Cairo – Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, a leading Egyptian journalist, author, television celebrity, politician and a noted authority on modern Middle East whose work brought him worldwide fame and influence, died on Wednesday, aged 92.
Egyptian state television said Heikal, a heavy cigar smoker, died following a short period of illness.
As Egypt’s, and probably the Arab world’s, oldest active and most celebrated intellectual, Heikal was perceived by critics and admirers as a towering figure who had continued to attract attention until his death.
Above all, Heikal was one of the most trenchant defenders of Nasserite Egypt and its pan-Arabism trends.
Heikal was born on September 23, 1923, to the family of a wheat merchant in the Nile Delta province of Qalyubia. His father thought that Heikal, as the eldest son in the family, should join him in managing his business. Instead, Heikal decided to pursue his education.
Educated briefly at the American University in Cairo, Heikal became a crime reporter for the Egyptian Gazette in 1943. The paper which catered to the needs of expatriates living in Egypt had among its writers famous British authors such as George Orwell and Lawrence Durrell.
The following year, Heikal joined the staff of Rose El-Youssef, an opposition political satirical weekly.
Heikal first won public attention as a war reporter covering the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and then briefly the Korean war of 1950-1953.
His mind like a razor, that of a veteran fighter, writer, sage, perhaps the most important living witness and historian of modern Egypt.
As Nasser’s friend since they first met during the war with Israel, Heikal became a staunch supporter of the coup and helped in drafting Nasser’s manifesto, The Philosophy of the Revolution, which outlined his outlook for post-monarchy Egypt.
Heikal’s place in journalism was quickly recognised in 1953 when he was hired to serve as editor of Akhir Sa’a, an illustrated Arabic-language weekly published by Akhbar Al-Youm House.
In 1956 and 1957, Heikal served as editor of Al-Akhbar daily, a sister publication owned by media tycoons Mustafa Amin and his twin brother Ali, who are widely considered to be the fathers of Western-style modern Egyptian journalism.
A year after Nasser became president of Egypt in 1956 he installed Heikal as editor-in-chief of Al Ahram, the semi-official newspaper, and in 1959 made him chairman of the board of Al Ahram Establishment. During his tenure, Heikal improved Al Ahram’s coverage by subduing the sensationalism that had characterised Egypt’s media and taking it to the level of Egypt’s and the Arab world’s most prestigious paper.
Under his leadership the paper provided a platform for Nasser’s nationalist and pan-Arab policies. Heikal’s widely read Friday column in Al Ahram, “Bi-Saraha” [or “Frankly Speaking”], in which he used to convey Nasser’s messages and explain the government’s stances, became the barometer of Egyptian policy.
The column prompted the Washington Post to describe Heikal’s writings as “the voice of Egypt” and “the outside world’s window on that secretive regime”.
One of Heikal’s outstanding acts was to establish Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies as a think-tank that provided Nasser and the government with updates and feedback on regional and international affairs.
As happens with the intelligentsia under totalitarian or populist regimes, Heikal had probably failed to draw a clear demarcation between his role as a journalist and as an outspoken advocate of Nasserism.
In 1968, he became a member of the Central Committee of the Arab Socialist Union, Nasser’s ruling party. In 1970, Heikal became minister of National Guidance and briefly an acting foreign minister.
Heikal had a rocky relationship with President Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor. After Nasser’s death in 1970, Heikal remained editor of Al Ahram and adviser to the new president. He even helped Sadat to get rid of Nasser’s remnants in the government whom Sadat accused of conspiring to remove him from power.
Later Heikal fell out with Sadat over his domestic and international policies, prompting Sadat to relieve him of his duties in 1974. The disagreement culminated in Heikal’s opposition to the 1979 peace treaty Sadat signed with Israel.
At one point, Sadat accused Heikal of opportunism and betraying the national interests. A smearing campaign in the government-run media also denounced Heikal as a tool of the Soviet Union and linked him with unsubstantiated scandals.
In 1981, Sadat ordered Heikal to be jailed, together with hundreds of political leaders, writers and intellectuals who were opposed to his peace overture with Israel and his alliance with the United States.
Heikal was released a month later by former President Mubarak, shortly after he took office following Sadat’s assassination in October 1981. Mubarak, however, did not bring Heikal to his entourage or let him return to Al Ahram, and he was shunned away from writing in the Egyptian press.
Because of his prominence and his passion for journalism and writing, Heikal spent the following years freelancing for papers abroad. During this period he also wrote some of his most famous books, including Autumn of Fury, about the assassination of Sadat in which he condemned not only the former president’s policies but also his personal life through negative and even racist themes.
In the 1990s, Heikal resumed writing in Egypt. His pieces started appearing in Wijhat Nadhar, a monthly magazine that features essays and book reviews and is modelled on the London Review of Books. Some of his writings were controversial and even sessional.
