Egyptian President Anwar Sadat has taken a calculated gamble with his broad crackdown on dissidents at home. For him, the most important date in the calendar ahead is April of next year. That is when Israel is due to complete its withdrawal from the last segment of Sinai that it has been holding since the "six-day war" in October 1967.
Mr. Sadat's prime aim at this stage is to prevent anything at home or abroad from interfering with that withdrawal schedule.
His calculated gamble is that the boat will be less rocked within Egypt between now and April by his detention of up to 1,500 "troublemakers" than if he had let them continue to have free rein. That may cause murmuring, or more, at home now.
But come April, with the Israelis finally out of all Sinai (as Mr. Sadat hopes), all will be forgiven in the national euphoria at the combination of continued peace and the restoration of Egyptian sovereignty over all the national territory after nearly 14 years of humiliation and foreign occupation.
Mr. Sadat is more quintessentially Egyptian than was his predecessor, the late Gamal Abdel Nasser. This is partly because Mr. Sadat's peasant origin from the crowded, rich farmlands of the Nile Delta makes him more representative of his fellow countrymen than was Mr. Nasser, who came from the hot, parched Nile Valley of upper Egypt.
Mr. Sadat has shown that he understands the average Egyptian better than Mr. Nasser. Above all, for the mass of Egyptians, Mr. Sadat has gotten the balance more correctly right between Egypt's conflicting roles as, on the one hand, Egypt with strictly national interests and, on the other, Egypt as the leading Arab power in the Middle East expected by other Arabs to play an Arab role -- and foot the bill for it.
Nothing showed this more clearly than the popular reaction in Egypt to Mr. Sadat's earlier gamble in 1977 when he decided to visit Jerusalem and embark on a policy of peace with Israel. Many Egyptian intellectuals thought this was political suicide. Mr. Sadat's foreign minister resigned in protest. But Mr. Sadat returned to Cairo from Jerusalem to a hero's welcome. He had calculated correctly: After four wars with Israel, the average Egyptian was tired of providing cannon fodder for an Arab cause and wanted peace.
Peace has admittedly proven disappointing and frustrating, if one recalls the high hopes of 1977. Israel, under Menachem Begin, has proven a prickly and often obdurate negotiating partner -- above all on the key issue of the Palestinians. Peace has not brought the across-the-board economic upsurge that Mr. Sadat has forecast and hoped for.
The opening to the US and liberalization of trade policies has seemed in economic terms to favor the rich. And -- most painful of all for some of those taken into detention last week -- the Camp David process has resulted in Egypt's isolation from the rest of the Arab world. The thinkers and polemicists of Egypt, the writers and filmmakers, even many of the traders, need the broad arena of the Arab Middle East within which to thrive. The narrow confines of the Nile Valley can all too easily become for them a straightjacket, as it can for that natural metropolitan center of the entire region, the big, bustling, and grossly overcrowded Cairo.
These frustrations -- combined with the upsurge in religious fanaticism of fundamentalism that has struck Egypt over the past decade, in common with many other countries -- have this year coalesced and broken through to the surface in a broad spectrum of opposition.
Only last week one of the organizers of this opposition coalition, left-winger Lufti al-Kholi, told a correspondent of this newspaper that it had a three-point program:
"* For the overthrow of the Camp David policy and Egypt's return to Arabism.
"* To move from the present "illusory democracy" in Egypt toward a national unity government.
"* The ending of the open-door economic policy, with a return to 'planned development within an Arab context.'"
A clinical description of Mr. Sadat's type of government would be "benignly authoritarian" -- with the emphasis most of the time on the "benignly."
One can pinpoint four major crackdowns, with arrests and firings, during the decade of Mr. Sadat's presidency: In 1971, after the discovery of a plot by Nasser holdovers to oust him; early in 1973, when widespread disillusionment followed Mr. Sadat's failure to make good on his promise that 1971 would be "a decisive year" in the conflict with Israel; in 1975, after riots in Cairo over increases in food prices; and the most recent series of arrests.
Explaining last weekhs arrests in a speech before the Egyptian parliament Sept. 5, Mr. Sadat put most of the emphasis on his determination to put an end to sectarian strife between extremists in the country's Muslim majority and Coptic Christian minority. (Copts constitute up to 15 percent of Egypt's total population of upward of 40 million.)
Admittedly there have been increasing incidents of violence between the two -- on university campuses, and, in one memorable outburst, in a poor quarter of Cairo last June in which several people were killed. But the list of people picked up by the police last week shows that the net has been cast far beyond religious extremists. The worldly Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, a formidable figure in Egyptian journalism in President Nasser's day and now among those arrested, is hardly a fomenter of religious strife.
Mr. Sadat's most drastic move was the withdrawal of government recognition from the Coptic Patriarch Shenouda III and his replacement by a council of five bishops. The Copts are a proud people, for all their being a minority in Egypt. They see themselves as the most genuine of Egyptians in that they are the un-Arabized descendants of the original Pharaonic inhabitants of the land. The words "Egypt" and "Copt" have a common etymological root. The Copts are also one of the oldest Christian churches on earth.
Since the Suez war of 1956 and the consequent reduction of the once-dominant Western Christian presence in the Middle East, the Copts have felt alone and on the defensive in the face of mounting Arab nationalism in tandem with a resurgence of Islam. But it should be noted that Mr. Sadat, like Mr. Nasser before him, has been careful to ensure that there is Coptic representation in any Egyptian cabinet.
The election of Shenouda III to the patriarchate at a relatively young age signaled a desire by the Coptic community of Egypt for a more active leadership than his veteran and relatively pasive graybearded predecessors had offered.Mr. Sadat has held against Patriarch Shenouda the anti-Sadat demonstrations staged by Egyptian Copts resident in the US during some of the Mr. Sadat's recent visits to Washington.
The patriarch is now paying the price -- easier for an Egyptian president to exact from him in a predominantly Muslim country than from any Muslim leadership thought to be encouraging extremism. There has, for example, been no balancing move against the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University, the top Muslim religious leader in Egypt -- who, it must be conceded, has not been associated with any outburst of Muslim fanaticism.
Mr. Sadat has also been relatively easy on the young Muslim fundamentalists on university campuses who nevertheless are a factor that must be reckoned with. His main target on the Muslim side has been the Muslim Brotherhood, an older phenomenon of zealotry dating back to the days of King Farouk. The Brotherhood leadership has been arrested and its publications banned.
Whether the severity of Mr. Sadat's measures is justified, only time or the history books will tell. Inevitably there are those who will say with justification that the biggest latent threat to him could still be some unknown disaffected group in the armed forces. But like Mr. Nasser before him, Mr. Sadat is careful to do all he can to maintain the privileges of the military and to ensure that they are satisfied -- a context within which one should see his continuing efforts to get as much sophisticated weaponry as he can from the US.