There are two good reasons to skip the baseball playoffs and fluffy diversions on television tonight and switch over to public broadcasting for "The Killing of Sadat: Why Was Cairo Calm?" (Channels 22, 26 and 32 at 10 p.m.)
One is the brilliant, disturbing footage of Egypt itself: overcrowded, decrepit, corrupt and impoverished to the point of desperation. This is not the tourist's Egypt, the Egypt of the Pyramids and the Luxor monuments and the Mediterranean beaches. This is the real Egypt, where relentless population growth, three decades of war and perpetual mismanagement have long since overwhelmed the country's meager resources.
The other is the persuasive analysis of Sadat's fall from grace among his own people. Acclaimed as the "hero of the crossing" after the 1973 war with Israel -- which he launched nine years ago today -- and as the "hero of peace" after his trip to Jerusalem in 1977, Sadat died largely unmourned by the people he led for 11 tumultuous years.
The apathy with which the Egyptians responded to Sadat's assassination a year ago baffled many Americans. Sadat's predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had a dismal record of military and political failure, but when he died in 1970 millions poured into the streets in a frenzy of grief. Sadat's undeniably brilliant exploits of war and diplomacy earned him no such accolades, and it seemed somehow unfair that a man so admired outside Egypt should have so little impact on his own countrymen.
This one-hour special does explain that paradox by analyzing Sadat's domestic record, which was considerably less impressive than his foreign policy achievements. For all his greatness, wit, courage and vision, he was less than the statesman-saint portrayed by the Western press.
"He lived like an American president," an Egyptian sociologist is quoted as saying, in a devastating commentary on Sadat's reputation, "and, sadly, he died like one, on television."
"The American and Western press spoiled him," says Mustafa Amin, a prominent newspaper editor. "He believed what they said about him, and he became a pharaoh. And the Egyptian people didn't want a pharaoh." This verdict is all the more damning because Amin was treated far worse by Nasser, who imprisoned him, than by Sadat, who only silenced him briefly during one of his periodic crackdowns on dissenters.
As Amin and other prominent Egyptians make clear in this exceptional documentary, Sadat's repressive measures and his luxurious living were all the more unpopular because he claimed to be a liberalizing democrat and a man of the people, a "peasant" who understood their aspirations.
Producer Ofra Bikel skillfully interweaves new interviews with well-known Cairenes with film from such central events in Sadat's presidency as the trip to Jerusalem, the signing of the peace treaty with Israel, and the bread riot of January 1977 -- an uprising that most people in Egypt, but not Sadat himself, understood to be a massive expression of popular unhappiness with Sadat's rule.
One of the most telling clips shows a young man who took part in Sadat's assassination, caged in a courtroom at the trial, explaining why they killed him: "He made of himself a king, in the republic of Egypt -- the republic of Egypt."
Another shows Sadat's wife, Jihan, defending her doctoral thesis in an oral examination at Cairo University -- an event that was televised, to the embarrassment of the academic community and the resentment of Egypt's deeply conservative people, who never saw Nasser's wife in public.
Sadat lived like a pasha, and surrounded himself with rich friends, while the Egyptian masses remained mired in poverty. His economic policies, perhaps inevitably, touched off a frenzy of conspicuous consumption and allowed the new rich to flaunt their wealth. The streets of Cairo were filled with imported luxury automobiles while millions of Egyptians still rode donkeys. The economic open-door policy, says social critic Louis Awad, was administered by men who understood it only as an opportunity to make money.
The presidents and prime ministers of the West mourned at Sadat's funeral, but the Egyptian people passed judgment on him by their silence. The reasons given here are the same as those in David Hirst and Irene Beeson's debunking biography of Sadat, but the program is more effective because it is calm and dispassionate, rather than polemical. Its conclusions are hard to refute.