Mubarak's Turn

01/30/2011 09:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today, the situation in Egypt is not so dissimilar to that of October 6, 1981 at 1 pm. And Hosni Mubarak, the current Egyptian president (who many view as a U.S.-supported dictator), was literally in the thick of it. Only back then, Mubarak was vice president and Anwar Sadat was president. And back then, Egypt was also teetering on the brink.

At that time, Sadat was the most hated man in the Middle East because he had recently made peace with the "hated, infidel Jews," in return for which Egypt was receiving more than $1 billion in U.S. aid. (Revered by the West, Sadat had just appeared on the cover of Time as "Person of the Year," and had just won the Nobel Peace Prize for signing the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, called the Camp David Accords.)

As a result of this reviled peace agreement, Sadat's own prime minister had resigned in protest. All Arab countries had severed diplomatic relations with Egypt. The country had suffered massive food riots. Sadat had jailed about 1,300 opposition politicians. Tourism, an important source of the country's income, was anemic. The standard of living was plummeting. The fundamentalists were ascendant.

And, at that same time, Israel was acting its usual defiant and assertive self. Thanks to the peace deal with Egypt, Israel decided to annex east Jerusalem, seized in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel was also furiously building settlements in the West Bank, also seized in that war. And finally, it had just bombed Iraq's nuclear facilities.

And like today, the United States, Israel, and Egypt's power elite were having trouble sleeping. They were literally terrified that the catastrophe that had just taken place in Iran might very well take place in Egypt. Two years earlier, Ayatollah Khomeini, an Islamic radical cleric, had toppled the Shah of Iran, a U.S.-supported dictator. Khomeini established a fundamentalist regime, seized the American embassy in Tehran, and held hostage 52 American diplomats for 444 days. By the way, this is the very same regime that today appears hellbent on building nuclear bombs as a deterrent to those held by Israel.

And where did Hosni Mubarak happen to be sitting at 1 p.m. on October 6, 1981? He was seated shoulder-to-shoulder to Anwar Sadat's right at a military parade, celebrating Egypt's "victory" over Israel in the 1973 Yom-Kippur War. (Egypt actually lost the war badly.) Abu Ghazala, the Egyptian defense minister, was seated immediately to Sadat's left. By some amazing coincidence, five ear-piercing Mirage jets just happened to be flying overhead, spewing out the five colors of the Egyptian flag, when four blue-bereted soldiers leapt from a truck pulling a piece of artillery. They immediately started running toward the exact spot where Sadat, Mubarak, and Abu Ghazala were sitting in the reviewing stands. With everyone looking skyward at the jets whose roar drowned out all other sounds, these four soldiers fired their automatic AK-47s and threw grenades and smoke bombs into the crowd, but specifically at Sadat. No one stopped them. The presidential security guard did not fire a single shot until well after one of the soldiers actually reached the five-foot-high granite wall that separated the front row -- where Sadat, Mubarak, and Abu Ghazala were seated a foot away -- from the dusty parade ground.

In this attack, Sadat was assassinated. 39 others were killed and wounded. By an "act of God," Mubarak and Abu Ghazala survived without a scratch. (Abu Ghazala later held up his supposed military cap with a bullet hole in it. Mubarak later proffered a bandaged thumb.)

Were Mubarak and Abu Ghazala co-conspirators -- along with Egyptian military intelligence, the CIA, and Mossad -- in this extraordinarily convenient and brilliantly planned and executed assassination?

Did Mubarak and Abu Ghazala pull Sadat out of harm's way or throw themselves in front of Sadat's body in an attempt to shield him? If they had, presumably they would have been killed or wounded.

But there is one thing we know for sure.

The status quo was saved. A few hours later, Mubarak, now presumptive president, gave a televised speech to the nation and the world, in which he declared that all "charters and treaties," including the Camp David Accords, would be honored.

In other words, Sadat -- the most hated man in the Middle East and the one who was held responsible for Egypt's precariousness, thanks to his having made peace with Israel -- had now been expediently sacrificed for the common good. Within a few years, all the Arab ambassadors were back in Cairo. The tourists were flocking to the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the Valley of the Kings and Queens. The economy was improving. But most important for the CIA and Mossad, the peace treaty with Israel was still in place. More than $1 billion in annual U.S. aid was (and still is) pouring into Egypt. And the rich and powerful in Egypt were still rich and powerful.

Now, nearly 30 years later, it's Mubarak's turn. Egypt is back on the brink.

This time, however, the ruse of sacrificing the U.S.-supported dictator probably won't work. This time it may be impossible to save the status quo.

And so what happens if Egypt becomes another Iran?

What happens if the most populous nation in the Middle East with the largest army tears up the Camp David Accords? Israel's days may be numbered. If Israel finds itself attacked daily by a barrage of Qassam rockets and swarms of suicide bombers, it will deploy -- after the Holocaust, there is little doubt about this -- its nuclear arsenal.

And if that happens, God save the world, not to mention all the Middle East oil we waste driving alone in our big cars to work.

Gary S. Chafetz, the author of The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff, led a six-month archaeological expedition, sponsored by Harvard University and the National Geographic Society, to Egypt's Western Desert from 1982-83, that searched for a 50,000-man Persian army -- known as the Lost Army of Cambyses -- destroyed in a sandstorm in 525 B.C.