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Why Sadat might return to the Arab fold

Whenever those who are familiar with the Arab world discuss the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations, uncertainty is expressed over Egypt's President Sadat. Could he conceivably reverse a policy of seven years, abandon his quest for peace, and return to the fold of Arab recalcitrants? Or would such an act constitute so great an admission of error that it would be sufficient to bring his downfall?

As erratic as such a move may seem to us, it falls within the realm of the possible. Sources of financial aid can be found in places closer to home than the United States. No matter how much Arab leaders may have been at one another's throats one day, they have always been able to embrace the next. Because no one controls Arab national symbols, an errant Arab leader is accepted by his brothers at the moment he stands in their midst and professes Arabism. There is still that much uncertainty about being Arab.

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Sadat's own sense of uncertainty was expressed in the largely symbolic move of having his leadership confirmed by the Egyptian people for life. Such a step is not necessary if Sadat is truly attuned to his people. In practical terms the gesture is useless. It does little more than reveal his apprehension.

Some of those who are close to Sadat concede that he might have gone too far in his peace process. Egyptians, they say, want peace but not at any price. Quite often these feelings are not carefully defined. They are the expression of a vague sense of discomfort over the position in which Egyptians find themselves. It is at this point that we encounter the resurgence of fundamental Islam and what it may mean to the political future of the Middle East.

Some of Sadat's friends are not nearly so concerned by the so-called militant Muslims and all their pretensions at playing politics with Islam as they are by the steady and quiet growth of a new interest in the religion by Egypt's young people. This movement has few direct political overtones, and in itself it is not an immediate threat to Sadat. But it is set forth in direct contradiction to many of the Western values and practices to which Egypt's affluent and ruling groups have become so accustomed.

Herein lies the potential for a direct challenge to Sadat and to the course he has set for Egypt. Islam is so inextricably tied to concepts of the Arab nation (as contrasted with the Egyptian state) that this sentiment gives those Arab leaders who oppose Sadat's policy a basis for support within Egypt itself. In effect, Sadat has chosen to "move West" -- i.e., toward American political perceptions -- at the very time that power derived from oil wealth has helped regenerate Islam as a rallying point for Muslim countries seeking a greater appreciation of their own values.

The source of concern for many Egyptians who have joined Sadat to implement his policy is that, despite their loyalty to the President, they have a nagging feeling that something is amiss. Egypt is being left out of something important -- if intangible -- by not sharing in the exhilaration to be experienced in the full appreciation of tradition found in the Islamic resurgence. The situation is doubly worrisome because Egypt's "new Muslims" are the children of the very people who are working with Sadat. What we are witnessing is a pull in Egypt toward other Muslims.

Whether those of us in the United States and Europe identify this force as Islam or Arab nationalism, the results are the same. Many Egyptians wish to confirm an identity which is Arab, and Islam is one of its major features.

Certainly Sadat has not abandoned this feeling himself, and he is fully aware of what is taking place around him. He has insisted that the negotiations emanating from Camp David and from the treaty with Israel be set firmly in an Arab context. Thus, the Palestinians and the West Bank were made the theme of talks with Israel. He suspended discussions when Prime Minister Begin first allowed Israelis to continue to establish settlements in the West Bank and then announced that Israel will retain responsibility for security in that area (whatever the nature of the autonomy accord reached with Egypt). Sadat again reacted when the Knesset moved to reaffirm Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem.

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Sadat could face downfall as a result of his close association with the US. Alternatively, he is still in a position to move away from this association and away from the American-sponsored peace process. He could again join his comrades from Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia in condemning the Israelis if this course seemed necessary for his survival.

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