How Anwar Sadat’s assassination – exactly 29 years ago today – became my history-making scoop. Well, actually, not quite.6 October 2020
My wife Anne and I had just enjoyed three days at the Club Med, on the Red Sea coast of Egypt, snorkelling, seeing underwater coral reefs. sunbathing and eating delicious food.
Having taken the once-a-day morning flight back from Hurghada to Cairo, I popped in to the BBC office. A reporter from Reuters, whose office was along the corridor, asked why I had not gone to the military parade.
“Boring,” I said. “Was there the last two years. Nothing ever happens.”
How wrong I was.
We sipped some tea at the famous Groppi’s cafe, and then drove home down the Corniche alongside the Nile River. There was hardly any traffic as Victory Day was a public holiday.
As we walked in, the phone was ringing.
“We want the story. We want the story!” yelled the newsdesk of
American National Public Radio, one of my clients. “Just got back from the
Red Sea,” I replied. “What story?”
“Sadat. Sadat’s been shot!”
“Very funny,” I said. “What story do you really want?”
He told me gunfire had been heard and screaming and shooting at the annual military parade. It had been reported, he said, on Israel radio. “I’ll get back to you,” I stammered, aghast that I had apparently missed what was clearly a major story.
It actually turned out to be a journalistic blessing. Most of my colleagues
had been stuck inside the Parade Ground and its surrounding streets, as soldiers cut off exits. There was no such thing those days as a mobile phone.
Being at home I had a rare asset: a phone-line that could call locally and
internationally. I rushed downstairs to my neighbour: “Sadat’s been shot.
I need your phone. Please!” He obliged.
I would make my enquires then rush upstairs for live broadcasts as my wife
played timekeeper. “NPR. You’re live in 20 seconds,” she would shout.
Very soon, a statement by the government news agency said there had been a shooting and that the President had been hit in the hand. (That was not exactly a lie, it turned out later: he had been hit in the hand — and the chest and the heart and the head!)
I decided to use a home phone number I had for Sadat’s prime minister, who had only been appointed recently, following a radical reshuffle of his
leadership team. [Sadat had also recently arrested over a thousand hardline Islamists. The brother of one of them was Sadat’s main assassin.]
“My dad’s not here,” said his young son. “He’s at a cabinet meeting.” As he was “expecting a call”, I said, could I have the number there? Foolishly, the son gave it to me.
I was expecting to get through, if at all, to some office assistant. To my surprise, the man who answered the telephone was the prime minister himself.
At that moment, no-one was suggesting that Sadat was more than lightly
wounded. But I decided to throw out a challenging statement and see how the prime minister would react.
“Is the president alive or dead?” I asked.
“No comment,” said the prime minister.
“Ah,” I said, aiming to extract more crucial information. “So should I interpret that as confirmation that the President is dead?”
“Mr Martin, I said: no comment.”
“From that, Prime Minister, I am going to report that the President is
dead. Will I be correct?”
“Mr Martin, I said no comment.”
Then he added: “Vice-President Mubarak will be coming on television in a couple of hours and then you will know everything.”
“Thank you, Prime Minister, you’ve told me everything I need to know.”
I quickly rushed upstairs and reported this conversation to the producer in Washington DC for National Public Radio.
“Paul, Paul, go on air now and say the President is dead. We’ll win
the Pulitzer Prize!”
Though still in my 20s, I had been a correspondent in the Middle East since
late-1979, and was already aware of how things here were not always as they seemed.
Could this be an Egyptian government trap?
Perhaps the Prime Minister wanted National Public Radio or the BBC to report that the President was dead. Then, as the reports instantly were splashed on all news media, including on the BBC Arabic Service, the coup plotters would rush into the streets to celebrate – convinced they had succeeded.
Then, forces loyal to the President would shoot them dead. Sadat would appear on the television soon afterwards, with a bandaged hand, to announce the coup had been crushed.
And my career would have been irreparably crushed too!
“No,” I said. “All I can report is this: The Egyptian prime minister
has refused to confirm or deny whether President Sadat is alive or dead.”
And, despite huge pressure, that’s what I stuck to … even after I had spoken to a doctor I knew at the Maadi Military Hospital. When I asked if Sadat was at the hospital and whether he was alive or dead, he shouted: “You bloody donkey!” and slammed the phone down on me.
I suddenly realised why. I had temporarily forgotten that this doctor was Sadat’s son-in-law, from his first marriage. He had just seen Sadat rushed inside from a military helicopter, riddled by bullet-holes. And this reporter chooses to phone him – of all people. How could a reporter stoop so low, he must have been thinking. I felt ashamed. But it was another indication of Sadat’s demise.
Later, the vice-president did come onto national television and sombrely announce Sadat’s death. Almost unscathed in the attack, Mubarak was to become Egypt’s leader till his overthrow in 2011.
So there it was. I had not managed to become the first journalist to report that Sadat was dead. Neither I nor NPR won a Pulitzer Prize.
But at least I had managed to uphold the ethics of responsible journalism. Some consolation, I suppose.