Egypt’s Heikal leaves behind rich legacy, controversy
Cairo - Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a journalist, political commentator and historian who died February 17th at the age of 93, stirred up controversy for decades, not because he was wrong but because he did not budge from what he believed was right.
Heikal, who turned from a little-known journalist at an English-language newspaper where he worked as a crime and then a war reporter, into Egypt’s most noted journalist and writer, befriending presidents and kings and interviewing scientists and high-profile politicians. He also unsettled policymakers, angered royalty and infuriated ordinary citizens because of his views.
In Egypt, he was not only a witness but also part of groundbreaking developments, from the military coup against the monarchy in 1952 to the army’s overthrow of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi in 2013.
Heikal was reported to have been behind the decision of the army to stage a coup against King Farouk in 1952, bringing an end to Egypt’s monarchy and a beginning to a rule by the military.
As a war reporter, he met revolutionary leader Gamal Abdel Nasser for the first time in 1948 on the battlefield of the Palestine war. He became friends with Nasser, who apart from appointing him editor-in-chief of al-Ahram, Egypt’s largest state-run newspaper, in 1957, made him minister of guidance (information) in 1970.
Heikal’s close ties with Nasser and Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, however, made him fall silent about the many restrictions on freedom of speech, jailing of opponents and torture at police stations.
“Political opponents were put in jail in droves but Heikal, a man who always defended freedoms, did not say a word,” said Farida al-Naqqash, a writer who was jailed in 1972 because she participated in student protests against Sadat. “This was so because he did not like to anger Sadat.”
Heikal angered Sadat in 1981 when he opposed rapprochement with the United States and Israel, which led to his imprisonment in the same year.
Heikal was not only a close associate of Nasser, defending his Arab nationalism to the last day. He also nurtured close ties with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran’s 1971 Islamic revolution, King Hussein of Jordan, Algeria’s first president Ahmed Ben Bella and French president François Mitterrand.
His views on Iran angered Gulf rulers and millions of Arabs, who grew up viewing predominantly Shia Iran as the biggest threat to their survival. Heikal did not believe Iran wanted to export its Islamic revolution to Arab states as most Arabs believed.
He called on successive Egyptian rulers to develop strong ties with Iran, always describing Iran as a state that could be pacified.
Despite growing opposition to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant Lebanese movement, inside Lebanon, Heikal used to describe it as the “last remaining” centre of resistance to Israeli hegemony.
He sent shockwaves in Egypt in recent months when he advised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi to visit Damascus and meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The “Master,” as Heikal was called by generations of Egyptian journalists, suffered a strong blow to his credibility in 2011 when he claimed Egypt’s ex-president Hosni Mubarak had $70 billion in European banks. It turned out he didn’t have proof of the claim.
His appearance on the Qatari news channel Al Jazeera in 2007 also drew criticism due to deteriorating relations between Cairo and Doha.
Nevertheless, Heikal is an Egyptian and Arab journalist whose name will be remembered for decades, his students, admirers and friends say.
“Heikal is about a very distinguished and elevated journalistic school that left its mark on generations of Egyptian newspapermen,” said Mustafa Bakri, a journalist by profession and a member of parliament who knew Heikal for three decades. “Even those who differed with him never lost respect for him.”
With many books and hundreds of columns and articles to his name, Heikal left enough material for Egyptians and Arabs to remember him. He recently started writing a book about relations between the Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood. He died of kidney failure before completing the book.