Jehan Sadat, 87, widow of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel, died in Egypt on Friday, the country’s state news agency MENA reported.
In recent weeks, the local media reported that Jehan had been in an Egyptian hospital and battling cancer. Last year, Sadat received medical treatment in the United States but shortly after she returned home, her condition had deteriorated, her family had told the local press. No further details about her illness were made available.
On Friday, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s office mourned Sadat as a role model for Egyptian women, granted her a prestigious national award and announced the naming of a key highway in Cairo after her.
Jehan Sadat was born in Cairo in August 1933 to an Egyptian middle-class father and a British mother. In 1949, she was married to Anwar Sadat, a military officer at the time who later on served as Egypt’s president from 1970 until his assassination in 1981. The couple had three daughters, Noha, Gihan, Lobna and a son, Gamal.
Anwar Sadat was the first Arab leader to visit Israel and address the Knesset in 1977. He led the peace initiative between Egypt and Israel, which earned him acclaim as a visionary and champion of peace, but also much criticism at home. Jehan Sadat accompanied her husband to the Jewish state, meeting with Israeli leaders.
President Isaac Herzog on Friday paid tribute to Sadat, saying she “joined her husband during his historic visit in Jerusalem & courageously stood by President Sadat’s side during his relentless work for peace with the State of Israel.”
“She continued to promote the cause of peace for many more years. On behalf of the State of Israel, I would like to express my deepest condolences to the President of Egypt and the Egyptian people,” said Herzog in a statement. Herzog also spoke to Khaled Azmi, Egypt’s Ambassador to Israel, to convey condolences.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz also offered his condolences on Friday.
“I would like to offer my condolences to the people of Egypt over the loss of Jehan Sadat, wife of the late President, visionary and champion of peace, Anwar Sadat,” Gantz tweeted.
“It was Sadat who paved the way for peace between Israel and Egypt and we are committed to deepening this partnership,” he added.
Sadat consistently defended her husband’s decision to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 after nearly three decades of war, a move that was controversial domestically and regionally.
After his assassination, she largely withdrew from public life. But in recent years, she emerged as a supporter of former military general el-Sissi and his government, after the country’s 2011 popular uprising forced her husband’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, to resign.
“I am very optimistic that what my husband did, what he gave his life for will never, ever go in vain. I believe, though I’m not young, that I will see peace prevailing in the Middle East between the Arabs and the Israelis, and I am a very realistic woman. I am not living in fantasy or illusion,” she told CNN in 2009, marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Israel-Egypt peace deal.
At the signing of the Camp David Accords, “It was unforgettable to see the Israeli delegation and the Egyptian delegation and the American delegation and instead of enemies they were friends, talking and chatting. It was something that I would never ever forget. My tears were coming down, I could hardly control them, because I was so happy to see that we are all like one family,” she said.
Since the peace deal with Egypt, Israel has also forged a treaty with neighboring Jordan in 1994. Last year, Jerusalem normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
During her husband’s tenure, Sadat also established herself as a staunch advocate of women’s rights by pushing for a set of laws that granted women the right to alimony and custody of children in the case of divorce. She also made headlines with her volunteer work and charitable activities. Her high visibility in the 1970s drew criticism from observers who accused her of exploiting her husband’s position to gain political leverage for herself.
She also presided over several national relief agencies including the Egyptian Red Crescent, the country’s blood bank and the Egyptian Society for Cancer Patients. During Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel, photographs of her visiting the wounded appeared on most of the country’s newspapers’ front pages.
In 1972, Sadat established the Wafa’ Wal Amal, the Faith and Hope Society in Arabic, which now operates a fully integrated city for handicapped war veterans and civilians. In 1997, she created an endowment to establish The Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland in memory of her husband.
On the chair’s website, she is quoted as saying: “I never again want to see the face of a starving child or hear the weeping of a mother who has lost her son to war. Peace, this is what my husband gave his life for, and I want the world to know that he did not die in vain. Peace, this is what will make me very happy.”
Her husband was assassinated Oct. 6, 1981 during a military parade in Cairo. Mubarak, who was seated next to him, escaped with a minor hand injury as gunmen sprayed the reviewing stand with bullets. Days later, Mubarak was sworn in as president.
Under Anwar Sadat, the government had sought the support of Islamic groups to counter the influence of leftists. It released hundreds of jailed Muslim Brotherhood members and backed the nascent Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya, or Islamic Group. But the Brotherhood eventually turned on him, and Al-Gamaa grew so radical that it joined forces with another militant group, Islamic Jihad, to assassinate the president.
In 1977, Sadat graduated with a B.A. in Arabic literature from Cairo University. In 1986, she completed her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the same university.
She authored two books: her autobiography “A Woman OF Egypt” and “My Hope for Peace,” about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the rise of Islamic extremism.