The shooting of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by Egyptian soldiers during a military parade in Cairo throws into question the whole direction of Middle East politics and peace.
Along with other spectators this correspondent was watching an aerial acrobatic show and exhibition of heavy artillery at the Nasser City military fairgrounds here when a group of soldiers leaped from a truck in front of the grandstand where the President was sitting with high dignitaries. They tossed two grenades, and opened fire with their Kalashnikovs on the horrified crowd.
The President was whisked into a helicopter and flown away. It was learned later that he had been taken to Maadi military hospital where he died.
Vice-President Hosni Mubarak escaped uninjured, speeding away in an armored car. He subsequently took over as commander in chief of the armed forces, effectively taking some of the leading reins of power. Parliament speaker Sofi Abu Taleb assumed the formal role of president.
The scene at the fairgrounds where the military was celebrating the eight anniversary of the October 1973 Arab-Israel war was pandemonium as Mirage jets screamed overhead and the panicking crowd ran or crawled from the grandstand to avoid the gunfire. Soldiers in uniform wept, crying "The President, the President."
Sadat's assasination comes about a month after he instituted a sweeping crackdown against religious fundamentalist and political opponents. That involved the arrest of some 1,600 people, the dissolution of Christian and Muslim religious societies, and the closure of seven publications.
Although no public mention was made, informed sources reported that there had been about 50 arrests and perhaps more in the military at the time of the crackdown and that until heads had been asked to submit lists of religious personnel. The arrests reportedly upset many in the armed forces.
The army has long been unhappy with the slow deliveries of US arms. Some officers also were dissatisfied with the terms of the Camp David peace treaty, which returned the Sinai to Egypt and removed Cairo from the regional confrontation with Israel.
Before the assassination, however, it was not thought that there was any serious threat to the Sadat regime. President Sadat himself assured foreign journalists in a press conference at Mit Abul Kom Sept. 11 that "Egypt is an island of stability" in the turbulent Middle East and that "the regime has nothing to fear."
Sadat's death puts a large question mark over the future of the Middle East peace process. Mr. Sadat placed his personal mark on Egyptian history, negotiating a peace treaty with the regional enemy. Israel, reorienting Egypt's foreign policy toward the West and the US, and opening up the country economically to Western investment.
His likely successor, Hosni Mubarak, is to many still an unknown.He has quietly and faithfully carried out Mr. Sadat's policies, and has been one of the constant faces in a continuously changing Cabinet. Indeed, for the past few years Mr. Mubarak has been running much of the day-to-day business of the government.
Mr. Mubarak received some of his military training in the Soviet Union, but when along with Sadat's subsequent removal of Soviet influence and personnel. He was the head of the Egyptian Air Force during the October 1973 war and was appointed vice-president on April 15, 1975.
Only last week he returned from Washington, where he delivered a special message from Sadat to President Reagan and held consultations with Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger on the Libyan threat to Sudan.
But it remains to be seen whether Mubarak will be able to gather the reins of power into his hands and, if so, whether he will continue the policies which flowed from Mr. Sadat's personal quest to Jerusalem. Most observers suspect he will do both.
His immediate priority will be to consolidate his hold on power. He has been in charge of Egypt's intelligence services -- a position which could be of some significance during the transition period.
There are few obvious alternatives to Mubarak. Perhaps defense Minister Muhammad Abdul Halim Abu Ghazzala, who was wounded in the neck, is the most likely possibility.
Otherwise there are no outstanding or particularly charismatic figures waiting in the wings. Sadat and the Egyptian Army tended to weed out those who got too popular. And there was certainly no initial sign that the handful of soldiers who attacked President Sadat were part of a larger conspiracy.
Claims of responsibility from a previously unknown Beirut group calling itself the independent Egyptian Liberation Organization merely caused puzzlement here. And there was no immediate evidence that Libya was involved, although Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was probably Sadat's worst enemy in Arab world. Mr. Sadat called Qaddafi a "prince of evil" just this week.
Among those seriously injured during the attack on Sadat was Belgian Ambassador Claude Ruelle: Sayed Maraei, a close adviser of Sadat; and the current head of the papal council that runs the Coptic Church, Bishop Samuel.
Security men and military police apprehended several individuals, throwing two men in a jeep and speeding away. Other witnesses saw military police and security men pounce on the attackers. One witnesses saw one of the assailants being shot. Security police brandished pistols and machine guns at the crowd.
On the streets afterwards people were huddled around transitor radios trying to pick up the latest news items.