For all the careful adherence to the official rituals prescribed for such state occasions, Anwar Sadat's death and funeral here this week were strangely unemotional, raising serious questions about the late president's ultimate stature and popularity among his comrades-in-arms in the Army and government, to say nothing of the nation's 43 million citizens.
Normally effusive Egyptians who Sadat claimed loved him as a father greeted the news of his violent death with an uncharacteristic indifference that continued through his funeral today. For all official Egyptian expressions of shock and sorrow and promises to honor the slain president's policies, the population at large reacted with none of the wild emotionalism, public expressions of grief and devotion that are rooted in the culture of this ancient Nile River land.
Indeed, to a visitor who remembered the last state funeral for a fallen Egyptian leader -- the death in 1970 of Sadat's predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser -- the contrast between public and official reactions then and now is striking. When Nasser died of a heart attack after 18 years of often turbulent rule over Egypt, the nation, as well as the Arab world he had sought to lead, had what one could only call a collective nervous breakdown characterized by national hysteria and grief.
From the moment that Nasser's death was announced, mobs of Egyptians turned out in the streets in marathon displays of emotionalism. The three days between Nasser's death and burial saw virtually the whole Egyptian nation mourn his passing with a wild intensity almost unique in modern times.
Around the clock in city streets and village squares, tens of thousands, eventually millions, rampaged in grief, wailing their sorrow, beating their chests, pulling their hair and chanting the name of Nasser like an unending litany. Within hours of his death his pictures were paraded by demonstrators everywhere and his black rimmed death posters were plastered across the walls of even the lowliest of villages. Egypt throbbed with the almost animal emotions of the distraught.
By the time Nasser's funeral took place -- with a seven-mile procession through the streets of Cairo -- approximately 5 million to 6 million people had turned for a final farewell to their chief.
Trees along the procession route collapsed under the weight of spectators who had climbed by the hundreds into their branches. Untold thousands were injured by the sheer pressure of crowds that made even a walk of half a mile an affair of tortuous hours.
By the time Nasser's caisson-borne coffin had neared the suburban mosque where he was entombed, his security escorts had been reduced to clearing the way for his procession by swinging their rifles by their muzzles against the crowds.
Nasser's reign over Egypt hardly had been a great success: His zealous pan-Arabism had led the country into successive military defeats, economic chaos and unwanted isolation from the West. Nevertheless, as his funeral proved, his personality galvanized Egypt in ways that his successor, Sadat -- by far more moderate, less repressive and a more daring foreign policy practitioner -- never had despite all his repeated insistence over the years that he was, as Sadat liked to put it, the beloved "head of the Egyptian family."
For those who lived through the experience of Nasser's death, it will remain a moment that can never be forgotten. Sadat's death and funeral this week seemed, by contrast, almost as if it were more for foreign than domestic consumption.
Unlike Nasser's funeral procession through the jammed streets of Cairo, Sadat's last rites were held by government decision in total isolation from the Egyptian citizens he had ruled. Aside from live television coverage, Sadat's final rites were held far from public eyes, staged on the barren parade ground in front of the review stand where he was gunned down last Tuesday.
While security concerns were a plausible explanation for the funeral's isolation, they do not explain why Sadat's body was never allowed to lie in state for the public to pay its respects.
Nasser's body had lain in state for more than a day before his funeral in Cairo's Kubbah Palace; Sadat's body was kept in the morgue of the Maadi military hospital where he had been taken by helicopter after being shot. It was removed from the morgue and placed in a simple flag-draped wooden coffin early today for a brief religious ceremony at the hospital's mosque, attended only by his immediate family and a few close friends.
The body was then flown by helicopter directly over Cairo to the Nasr City parade ground where the whole funeral ceremony lasted no more than 1 1/2 hours.
The question many observers asked about the funeral was whether if it had been open to the public it would have been a more impressive affair.
Sadat's death has been met with surprising apathy, so different from the public response when Nasser died.
Officials trying to explain away this mood of indifference have sought to blame it on the four-day Moslem holiday of Id Al Adha, the feast of sacrifice, that began the day after Sadat's killing.
Yet, there was almost a total lack of emotion displayed in the streets this week and few of the sort of martyr's posters that are traditional in Islamic societies when prominent members die.
It was what a young Cairo journalist described as "a silent death," the term applied to the discreet burials in upper Egypt's timeless villages after the honor killings that sometimes follow family troubles, such as a compromised daughter or a suspect wife.
Other Cairo residents explained Sadat's apparent lack of popularity at death in terms of his alienation of Egypt from the rest of the Arab world by his 1978 peace with Israel, the absence of any great economic prosperity that had been expected to come from Western aid in the peace treaty's wake, and recent harsh attacks on his growing number of critics in the nation, including last month's mass crackdown on religious and ideological dissidents.
As surprising to many foreign observers and diplomats here as the public mood was the government's handling of the funeral.
"It was almost as if they were embarrassed by the whole affair and eager to put Sadat behind them," said one Western diplomat who attended the funeral. "I could not help but feel that this was the most perfunctory state funeral at best."
The most general explanation given in Cairo this week for the lack of grief, however, was simply that Sadat never captured the imagination of his people in the way Nasser did, notwithstanding all of his statements to the contrary.
"Nasser was the hero of the people," said opposition politician Ofti Waked, a colleague of both Sadat and Nasser in the "Free Officers" movement that toppled the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 and opened the door to Nasser's rise to power. "Nasser was the people. The people looked to him as the hope for everything."
Waked, who indicated that he hardly felt Sadat was viewed in the same way, declined to attack Sadat openly, however, saying that it was an Islamic tradition not to speak ill of the dead.