Egypt’s Heikal leaves behind rich legacy, controversy

Friday 26/02/2016
Mohamed Hassanein Heikal at his 92nd birthday, in Cairo.

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.