“They cannot be waiting for me,” said Muhammad Hassanein Heikal with a twinkle in his eyes. He was referring to the horde of photographers and cameramen waiting outside the luxury hotel in Milan where we were attending a UNESCO sponsored conference on the “New World Communication and Information Order.”
It turned out that the media tribe was lurking in covert for a group of top international models in town for an annual fashion show. “Well, that’s that!” the star of Egyptian journalism noted philosophically, his tone laced with a hint of disappointment. For Heikal, who died in Cairo last week aged 93, always craved attention, and at the time (the late 1970s) he was on a slippery slope to oblivion.
He had fallen out with President Anwar Sadat, suffered at his hands and was virtually denied the right to practice his trade. To him, like to all other genuine journalists, being involved in daily events was something of a drug which, when denied, made life hell on earth.
Because of his very long and eventful life, Heikal could be regarded as several men blended into one by time. We first see him as a young reporter with one of Egypt’s English-language papers, the Egyptian Gazette, catering mostly for expatriates. In that capacity he demonstrated his talents as a field reporter by covering the Second World War on its African margins and, later, the oil nationalization movement in Iran. Iran became the subject of his first book “The Iranian Volcano” which says more about how Arabs saw the Iranian drama than the drama itself.
He had hardly turned 30 that he became Editor of Akhbar Al-Yowm (Daily News), thus winning an entry into the world of high politics in a Cairo gripped with intrigue. It was then that he first came to know Lt. Colonel Gamal Abdul-Nasser, the charismatic soldier who as leader of a semi-clandestine group known as the Free Officers (Al-Dubbat Al-Ahrar) seized power in Cairo.
Much has been written about the Nasser-Heikal connection over the decades that followed. The standard narrative of close, even fraternal friendship has been contested by many, including Nasser’s widow who, in memoirs published a few years ago, portrayed Heikal as nothing but as a loudspeaker for her husband. Among other things, she claims that Heikal’s famous editorials in Al-Ahram, the daily that he edited for 18 years under Nasser and Sadat, were entirely dictated by her husband with Heikal adding nothing but his name. I find that hard to believe. Nasser may have dictated the main political themes of the day to Heikal. But Heikal was certainly more than a hired pen.
In fact, in his editorials, Heikal developed his own unique style, using short, sharp sentences, a simple vocabulary of no more than 2000 words and thus accessible even to illiterate Arabs who listened to it on Sowt Al-Arab (The Voice of Arabs).
There is no doubt that no Arab journalist in history so far has attracted so vast an audience. Part of Heikal’s success was due to his own talent for popularization of complex political ideas at a time when most Arabs were discovering politics for the first time. But there was also the fact that he had a good story to tell. Whether one likes Nasser or not, and I am among those who don’t, he offered an attractive narrative. He told Arabs that they had been occupied and humiliated for centuries and that the time had come for them to shake off their chains and return to history as a united and great nation.
His sub-theme of Egyptian “identity” was equally attractive: after all he was the first “Egyptian” since the ancient Pharaohs to rule the country. Nasser’s land reform didn’t make the Egyptian fellahin rich. But it gave them a sense, or if you like, the illusion that a better future was possible. Though not a martial people by temperament, most Egyptians also took pride in the rebuilding of their armed forces in the wake of the humiliating defeat of 1948, a pride deepened after the Suez Canal fiasco for the British-French-Israeli trio of invaders.
Heikal told and retold that narrative with the right doses of rhetorical passion. Nevertheless, we must also admit that historical chance also played a role in building Heikal’s legendary position. At the time there were only six and a half independent Arab countries (the half being the imamate in North Yemen) compared to today’s 22. Then, Egypt accounted for 65 per cent of the population of those states and was the only one capable of developing and sustaining media with a pan-Arab reach. Lebanon had the talent and to some extent the private capital needed to produce a lively press. But divided into ethnic communities, tiny Lebanon could not offer a pan-Arab narrative. Its media appealed to a very small stratum of Arab intellectuals; it was haute cuisine compared to the fast-food media that Egypt produced under Nasser. In that fast-food joint, Heikal was the top chef.
Heikal would be impossible today because of the explosion in the Arab media and the fact that governments have lost their monopoly on information, not to mention the magic of the internet that has turned millions of people into journalists, well, of sorts.
Heikal was a man of contradictions. He cast himself as a revolutionary but had the tastes of an Egyptian Pasha. He had an account with Hawes and Curtis in London who provided his handmade suits, especially the glitzy waistcoats that he cherished. His Havana cigars had to come from Davidoff, and he would not be satisfied with anything other than a special kind of Chivas Regal. In his almost annual pilgrimage to London he stayed only in Claridge’s, one of the most expensive hotels in the British capital.
Heikal also suffered from political contradictions. He preached alliance with the Soviet bloc in the name of anti-imperialism but was deeply anti-left. In fact, he played a controversial part in Sadat’s purge of the leftist Nasserists, including Ali Sabri and Shaarwai Guma’ah. He was enthusiastic about the seizure of power in Iran by the Fedayeen Islam, the Iranian version of the Ikhwan Al-Moslemeen, under Ayatollah Khomeini but bitterly opposed the coming to power of the Egyptian Ikhwan through elections.
Another contradiction was his boast that he was nothing “but a reporter”, insisting that journalists should not get involved in government, let alone behind-the-scenes politics. Yet, he did become a minister and, I am sure, craved the foreign ministry as well. More importantly, he was thrilled when he was dragged into secret mediation between Washington and Tehran over the release of Americans held hostage by the mullahs in Tehran. His partner in that rocambolesque exercise was Eric Rouleau a Franco-Egyptian journalist he had known for 30 years.
Heikal had a mordant sense of humour. So, maybe he would have appreciated the statement published in Tehran by the Association of Muslim Journalists describing him as “a true soldier of Islam”. One idea now is to name the street where the Egyptian Embassy is located in Tehran after Heikal. Right now, it is named after Khalid Sowqi Al-Islamobouli, the man who killed Sadat.