165. Editorial Note
United Arab Republic President Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack on September 28, 1970, at age 52. His Vice President, - Sadat, immediately took over as interim ruler, and began sending signals to U.S. officials that he wanted to improve U.S.–UAR relations. During Nasser’s funeral on October 1, Sadat met privately with Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Elliot Richardson, the highest-ranking American official in attendance, and told him that under his direction Egypt planned to become much more closely aligned to the West. (Telegram 2262 from Cairo, October 3; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 637, Country Files, Middle East, UAR) Two days later, in a meeting with Donald Bergus, Chargé d’Affaires in Cairo, Sadat reiterated that he wanted a friendly relationship with Washington. Following his meeting with Sadat, Bergus reported to the Department of State that he “found it hard to believe that this was the same man who had indulged in so much plain anti-American rabble-rousing in public meetings throughout Egypt during the first six months of this year,” adding that Sadat stressed his and Egypt’s “feeling of friendship” for the United States (Beattie, Egypt During the Sadat Years, page 53)
Nixon administration officials questioned whether Sadat would be around long enough to see these promises through. On September 28, Harold Saunders of the National Security Council Staff wrote in a memorandum to Kissinger that while the constitutional successor was Vice President Sadat, “it seems likely that some sort of collective leadership would take over while potential leaders jockey for control.” Even more likely, Saunders added, was that “some other military leader would eventually assume the real power since it seems unlikely that a purely civilian leader alone could consolidate control.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 636, Country Files, Middle East, UAR) On October 12, after the Egyptian National Assembly officially nominated Sadat as President, Kissinger sent a memorandum to Nixon offering his assessment of the new Egyptian President:
“As a member of Nasser’s original revolutionary group, and because Nasser named him Vice President in December 1969, Sadat brings an aura of legitimacy and continuity to the succession and to the presidency. He lacks, however, Nasser’s charisma and as a perennial [Page 555] figurehead in the government with a lackluster record of public service he also lacks widespread respect and authority. Sadat’s greatest claim to leadership would seem to rest on his extreme nationalism, his long record of loyal, if unspectacular service to Nasser and to the apparent fact that he is acceptable to both pro-Soviet and more moderate factions.
“Given Sadat’s character and background it is unlikely that he achieved ASU endorsement on his own. He fits the general qualifications acceptable to the senior military officers—that the new president be a member of Nasser’s original revolutionary group—but there is no evidence that he is the army’s man. We do not yet know who specifically backed Sadat but it seems likely that his selection rests upon the support of other influential Egyptian political figures. There are indications that former Vice President and Soviet supporter Ali Sabri may have figured heavily in Sadat’s selection as well as the powerful Interior Minister Sharawi Jumah. They may have found Sadat’s selection the most convenient way of blocking selection of a stronger rival like the more moderate Zakaria Muhiedin. Others among the top leadership who may have played important roles in the succession struggle include Nasser’s shadowy intelligence adviser Sami Sharaf, propaganda chief Haykal, War Minister Fawzi and Foreign Minister Riad.
“It is, of course, impossible to determine at this point specifically who will ultimately hold the reins of power in Egypt. So far the military appears to have remained on the sidelines in terms of actually running the government, but it will exert considerable influence, if not a de facto veto, on decisions directly affecting its interests. Sadat may turn out to be more than a front man and as a probable compromise choice will still have some important influence, but the men around him will undoubtedly be more influential than those Nasser kept around.” (Memorandum from Kissinger to Nixon, October 12; ibid.)
President Nixon sent Sadat a letter on October 14, writing: “As a leader, President Nasser did much to shape the destiny of his nation and the history of his era. It is significant to us that in his final days, he looked toward the prospects for peace as offered in the United States proposal for a limited cease-fire and for talks between the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict. We are encouraged by that constructive choice and by your assurances to Secretary Richardson that under your leadership, the United Arab Republic will continue to pursue these goals. The achievement of those goals is among the highest hopes of my country as well.” (Ibid., Box 763, Presidential Correspondence 1969–1974, UAR President Anwar Sadat, Vol. I)