There are many political commentators in the Middle East, but few manage to make a lasting impact. There is one name that stands head and shoulder above the rest in the region however - author and journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal - a writer who has devoted his life to revealing the truth
At the grand old age of 87, peaceful retirement is the furthest thing from Heikal’s mind. This Egyptian-born walking encyclopaedia on Middle Eastern affairs is also a one-man repository of secrets, which in his twilight years he still endeavours to share with as many viewers as possible during his regular controversial appearances on the Al Jazeera TV channel.
These days, not only does he have a faithful following of fans, who continue to hang on his every word even after half a century, he has also attracted a host of young admirers and receives up to 50,000 emails each week. Indeed many Egyptians refuse to be dragged from their television screens whatever the occasion when Heikal is scheduled to appear. They find his detailed personal memories and his astonishingly frank analyses fascinating.
For example, he has been open in his criticism of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for years, accusing the 82-year-old of living “in a world of fantasy” in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, an opinion which has won him as many enemies as friends. He has also condemned the Mubarak government for failing to respond to the needs of the population, apart from catering for a cabal of businessmen that have become some of the wealthiest in the world. He is also supportive of Egypt’s ‘youth uprising’ that began on January 25th in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and says it has restored the spirit of Egyptian nationality.
Ironically, just seven years ago, Heikal was on the point of retiring. He decided that the time had arrived for “an old warrior” like himself to put down his pen and adopt a lower profile in order to observe and analyse international events. Thankfully, this was one pledge that this man, who many say has ink in his blood, couldn’t keep.
This journalist, historian and former Editor of the Egyptian daily Al Ahram remembers the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the battle of Al Alamein that he covered as a young reporter, as well as the rise and decline of Arab nationalism, the early years of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel. But he is also extremely knowledgeable about the contemporary political scene in the Arab World.
Mohammed Hassanein Heikal began to gain a following during the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser and he was soon considered one of the most influential voices in Egypt. He has always been fearlessly outspoken, appearing totally unconcerned about many people in high places whom he has made enemies of along the way.
When President Nasser drew his last breath there were only three people at his bedside – his wife, Anwar Sadat and Heikal, who was one of Nasser’s most trusted political and social advisors and friends. They first met in 1948 when the Arab-Israeli war was raging and Nasser was in command of a desert battalion.
Then, in 1952, after the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy, Nasser asked Heikal to edit his memoirs. They were published under the title The Philosophy of the Revolution.Heikal was greatly respected by the president, who appreciated his wisdom and intellect. At the pinnacle of Heikal’s career in the 1970s, Nasser was the Minister of Information, the Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, a member of the National Security Council and the Central Committee of the Arab Socialist Union.
Editor of Al Ahram
Under his editorship, Al Ahram became the most circulated newspaper in the Arab World; each Friday when his weekly editorial ‘Frankly Speaking’ was published, the paper’s sales would rocket. Anxious readers would wake up at the crack of dawn to buy the paper simply to read his insights. Nasser’s death eroded Heikal’s influence however. At first, he enjoyed an amicable relationship with Nasser’s successor President Anwar Sadat and was considered instrumental in liberalising policies and improving ties between Egypt and the United States. But Heikal failed to conceal his true feelings about Sadat; a man he believed wasn’t fit to lead his country. When a slew of columns appeared in Al Ahram criticising the government, Sadat had Haikal arrested and jailed for plotting against him and advocating “atheism”. In the face of loud indignation at home and internationally, Sadat backed down, but from then on Heikal was barred from travelling outside Egypt and writing for the Egyptian media.
Heikal was only able to return to the scene following Sadat’s assassination, when all restrictions against him were lifted by President Hosni Mubarak. He wasted little time in picking up his pen to write freelance columns and books such as Autumn of fury: the assassination of Sadat.
In recent years, he was driven to give his opinion on the foreign policy of a country he once greatly admired as a bastion of freedom and democracy. He was scathing about the war in Afghanistan, saying, “I have seen Afghanistan and there is not one target deserving the US$1 million that a cruise missile costs, not even the royal palace... If I took it at face value, I would think this is madness...”
He also questioned whether Osama bin Laden was the mind behind the September 11 2001 attacks on the US. “Bin Laden does not have the capabilities for an operation of that magnitude,” he said. He blamed the US for its unconditional support of Israel and for propping up repressive regimes. And he condemned America’s attempts to impose democracy on Iraq, which has created a Sunni-Shiite divide.
However, Heikal’s loudest criticism is reserved for the Egyptian government. In particular, he is irritated by the affiliations some Lebanese politicians have with other countries and the ever-present religious sectarianism in Egypt.
When interviewed by the well-known author and journalist Robert Fisk, he complained about the state of emergency that still exists in his home country, which he described as “Not a happy place”. “There is a sea between the authorities and the people,” he said. “They have fabulous palaces and fork out up to US$2 million for weddings, but in front of every palace is a slum.”
State of emergency
It is interesting given the recent events in Egypt that long before the uprising, when Heikal was interviewed by the Egyptian paper Al-Masri Al-Youm last year, he proposed a new style of Egyptian governance to be implemented upon President Mubarak’s retirement from office. “We must establish a council of experts that we will call ‘The Council of the State and the Nation’s Faithful’ whose job it will be to formulate a new constitution...” he said.
Those suitable to serve on the Council, he said, would have included such well-known figures as the former Director-General of the IAEA Mohammed El Baradei, Arab League Chief Amr Moussa, the world-renowned heart surgeon Magdi Yacoub, Director of Egyptian Intelligence Omar Suleiman and Nobel Prize recipient Ahmed Zewail. Before Mubarak’s resignation, he wanted him to supervise such a council’s creation and ensure the seamless transfer of power to the next. In spite of his occasional acerbic comments about Mubarak he will always be grateful to him for allowing him the chance to write again and the freedom to travel once more.
In 2004, Time magazine included Mohammed Hassanein Heikal among its list of the 100 most influential people in the world, but he’s not impressed by such accolades. He finds happiness in a good Havana cigar, a blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled with writing and an appreciative readership. He loves to recount how the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was so infuriated by his cigar, considering it a vulgar symbol of capitalism, that he once grabbed it from Heikal’s mouth and stubbed it out.
Until now, no-one has managed to stub out Heikal’s message for very long. He may be what’s called an ‘armchair warrior’ but his is one pen that is mightier than the sword.