Anwar Sadat was one of those curious 20th-century figures who alternately amazed and puzzled, delighted and infuriated the world. In some measure this is because Sadat operated within the context of the Middle East - an intensely competitive and multifaceted part of the world, one struggling to assert its identity amid the powerful forces of Westernization, Marxism, Islam, Arab nationalism, Zionism.
At times, Sadat was a hero to Egypt and to all Arabs - as when, in 1973, Egyptian troops succeeded in crossing the Suez Canal and penetrating Israel's formidable Bar-Lev defense line. Later, when he journeyed to Jerusalem in search of peace, Sadat was deemed a traitor to the Arabs.
In ''Autumn of Fury,'' Egypt's preeminent journalist-politician, Mohamed Heikal, has written a highly valuable (also highly critical) book for anyone trying to understand the Middle East. It contains much original, firsthand information on the Sadat regime and Egyptian society, concentrating on the last years of Sadat's rule and the events which led up to the assassination.
Heikal was Egypt's information (propaganda) minister under Gamel Abdel Nasser and editor of the state-controlled Al-Ahram newspaper under both Nasser and Sadat. This book can be seen as Heikal's summary view of the Sadat era, just as his 1979 book, ''The Sphinx and the Commissar,'' summarized the Nasser era.
''It is often said that Sadat had at least for the first time given Western public opinion a proper understanding of the Arab world and its problems,'' writes Heikal. ''That is unfortunately not true. What the West was watching was the performance of a superstar; the public in the West appreciated the posture of one man, not the problems of millions.''
What Heikal sees in Anwar Sadat is a man out of his depth in world politics, a man who embarked on ill-thought-out political ventures, was prone to corruption, megalomania, and vindictiveness. Indeed, there is little doubt that Sadat did see himself much too grandly as a latter-day Pharaoh. Like the Shah of Iran, Sadat lost touch with the citizenry. And in many ways the economic ''open door'' (al-infitah) which he introduced simply flooded the country with consumer goods and pushed up Egypt's international debt.
One shortcoming of this book, however, is that it seems obsessed with its central negative thesis of Sadat's harm to Egypt, failing to note that peace with Israel and Westernization certainly have their positive aspects. Heikal (remember his career as propagandist) also frequently and tiringly detects the CIA's hand behind Sadat and his associates. Rarely does he note the influence of the KGB, which operated relatively freely in Egypt throughout the era of heavy Soviet involvement in the late 1950s and '60s.
Heikal believes Sadat had a great opportunity following the 1973 war, but ''he threw it all away.'' Heikal rather patronizingly says that ''perhaps in view of the sort of life he had led and his lack of education, it is unfair to blame him, but he never showed any knowledge or understanding of Egypt's place in history and geography, and so misjudged the social and economic - and even the cultural - conditions in his own country.''
Despite the arguments of Heikal and other Arab historians that Egypt achieved a great victory in the 1973 war by surprising Israel, one cannot forget that by the end of that war Israel had retaken territory and surrounded Egypt's Third Army. (Heikal blames Sadat for overextending his military forces in the push into the Sinai.) Under such circumstances, peace could not be made entirely on Egypt's terms.
One wonders also: Did Sadat, with his bent for Westernization, misjudge Egypt's ''social and economic'' conditions any more than did Nasser, with his bent for Soviet-oriented socialism? Sadat may have left a poor payments balance and a legacy of debt. Nasser left a cumbersome, unproductive economy and an inefficient, politically dangerous bureaucracy.
Heikal argues that Sadat might have tried to bring about a superpower conference on the Israel-Palestine question or negotiate a role in peace talks for the Palestine Liberation Organization. That would have been the ideal. But, were he to have held out for that - considering Menachem Begin's stubbornness and Israel's political power in the United States Congress - peace today probably would still be in the realm of rhetoric rather than a signed, enforceable treaty.
Less than three years after that treaty was signed, the Sadat era ended in gunfire. When news spread of the assassination, says Mr. Heikal, ''Egyptians experienced a sense of relief, not of grief.'' The legacy bequeathed to Sadat's successor, Heikal argues, ''became plain for all to see; it was simply to begin undoing what he could of his predecessor's work.''
Hosni Mubarak, Sadat's successor, says he intends to work quietly and slowly, to honor the Camp David peace, to rationalize the Egyptian economy, and to make Egypt a balanced, orderly country. So far there is no indication his goals are different from Sadat's.