On Oct. 6, 1981, assassins posing as soldiers opened fire on Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as he watched a military victory parade to mark Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel.
The assassination ushered in three decades of rule by Sadat’s Vice President Hosni Mubarak. The assassination defined Egyptian, and in many ways, Middle Eastern politics for a generation.
But according to one of the assassination’s masterminds recently released from an Egyptian prison after nearly 30 years, if social network technology like Facebook and Twitter had existed in the 1980s, Sadat might never have been killed at all.
Sadat was a charismatic and passionate leader. He was also enigmatic and quixotic. Sadat launched a surprise war with Israel, but then made peace a few years later, shocking even some of his closest advisors by traveling to Jerusalem to address the Israeli Knesset in person.
Sadat strengthened economic and political relations with the United States, turning away from his predecessor’s close ties to the Soviet Union. Sadat, along with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, won the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for the Camp David Accords, which remain a cornerstone of the long-frozen Arab-Israeli peace process.
In Egypt, Sadat’s revolutionary changes were controversial. For Egyptian Islamic fundamentalists like Aboud Al-Zomor, a military intelligence officer, the peace deal with Israel was proof – evidence presented on a world stage – that Sadat needed to be removed from office at any cost.
On Oct. 6, 1981, the assassins waited for the right moment to kill Sadat. They waited for the military parade to pass in front of Sadat’s presidential viewing stand. There were thousands of soldiers watching and taking part in the parade, but very few of them were armed. As a precaution, Egyptian troops marching in the parade carried unloaded weapons. The weapons were supposed to be just for show. But the assassins smuggled in bullets for their AK-47 assault rifles. As the gunmen passed in front of Sadat, they opened fire.
Al-Zomor, one of the founders of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group, admits he supplied the ammunition and knew about the plot, but says he never directed it.
“We had [ammunition] originally to defend the mosques against whomever attacked them. So we had these things not to overthrow, we were holding it for defensive purposes,” he said.
“But you knew that this operation [to kill Sadat] was going to happen on the 6th of October?” I asked.
“Yes, of course. I knew about this operation, and so I consider that the law has only one thing against me. It is knowing and not telling the authorities. Other than that, I’m not guilty of anything legally, except for knowing and not telling the authorities,” Zomor said.
Egyptian authorities, however, believed Zomor was one of the plot’s top masterminds. He was sentenced to life in prison. But Zomor was released as part of an ongoing amnesty program after the revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square earlier this year overthrew President Mubarak.
I spoke with Zomor for an hour in a humble fifth-floor walkup apartment a few miles from the Great Pyramids on the edge of Cairo. Zomor, now 64 years old, remains an Islamic hardliner. His beard, now grey, falls to his chest. He is unrepentant about killing Sadat. His only regret, he says, is that assassinating Sadat brought Mubarak to power.
“[Sadat] was definitely better than Mubarak, thousands of times better,” Zomor said. “[Sadat] wasn’t a tyrant, in that he did love his people. We didn’t hear that he stole the people’s money. But during [Mubarak’s] legacy the country was robbed very badly and the results you can see today. The results are frightening. I couldn’t imagine the amount of corruption that was present in the society. I was completely surprised [by the corruption], as much as I’m surprised that I’m out of prison,” he said.
Many Egyptians are equally surprised Zomor is out of jail. But Egypt’s populist, chaotic, democratic, largely peaceful, but sometimes violent and still unfinished revolution has been nothing if not surprising.
Zomor was one of the founders of the Islamic Jihad group, along with Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri was also imprisoned in connection with Sadat’s assassination, but was released after he won an appeal.
Zawahiri: ‘a good personality’
Zawahiri took command of the Islamic Jihad group after he was released from prison – replacing Zomor was Zawahiri’s first big promotion in the world of jihad. Zawahiri recently got another promotion – he took over the leadership of al-Qaida after the CIA and U.S. special operations commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
“I lived with [Zawahiri] for three years in prison. He’s a rare personality and a good personality,” Zomor said.
I asked Zomor how he expects al-Qaida to change under Zawahiri’s leadership. How does Zawahiri differ from bin Laden?
“There are differences. Bin Laden is leaning toward the humanitarian side, the emotional side, and the religious side, not the organization... Ayman al Zawahiri is more organized and a leader. He leads organizations, not just one. He has big abilities. I know him closely and I lived with him three years in prison and he helped me in a number of ways, with negotiations with the administration, solving internal problems, and dealing with trials in my absence. He took over some of the leading roles that I left to him,” Zomor said.
