heikal has dubbed Egypt’s ‘Autumn of Fury’. What went wrong?

The present study will try to address this question by exploring the ideational milieu within which Sadat conducted his rapprochement with Israel. Drawing on the print media, the following chapters will argue that the discursive construction of opposition to the peace process following the October War contributed to the gradual increase in political tension. Following the October War, the left-wing media helped mould three overlapping forms of identification- Egyptian nationalism, Islam and Arabism. These identities not only shaped the way in which Egyptians interpreted the unfolding of the peace process, but also created policy preferences that were directly at odds with Sadat’s belief in Egypt’s need to make peace with Israel. Thus, the October War fed into the articulation of a ‘national interest’ at variance with Sadat’s vision of it. The conceptual disparity provided the discursive soil for the subsequent emergence of political dissent.

The gradual emergence of political discontent after 1973 owed much to the way in which Sadat’s pursuit of peace seemed to violate these shared normative constructs. Insofar as the October War was a boon to Arabism, Egyptian media were inclined to interpret any Israeli threat to the security of another Arab country as a threat to Egypt herself. Since Cairo’s phased retreat from the Arabs’ war-time coalition after 1973 appeared to facilitate Israel’s increased belligerence, it generated dissatisfaction with the peace process. Yet as Sadat’s reliance on US mediation could still secure the return of occupied Egyptian land in keeping with Egypt’s improved military position in the wake of the war, Sadat’s pursuit of an Egyptian-Israeli settlement did not yet appear to conflict significantly with the policy preferences formulated by Egyptians.

Following the Sinai II Disengagement Treaty in September 1975, however, Egypt experienced a growing mobilisation of opposition to the peace process. Political, demographic and social transformations provided the backdrop for the dissemination of an ‘Islamic’ discourse that dovetailed considerably with policy preferences earlier enunciated by the left. While Israel’s apparent military resurgence raised anxieties over Egypt’s security, the peace process now also resulted in the erosion of the limited democratic liberties Egyptians had secured after the October War. The increasing radicalisation of political opposition after 1975 thus stemmed from concern over the way in which increasing authoritarianism at home accompanied Israel’s growing military might abroad.

When the ink dried on the Camp David Accords, the resilience of a pan-Arabist outlook ensured that Israel’s increased military activities in the region continued to be perceived as an attack on Egypt itself. Sadat’s decision to respond to the mounting discontent with growing authoritarianism meant that opposition to the peace treaty was equated with a defence of democratisation. The result was to erode the legitimacy of Sadat’s régime and usher into Egypt’s ‘Autumn of Fury’. Whereas the October War had been identified with national liberation, Arab unity and democratisation, by the end of the decade ‘peace’ had become a by-word for authoritarianism and military surrender. Insofar as the Egyptian media called attention to the ways in which the peace process clashed with the identities and policy preferences they had helped articulate after the October War, they contributed to the growth of opposition to the régime.

The present focus on the discursive milieu within which Sadat conducted the peace process is not to suggest that Cairo’s relations with Tel Aviv constituted the only factor fuelling opposition in the 1970s. Many writers have pointed to the country’s economic decline to explain the growth of political protest. [4] The subsequent discussion will, therefore, refrain from trying to advance any mono-causal explanations. It will, however, concentrate on the manner in which the peace process alienated a growing segment of the Egyptian population because this aspect has received insufficient attention. As the following chapter will argue, the reason for this oversight owes much to the assumptions of rational-choice theory that inform a substantial body of literature on the period.



[1] Beattie, Kirk J. Egypt During the Sadat Years. Palgrave: New York, 2000. 274

[2] Finklestone, Joseph. Anwar Sadat: Visionary who dared. Frank Cass: London, 1996. xiv

[3] Heikal, Mohamed. Autumn of Fury. Andre Deutsch: London, 1983. 114

[4] See Tomita, Hiroshi. “The Decline of Legitimacy in Sadat’s Egypt: 1979-1981.” BRISMES Proceedings of the 1986 International Conference on Middle Eastern Studies. British Society for Middle East Studies: Oxford, 1986, pp. 253-267