“Making peace is harder than making war.” The complicated political scene that the whole world is involved in nowadays proves the validity of this statement by the 23rd vice president of the United States Adlai Ewing Stevenson. The political history is also replete with dedicated leaders and politicians who paid exorbitant prices for achieving peace. One of those outstanding leaders is Anwar El Sadat, the third president of Egypt, who led the country in the 1973 October War (Yom Kippur War) to regain the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had occupied since the Six-Day War of 1967. Despite of the great victory of Egypt in this war, Sadat initiated serious peace negotiations with Israel. This giant step towards peace was an achievement for which he shared the 1978 Nobel Prize for Peace with late Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem between 19 and 21 November 1977, marked a turning point in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In fact, a few moments in the history of the Middle East were as dramatic as the moment when President El Sadat descended from his airplane and stepped, for the first time, on the land of Israel.
This peace that we now enjoy in the Middle East costed El Sadat his life, as he was assassinated three years later by Muslim extremists who objected the accord, and stirred an enormous anger in the Arab world as a whole. This anger found expression in noisy demonstrations that took place in various Arab countries and cities, especially Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Aden, Tripoli, and Algiers. The day El Sadat arrived in Israel was declared a “Day of National Mourning” in Syria, where flags were flown at half-mast. In Iraq, celebrations of the Al-Adha feast, which coincided with the day of El Sadat’s visit to Israel, were cancelled in protest. Libya burnt the flag of the Union of Arab Republics including Egypt, Syria, and Libya, established in Benghazi, Libya in April 1971. This sever opposition appeared also in Egypt in the same degree. Renowned politicians in Egypt at the time considered the peace treaty as a decoy that would bring to an end all the achievements of Egypt over the previous four years with the Americans, the Soviets, and the Palestinians, and would undermine the Geneva Conference. Egypt’s ex-foreign minister Ismail Fahmy resigned, and said: “Arab sovereignty over their lands is not subject to compromise.”
El Sadat fought the battle for peace lonely, taking the decision bravely regardless of any political developments. Several Arab newspapers and broadcast stations, both official and semi-official, described El Sadat as “traitor, capitulator, conniver with the enemy, and an agent of imperialism.” Till today, El Sadat’s decision is one of the most controversial matters in the Middle East, and neither his assassination in 1981 nor the passage of time has resolved the ongoing debate about the man and his legacy. There are still many details in this period that only a very few people know. In fact, there were 13 days of negotiations between El Sadat, Begin, and former US president Jimmy Carter as mediator, before the signing of Camp David Accords. Carter hosted Egyptian and Israeli leaders at a US presidential rural retreat, Camp David in Maryland, to reach an agreement.
“Camp David” by Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, author of “God Save Texas” and “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11”, offers a behind-the-scenes look at that historical moment whose legacy continues to resonate 41 years later. The play is based on the diaries of Carter, and reveals for the first time the 13 historic days Carter spent at the presidential retreat on Catoctin Mountain in 1978, negotiating the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Obviously, there’s not a lot of action in the play. However, it managed to accurately capture this historic moment with all its sensitive aspects and difficulties, revealing a lot of secrets, and clarifying so many facts. During the 13-day talks, Begin and El Sadat got into screaming matches and had to be physically separated; both attempted to walk away multiple times. Carter had initially hoped that El Sadat and Begin would negotiate a detailed and comprehensive peace agreement between themselves, and that he would serve as a facilitator, pleader, and persuader. This expectation of a fairly brief summit evaporated quickly by the end of the third day, following a second acrimonious triangular session, as both El Sadat and Begin threatened to leave Camp David. The play reveals an extraordinary moment in the political history, where two lifelong enemies, one of them is a pious Muslim inspired since boyhood by stories of martyrdom, and the other is an Orthodox Jew whose parents had perished in the Holocaust, managed to prove that the peace is possible.
Most importantly, the play reveals that El Sadat was the stronger side in the negotiation, who succeeded all the time in imposing his will on the Israeli side. The character of El Sadat is presented by the famed Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy, who is one of the few actors who struggles against the slanderous stereotypes of Arabs in the American media, and cunningly presented the late president as a nuanced politician and a military man proud of his country and his victory in the October War.
The play starred also Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin. “Camp David” premiered at Arena stage in 2014, and is scheduled to replay on 14 February at Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas.
Marwa El-Shinawy: PhD in American Theatre and member of the Higher Committee for the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre