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Egypt officially opens Sadat museum

CAIRO, Egypt—A museum honoring the Nobel Peace Prize-winning former President Anwar Sadat officially opened Friday in Cairo, though Egyptians remain divided on the leader's legacy 25 years after his assassination.

The new museum chronicles Sadat's rise from a humble Egyptian-Sudanese family to his place as one of the most influential Arab leaders of the last century. He was the first Arab head of state to make peace with Israel by signing the 1979 Camp David accords, a controversial move that many believe led to his assassination in 1981 by Islamist militants.

Sadat's checkered legacy has been the focus of several biographies, an Emmy-nominated American miniseries and an acclaimed Egyptian film. The opening ceremony for the museum, however, glossed over Sadat's controversial past and presented the slain leader simply as a vanguard for regional peace.

"He chased the occupiers as well as the enemies inside, and anyone else he thought would harm the nation," said Jehan Sadat, the president's widow, who attended the ceremony with two of the couple's daughters and some grandchildren. "He was a hero of war, yet also a hero of peace."

But Sadat isn't remembered as a hero to all Egyptians, particularly to activists who lived through his sweeping crackdown on Islamists, state workers who recall widespread corruption and intellectuals who believe he sold out the ideals of Arab nationalism by becoming the first Arab leader to visit Israel.

"Sadat was a national catastrophe," said Fahmy Huweidi, an Islamist journalist who was fired from a government-backed Egyptian newspaper for criticizing Sadat's policies. "He excluded Egypt from the Arab-Israeli conflict and he destroyed the united Arab front. He caused a disintegration within Egyptian society."

The museum consists of a large room lined with photographs: his wedding portrait with Jehan, a meeting with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the historic handshake with then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachen Begin during his trip to the Jewish state in 1977. A large TV monitor broadcasts one of Sadat's speeches to the Egyptian parliament. Other memorabilia include Sadat's bathrobe and toothbrush, as well as the military uniforms from his days as a fiery young soldier who helped organize the Free Officers Movement, which was committed to overthrowing the Egyptian monarchy.

The focal point of the room is a large model that shows Egyptian warships crossing the Suez Canal during the 1973 battle known to Israelis as the Yom Kippur War and to Egyptians as the Ramadan War or the October War, setting in motion events that led to Egypt's landmark recognition of Israel in exchange for seized land and foreign aid.

About 250 people showed up to the opening ceremony, including a top adviser to current President Hosni Mubarak and a former head of the Arab League. But the most emotional reactions to the exhibit came from ordinary Egyptians who attended out of respect for the man nicknamed "the liberator of the Sinai."

"He was a wonderful man who gave us liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of traveling. He gave us back the Sinai," said Chahia Serry, an Egyptologist whose eyes were moist with tears. "He is the sphinx because he had the head of a lion, with his high cheekbones and dark skin. He gave us back our pride."

Whether viewed as a traitor or trailblazer, Sadat remains one of the most enigmatic figures in modern Egyptian history.

"He was a man with a vision," said Essam al-Arian, a senior spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's leading Islamist group. "He was right at times and wrong at times, but he definitely had a vision."

The Sadat museum opened quietly seven months ago, but curators wanted to gauge public interest in the exhibit before making it a permanent feature at the Pharoanic Village, one of Cairo's top tourist attractions. Wael Samir, museum spokesman, said the Pharoanic Village gets about 200 visitors a day, many of them because they heard of the Sadat section.

"A lot of tourists come and ask about him," Samir said. "They know Sadat and he's an attraction for them."

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(Naggar is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent. Hannah Allam contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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