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The New Arab

Arab nationalism and autocracy; Heikal's mixed legacy

Mohammed Hassanein Haikel was instrumental in articulating the ideology of Gamal Abdul Nasser [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 February, 2016

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Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a confidant of Gamal Abdul Nasser and one of Egypt's most prolific journalists, has died in Egypt, leaving behind a controversial legacy.
Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, one of Egypt's most prolific journalists and a confidant of Gamal Abdul Nasser as well as Egypt’s current president, died of kidney problems on Wednesday at the age of 92.

Heikal is likely to leave a mixed legacy, and his story reflects the rise and decline of Arab Nationalist ideals in the 1960s through to the current day.

The popular author rose to prominence as a Cabinet minister under Nasser, and was a trusted counselor to Egypt's president, who ruled from 1954 until his death in 1970.

His close friendship with Nasser cast Heikal in the role of a top authority on Egyptian politics and the region at a time when much of the Arab world was shaking off colonial European rule.


Nasser's alter-ego

In 1960, President Gamal Abdul Nasser oversaw the nationalisation of the Egyptian press, and Heikal became his adviser and editor-in-chief at al-Ahram newspaper which, at the time, had a predominantly francophone Lebanese directorate.

Heikal was one of a group of Egyptians who came to prominence and flourished under Nasser’s rule, while they were also instrumental in lending ideological credence to the charismatic dictator.

"Heikal was Nasser’s alter ego," wrote Louis Awad, a literary editor jailed during the period. "When Heikal contradicted him, Nasser was in fact having a dialogue with himself.”

Heikal also focused on technological innovation and his personal taste for cleanliness in the al-Ahram office became legend.

One observer described "antiseptic rooms where technicians in immaculate smocks tend electronic perforators, American computers, and British typesetting machines".

During his years as editor-in-chief Heikal appealed to Egyptians' distrust of the country's tightly controlled state media with his insider's take on the country and the region in his eagerly awaited Friday column entitled "Frankly".

Heikal was also a speech writer for Nasser, and was called one of Nasser’s "main propagandists". He was instrumental in articulating the ideology of Arab nationalism which relied on a combination of anti-imperialism, Arab unity and socialism.

As well as other forms of propaganda, such as novels, songs, and films, these ideals were broadcast by establishing complete government control over the owners and directors of the institutions of the press, notably al-Ahram.

Naturally, intellectuals, notably including Heikal, were indispensable tools in all this cultural production.

Although Nasser's policies in Egypt have been praised by some, particularly for increasing social mobility through education and economic equality through land reform, he carried out his rule with an iron fist; his rule oversaw the imprisonment and torture of thousands of political opponents, many of whom were members of the Muslim Brotherhood. 


1967 defeat and decline

Although propagandists tend to gloss over human rights abuses by Nasser, what lead to the wider disillusionment with Arab nationalist ideas was the crushing defeat by Israeli forces in 1967.

"Heikal played a major role in raising the morale of the Egyptians at that time, making the officers and the army morally ready for war in particular," wrote a former army officer.

Yet some also blamed Heikal for his propaganda and the resulting disillusionment felt across Egypt, including by Naser's supporters.

"Under Heikal’s management of the paper, and with all respect to his professionalism, we felt that he had played a major role in what we had suffered," wrote journalist Saleh Ibrahim.

Heikal drafted Nasser's famous resignation speech that was later rejected by an Egyptian public that could not conceive of losing the charismatic leader, coining the phrase "Naksa" to refer to the defeat, a play on Arabic for "Nakba", or catastrophe.

Twenty years later, in his book For Egypt not for Abdul Nasser, Heikal would later hold Nasser solely responsible for the catastrophic defeat.

Additionally, a number of journalists, including al-Jazeera's Ahmed Mansour have accused Heikal of being associated with US intelligence during the Nasser era.


From Sadat to Mubarak

Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, sidelined Heikal shortly after he took office in 1971, along with many other of Naser’s closest affiliates.

He declined an offer made by Sadat early on in the presidency to be cheif of the Security Council. 

"I told Sadat that if we differed as we did when I was a newspaperman on Al-Ahram, how could I lead his National Security Council?" he said.

Sadat made reforms that witnessed the liberalisation of both the Egyptian political sphere and the economy. 

"We want freedom of the press," President Anwar Sadat said after withdrawing and then reissuing press licenses in the early 1970s to keep journalists in line. "At the same time I want it to be a dedicated press."

Unlike other prominent Arab intellectuals under Naser who tempered their work under Sadat - such as novelist Naguib Mahfouz who wrote novels addressing human rights abuses under Nasser - Heikal remained outspoken in favour of the deceased Egyptian President.

In 1981, Sadat jailed the journalist along with hundreds of others in an apparent attempt to quash opposition before the Camp David accords with Israel. 

Hosni Mubarak released them soon after he became president following Sadat's assassination in October 1981 — though Mubarak kept Heikal at arm's length throughout his 29 years in office.

 During the Egyptian revolution he said that Mubarak had "betrayed the spirit of republicanism" and called on him to leave Sharm el-Sheikh.

"I lost the most important thing in my life," he told The Independent during the 18-day uprising. "I lost my youth. I would love to have been out with those young people in the square."

A year after Mubarak was ousted, he aired his sharply critical views in his book — "Mubarak and his age" — one of 40 works he authored during his lifetime. 

He never lent support to the Arab spring that burgeoned in other nations. 



"I'm not a man of all times"

Yet his criticism towards Nasser’s two sucessessors did not apply to Egypt’s current President Sisi, who he described as the "ideal man" to take on the presidency. The two men had previously met in 2010 and before Sisi was promoted to the head of the armed forces.

He was said to be involved in the 2013 military coup that overthrew Mohammed Morsi, and it is believed that he was the engineer of the transitional roadmap that followed the coup. He was also silent on the Raba'a massacre that saw over 800 demonstrators killed in Cairo in August 2013.


Consequently, the Arab Defence Association attempted to funds through Egyptian media organisations to pay for the building of a statute honoring the journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal for his efforts in supporting the removal of Morsi.

"His recent efforts have helped remove Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and supported the military coup, as well as pushed for delegitimizing Muslin Brotherhood," Egypt's Al-Masriyoun newspaper reported.

Heikal's support of Sisi was mirrored in the support of other prominant intellecuals' defence of the military-backed dictator and the 2013 coup, which they defended in largely defunct Arab nationalist terms.

While Sisi was described by some, including by these intellectuals as the new Gamal Abdul Nasser, others have said he is more like a parody of the Arab Nationalist president.  

Despite some commenting that Heikal may have been involved in drafting some of Sisi's speeches, he has denied this. 

"I cannot be the president’s adviser at my age. I cannot be part of the regime. And I’m not the man of all times," he said.


Despite his poor health, Heikal was frequently on TV in the past few years, sharing his political views in lengthy interviews, first on the Al-Jazeera network and more recently on the privately owned Egyptian network CBC.


He continued to make controversial remarks late into life, including multiple remarks that Egypt should make inter-regional ties and move further away from US support. The journalist also came under fire for criticising Saudi Arabia while praising Iran for its nuclear deal.

Heikal is survived by three sons: Ali, Ahmed and Hassan. His funeral is due before sunset Wednesday, in accordance with Islamic tradition.


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