Until his assassination 11 days ago, it was the prevailing view at Western embassies here and even of many Egyptian analysts that Anwar Sadat was a popular president. He brought peace with Israel after four devastating wars, provided desperately wanted consumer goods to the middle class and subsidized, at great government expense, the prices of essentials for the poor.
Thus the widespread public indifference that appears to have greeted Sadat's death here, so initially puzzling to many foreign observers, has raised a number of questions crucial to future understanding of the United States' closest Arab ally.
When, and why, did the first blush of Sadat's undeniable successes begin to fade and his rule begin to come unraveled? Why did the West, particularly the United States -- which depended on Sadat as a cornerstone of its policy in such a vital region of the world -- so overestimate his stability and popularity? Can new Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak deal more successfully with the problems that plagued Sadat?
The answer, at least to the domestic part of this riddle, appears to many here to be twofold, as Sadat became a victim of the early success of his own policies and nagging doubts about their ultimate failure.
It is difficult to provide any exact date when the public mood toward Sadat began to shift. But foreign residents and other close observers, reflecting on this question now, note the inklings of a change a year ago, as middle-class Egyptians struggled with the downside of economic prosperity -- spiraling inflation, a worsening housing crisis and the massive crush of urban life in overpopulated Cairo. At the same time opponents of the pillars of that prosperity became more vocal, and frustration grew with the troubled Israeli peace process, on which Sadat had gambled all.
Although an unprecedented event in modern Egyptian history, Sadat's assassination did not come at a time of domestic calm. His nation was riled by great economic and social changes. His people were torn between the conflicting forces of Islamic resurgence and Western consumerism, and sectarian strife between Moslems and Christians was on the upswing.
Much of the underlying strain for anyone ruling the ancient nation stems from the insoluble Malthusian problem of packing another million people into the already overcrowded sliver of arable land along its only great waterway, the Nile.
While this forms the constant backdrop to the political scene here, the most pressing social issue for Sadat was how to keep astride two powerful contradictory currents. The first was the never-ending thirst of the large middle class for imported consumer goods and all things Western in style, from imported Mercedes Benzes and household appliances to French cheese and Planters peanuts.
The second current, just as strong if somewhat more recently on the upswing, was the resurgency of Islam sweeping the entire Moslem world and having an increasingly visible impact on Egyptian society. The growing legions of Islamic fundamentalists rejected angrily most, if not all, of what the Westerners stood for.
With what was called his "open-door" policy, Sadat gave free rein to accelerated spread of a Western-style consumer society. An unquestionably pious Moslem, he at the same time tried to find a compromise with the Islamic militants. He coddled their desire for a return to Islamic fundamentals by adopting Islamic law as a basic source of Egyptian law, allowing them to set up thousands of private mosques and 1,500 social societies and creating an Islamic-style consultative council.
As if the tension created by these conflicting currents was not enough, this summer violence broke out here in a crowded, lower-class suburb between Moslems and Christian Copts over the use of a plot of land for either a church or mosque. Before the violence subsided, at least 17 and perhaps 70 persons were killed and more than a hundred wounded.
While domestic conflict grew, Sadat's foreign policy -- the principal basis of the high opinion in which the West held him -- was suffering a pummeling from the Israelis.
The first of several major public humiliations came in July 1980, when the Israeli parliament passed a law permanently annexing all of Jerusalem, including the Arab section captured in the 1967 war, as the capital of the Jewish nation.
The "loss" of Jerusalem, an Islamic holy site, forced Sadat to take some action to prove he was a good Moslem and as outraged as any other at what was regarded as a stinging insult. In protest, he suspended the Palestinian autonomy talks, already in deep trouble.
With the negotiations for the autonomy of the Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip stalled, Sadat faced increased skepticism from other Arabs. One of the main accusations leveled against Sadat by his Arab enemies -- that he had broken Arab solidarity and made a separate peace with Israel only to get back lost Egyptian land and betrayed the Palestinian cause -- had an increasing ring of truth.
Nearly a year later, Sadat's argument that peace with Israel would be both possible and beneficial for the entire Arab world was dealt a staggering blow when Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor outside Baghdad last June.
What made the Israeli bombing such a humiliation for a proud man like Sadat was that it happened only days after his summit meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the announcement of a renewal of the autonomy talks. Not only were Arabs abroad accusing him of open complicity, even Egyptians who supported him were saying he must have been told by Begin of the impending Israeli strike and approved of it.
Hardly had the furor subsided over this incident than the Israelis bombed central Beirut, killing hundreds of civilians. Again, in Arab eyes, Sadat was being humiliated and his peace policy made to look ridiculous.
