President Sadat may have seen sufficient domestic reasons to choose this particular time for a massive crackdown on legal as well as illegal opposition elements. But the choice was unfortunate for international consumption. With Prime Minister Begin's trip to Washington also in the headlines, Mr. Sadat dramatized the difference between undemocratic Egypt and democratic Israel that is so often thrown up to him. A statesman on the world stage, he could start to soften the new reminders of his authoritarianism at home by following through on his reported pledge of open trials. This came after the arrest of some 1,500 persons and the tear-gassing of demonstrators protesting the arrests.
For all the criticism of Mr. Begin and of his country's lapses from democratic ideals, he went to the United States as a leader remaining in office through the democratic process. By contrast, Mr. Sadat now stands once more as a leader who periodically resorts to open force to silence his opponents.
Ironically, one reason for opposition to him at the moment is that Prime Minister Begin's aggressiveness has upset Mr. Sadat's promise to Egyptians that Israel would become more reasonable under the Camp David conciliation process. An Egyptian "national coalition" is said to be building against the Camp David policy and thus against Mr. Sadat. Unless he can show gains against Israeli obduracy in obtaining a Palestinian solution acceptable to Arabs, he risks continued isolation by other Arab states -- and continued political challenge from Egyptians who want to restore Arab ties.
This is part of the background to be taken account of when President Sadat sweeps up so many dissenting voices in what is ostensibly a reaction to religious conflict between Muslim fundamentalists and the Christian minority known as Copts. With the Muslims clearly seen as the aggressors in recent riots , Mr. Sadat was evidently being political in putting some of the blame on the Copts and, indeed, taking the extreme step of revoking presidential recognition of their assertive patriarch.
He also seized the occasion to purge journalists, close publications, and make other moves more associated with dictators than statesmen. Washington will be among the interested observers as to whether the trend now is toward more repression or toward putting the current episode behind and preserving minority and dissident rights in the future.