Praying for Peace, and for Jimmy Carter, Jihan Sadat Watched and Waited in Cairo

UPDATED 04/02/1979 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 04/02/1979 at 01:00 AM EST

Throughout the tense negotiations that led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that is scheduled to be signed this week, Jihan Sadat, 45, was never far from her husband's side. She rarely is. "Jihan, thank God, is my woman and my strength," Egypt's President Anwar Sadat once observed, and the relationship has never faltered.

The couple met in 1948, when Sadat, then a young revolutionary, was in prison. Jihan, only 14, came to the prison with cookies for her brother in the next cell. She passed some to Sadat; he stared at her through the bars, fell in love, and waited anxiously for her visit each week. "Seeing Jihan," he remembered later, "was light, freedom, love."

Released in 1948, he seemed a thoroughly unsuitable suitor. Jihan was the daughter of well-to-do Anglo-Egyptian parents; he was working class and barred from returning to the army. Eventually, however, the couple's devotion overcame her parents' resistance. The Sadats were married in 1949, and he was reinstated in the army as a captain soon afterward. Then, one day in 1952, Sadat came home unexpectedly from his post in the Sinai. "He took me to the cinema, and when we returned home the porter handed me a card that had been left by Colonel Nasser," Mrs. Sadat recalls. "It said, 'Our project is on for tonight.' My husband said nothing, but he immediately put on his uniform." The next day she turned on her radio and heard Sadat announce that Egypt's profligate King Farouk had been deposed.

Vivacious and emancipated, she is an outspoken advocate of women's rights, and of the need to improve the lot of the downtrodden. She first met Rosalynn Carter in 1977 and was impressed by the U.S. First Lady's seriousness. "I've always admired her simplicity and modesty," Mrs. Sadat says. "She has sensitive feelings for other people." When the Carters arrived in Cairo on the peace mission, their hostess was worried. "The great risk was to President Carter," she says. "We felt deeply for him. When a person is under stress, what he needs most are friends around him. My husband and I embraced them as friends."

The low point of the week-long negotiations, says Mrs. Sadat, came when the President moved on to Israel. "We watched his speech to the Knesset on television," she recalls, "and then Begin's remarks. All that heckling! We could feel the strain in President Carter's face as he listened."

After Carter returned to Cairo with Prime Minister Begin's final proposals, Mrs. Sadat remembers, she and Rosalynn waited anxiously at the airport while the men conferred. "I didn't want to pester my husband with a lot of questions at this critical time," she says. "After they had been closeted for two and a quarter hours, they finally started down the stairs. I had to know whether it was all right, and so did Mrs. Carter. We jumped up and looked into their faces. We couldn't tell how it had come out, but at least they were smiling. 'It's going to be all right,' my husband whispered to me. I asked, 'Has it been done?' He said quietly, 'I have settled everything.' "

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