Why was Sadat targeted?
Our conversation then returned to Sadat. I wanted to know what motivated him and the other plotters to kill the Egyptian president. Was it the peace deal with Israel, or something else?
“Was Sadat killed because he wanted a deal with Israel, was that the only reason?” I asked.
“This was not the only point, this point [the peace deal], preceded [the assassination] by two years. He made that deal and no one killed him or planned to,” Zomor said.
“The decision [to kill Sadat] was based on a number of factors together. The first issue was the issue of sharia [Islamic law], that he was standing against sharia, against its implementation and application. This was the primary reason that this regime must be removed. The second issue was that [Sadat] broke into the people’s rights with the idea of tyranny. He dissolved the people’s assembly [parliament] that had a few opposition figures – not more than could be counted on the fingers of one hand – he removed them because they opposed the peace agreement and it’s everyone’s right to have a point of view... But he was a tyrant, and he dissolved and he cheated and he made his party the one in control and running everything. The third issue is that Egypt reached such levels of tyranny that he attacked the Islamic movements. We were confronted aggressively,” Zomor said.
Listening to Zomor it sounded like the peace deal with Israel was merely the final straw. First Sadat opposed Islamic law, Sharia, then made peace with Israel and finally arrested Islamic activists. Zomor said it was the cumulative effect of these actions that drove the plotters to assassinate Sadat.
To prove his point, Zomor says members of his group, Islamic Jihad, could have killed Sadat in 1980, a year before gunmen opened fire at the military parade.
“The year before, we had people in the Republican Guard. Those guards would walk in front of Sadat, about 20 meters away from him, carrying automatic weapons. But that wasn’t in our heads, why? Because killing Sadat was not a goal, the goal was to change the regime though a revolution to open the door for the people to choose who they want.”
Real goal: Islamic revolution
Zomor says Sadat’s assassins believed killing the president would usher in an Islamic revolution. The original plan, Zomor says, was to kill Sadat in 1984, giving his group more time to prepare for an Islamic revolution. But an arrest campaign by the Egyptian government sped up the timetable.
“We were preparing to make it in '84,” he said. “When [Sadat] arrested everyone, they felt they had to do the operation quickly, before they caught everyone,” he said.
As we spoke, Zomor repeatedly insisted that the objective wasn’t just to kill Sadat, but to allow an Islamic revolution to take control of Egypt. Sadat, according to Zomor, was simply standing in the way. It wasn’t personal. Oddly, Zomor seemed to express what sounded like an admiration for Sadat. He called Sadat “compassionate.” He said he wasn't as corrupt as Mubarak.
If only Facebook was around then…
What may have surprised me even more, however, was when Zomor said killing Sadat might not have happened at all if today’s technology had been available in the early 1980s. Had social media websites been around like Facebook and Twitter – which helped protestors organize this year’s revolution to unseat Mubarak – killing Sadat wouldn’t have been, in Zomor’s opinion, necessary.
“We didn’t want Sadat to be killed, in my opinion, until we were ready for the revolution of '84. I was planning in ‘84 what would eventually happen [to Mubarak] in 2011,” Zomor said.
“I was planning in ‘84, that I gather the people in one way or another. But it would have been very difficult then. Today there are new methods of gathering people, inviting people with Facebook. With media and satellite television channels, people can gather quickly. That did not exist. With the old methods, it was difficult to gather so many people with so much force, so quickly, and in those numbers to the streets.”
It all may be a recreation of history aided by decades of retrospect. Zomor may be trying to claim credit for a revolution that he wanted, but which never happened. He may be trying to reinvent himself, not as an assassin’s assistant, but a revolutionary in the same spirit of the millions of Egyptians who toppled Mubarak this year. Nonetheless, it was an interesting meeting. It would have been impossible to even interview Aboud al-Zomor a few months ago.
After the interview, Zomor left the apartment. I watched him walk down the street. He was stopped repeatedly. People came up to shake his hand. They wanted to meet him. A poor man pushing a cart bought him a glass of sugarcane juice. Zomor was treated more like a celebrity – more like a fellow revolutionary – than an organizer of Egypt’s most notorious assassination in modern history.