On his 80th birthday in September 2003, Heikal said he would retire. In an article entitled “An Excuse for Departure” which appeared in Al Ahram, Heikal explained that he felt he had reached his “expiry date”. It was too good to be true.
He might not be a historian, per se, but he was there witnessing where history was made.
In 2007 Heikal began hosting a series of weekly programmes on regional and world events on Al Jazeera Arabic Channel. Among the topics he discussed in the “Ma’a Heikal” [or “With Heikal”] show were US-Middle East policies, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Arab divisions. As it was expected, Egypt under Nasser came up in several programmes.
The Thursday night peak-hour show furnished Heikal with a greater platform, turning him into a household celebrity across the Arab world, and made him climb the media ladder to even greater heights.
In the second episode, Heikal told his audience that Al Jazeera gave him “a real opportunity to talk to people without censorship on a wide range of issues”.
In recent years, Heikal was a regular host on Egyptian privately owned television networks. His discussions were mostly pegged to the 2011 Arab Spring and the turmoil it had triggered in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.
Even though some of the TV shows were conducted in a Q&A style, Heikal remained faithful to his old style, delivering a monologue on the themes of his choice.
Heikal had admirers as much as he had critics and enemies.To many of his disciples, El-Ustaz [or the Master] Heikal was an inspiration whether for his distinguished career in journalism, his intellect, his political experience or his prominence that earned him international recognition and friendship of powerful and influential people all over the world.
He had fans among Westerners, too. “His mind like a razor, that of a veteran fighter, writer, sage, perhaps the most important living witness and historian of modern Egypt,” wrote Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East reporter for the British newspaper The Independent, in February 2011.
Detractors, however, accuse Heikal of being guilty of treason by being apologetic to Nasser and his long-time propagandist.
That was especially noticeable following the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 when he coined the word Naksa, an Arabic word for setback, as a euphemism for the Egyptian and Arab armies’ bitter defeat by Israel.
For many Arabs, the conflict not only resulted in their losing the West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights to Israel, but it was also behind all political tragedies that have occurred subsequently in the Arab world.
Critics also noted that Heikal had never revised his views on Nasserism, even though it had become clear that it had its great share in many of Egypt’s political, economic and social woes.
Among harsh criticisms levelled against Heikal is making things up. Critics often claimed he was using quotations attributed to dead politicians which they believed were fabricated to support an argument or serve a political agenda.
Referring to Heikal’s allegedly unchecked facts, Canada-based Iraqi historian Sayyar Al-Jamil, who wrote two books on Heikal; Decomposing Heikal and The Remnants of Heikal, believes that the journalist’s works are mostly “whimsical fabrications or self-serving twisted facts”.
“I do not trust the man’s tales, neither his way of documentation. His writings are aimed at a specific timely political goal or self-serving or to satisfy his admirers in accordance with prevailing circumstances. He has the ability to hide the truth or to kill it,” he wrote in The Remnants of Heikal.
But Sherif Younis, a history professor at Cairo’s Helwan University whose theses tackled Heikal’s works, says the Egyptian author was a source to be reckoned with. “He might not be a historian, per se, but he was there witnessing where history was made,” he told Al Jazeera.
Heikal’s literary production, which spanned more than six decades, covered a variety of political issues. His books on Nasser are The Cairo Documents: The Inside Story of Nasser and His Relationship with World Leaders, Rebels, and Statesmen (1973) and Cutting the Lion’s Tale: Suez Through Egyptian Eyes (1987). In addition to Autumn of Fury, his books about Sadat’s era include The Road to Ramadan (1975) and October War (1980).
His Secret Channels: The Inside Story of Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations (1996) was considered among the few books that examined the history of covert negotiations between Israeli and Arab representatives which culminated with the Oslo Agreement in September 1993.
Heikal’s books on Iran: Iran on a Volcano (1951), The Return of the Ayatollah: The Iranian Revolution from Mossadeq to Khomeini (1981) and Iran: The Untold Story (1982) made him one of the best Arab experts on Iran.
In his Illusions of Triumph: An Arab View of The Gulf War (1993), Heikal argued that Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait was less a challenge to the West and Israel than an attempt by the Iraqi leader to assert his leadership of the Arab world after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Heikal’s last book was Mubarak and his Time (2012), which extended his criticism of Mubarak, whom he portrayed as inept and corrupt.
With his death, Heikal leaves a legacy that will most likely be open for debate not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world where he left disciples and enemies.
Heikal was quite aware of his role in modern Egypt’s politics and history. “I lived to see and I told what I had lived,” he once wrote.
Heikal is survived by his wife Hedayet Olwi and three sons: Ali, Ahmed and Hassan.