Because of his fear of upsetting the timetable for the promised Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, Sadat had to remain relatively tongue-tied and could take no serious action to show his displeasure. Instead, he lamely said the peace process had to continue at all costs.
Whether it was the problems of the peace process, the internal pressures, or something latent in his character, Sadat toward the end of last year began to become noticeably shorter in temper. He began attacking the handful of deputies in the National Assembly that made up his increasingly less "loyal opposition" for criticizing his peace treaty with Israel and liberalized economy.
Sadat, who thought of himself as the "father" of the great Egyptian family, never suffered criticism lightly and tended to personalize it. Convinced of his long-term wisdom, he began using the first person "I" and "Egypt" interchangeably and talking about "my institutions."
Those who criticized his policies were denounced as "traitors."
Leaders of the so-called loyal opposition, like Ibrahim Shukri and Khalid Mohieddin, began complaining openly to the outside world that Sadat's version of democracy was a fraud.
"We have the shape only of a democratic system," Shukri said in an interview in January. "We are very near to a one-party system."
Sadat, for his part, hit back hard at what he called the bad faith, poor manners and yellow journalism of his opposition.
"This does not serve the nation," he said at the time.
But it was not just the loyal opposition Sadat started attacking. He struck out in all directions -- at the butchers for charging too high prices, at the bureaucracy for its lazy habits, at the middle class, fat cat effendis for their conspicous consumption, at the lawyers and journalists for calling into question his wisdom and finally at Christian and Moslem militants.
Nobody seemed to escape this biting criticism except the small farmers of the lush Nile delta. He liked to think of these hard-working and incredibly productive Egyptians as the backbone of the nation, the government and his popularity. But he never bothered to organize them into a coherent force of support.
Meanwhile, he showed his disdain for the cranky Cairo residents by spending less time here. Instead, he isolated himself from the everyday headaches of more than one third of his people and holed up alternatively in his beloved home village of Mit Abul Kum, an old restored royal residence at the Barrage on the Nile south of Cairo, at a beach house at Maamora east of Alexandria and throughout much of the winter at a small house overlooking the Nile in Aswan, 500 miles from the capital.
His tendency toward isolation was reflected in his style of rule as well. Those who disagreed with him too vociferously or often either were ignored or found themselves shunted aside.
It would be unfair to say that Sadat had lost all contact with the realities of Egypt. If he had little interest in the details of the economy or government and preferred to mull over long-term strategy in isolation, he was also said to have been kept closely informed of what was going on in Egyptian society, albeit through second-hand sources.
But his intimate knowledge of his own country seemed to have failed him when, following the summer sectarian violence, with tensions reaching a new height and both sides seeking revenge, Sadat came to the conclusion it was time to carry out a major crackdown in a bid to bring a quick halt to all religious strife.
In early September, Sadat ordered the roundup of more than 1,500 Moslem and Christian extremists, slipping into his dragnet a number of his civilian critics with whom he had running personal feuds.
Had he stuck just to arresting the hardcore extremists prone to violence, he might have alienated fewer segments of society. Instead, he also disestablished the patriarch of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III, another personal enemy, and closed virtually every religious and political publication that had been voicing criticism of his policies.
He also began publicly ridiculing the increasing number of Moslem women wearing the veil, calling them "walking tents" with only two holes for their eyes.
While moderate Christians and Moslems, the bulk of the Egyptian population, greeted the measures to end the sectarian strife with relief, the manner in which it was done and justified ruffled many Egyptians.
Most Western embassies felt he had gone too far and overreacted to protect himself from the increasingly vocal opposition as well as quash the potentially dangerous outburst of sectarian strife.
The impression that Sadat had overreacted was confirmed in the minds of many Egyptians and foreigners when to justify his steps he used examples suggesting that what was really bothering him was the idea that Egyptians civilian and religious figures dared to call into question his wisdom and policies.
Clearly his tolerance of democracy and free speech was shrinking and after his crackdown there was a general feeling that his experiments with a multiparty system were over.
It appeared that a man otherwise characterized by great dreams and lofty ideals had succumbed to a streak of pettiness. Sadat would launch long public harangues even against individual foreign correspondents and columnists who dared to question him and in the process air before the entire nation the criticism being leveled against him.
Clearly, Sadat, at 62, and his rule, at 11, were changing in the final months of his life, becoming far more authoritarian and less tolerant of criticism.
In the end, the deafening silence that surrounded Sadat's burial seemed to sum up the gnawing doubts his people were beginning to have about him and his policies. Fairly or not, they were beginning to see their world-famous leader as the cause of their mounting daily problems rather than as the solution to them and to question the price he was paying in Egyptian pride for his peace policy.