Journalists see him as the ‘ultimate journalist’, the epitome in the field of Egyptian journalism. His name graced Egypt’s topmost, State-owned daily Al-Ahram as Editor-in-Chief from 1968 to 1974. When he left Al-Ahram and became a freelance journalist and writer his articles and books commanded deep public interest and, predictably, controversy. He gained fame as an insider in the world of political decision making circles, and his superb political analysis was delivered in a writing style that was elegant yet straightforward and piercing. His enemies claim that this gifted journalist, writer, and analyst used his prowess to make or break reputations of friends or adversaries. This near-legend in the circles of Egyptian journalism, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, passed away in Cairo on Wednesday 17 February at age 93.
Mohamed Hassanein Heikal was born in 1923 in the district of al-Hussein in Islamic Cairo. His father, a grain trader, hailed from Dairut in Upper Egypt. Heikal obtained a secondary school certificate in commerce and decided to do studies at the American University in Cairo. As fate would have it, he was there introduced to Scott Watson, a journalist who worked with the English-language Egyptian Gazette. Watson helped Heikal join the Gazette in February 1942 where he was assigned to covering local news and crime. It was WWII, and the young reporter was 19. [Heikal: al-Hayat, al-Harb, al-Hubb, Adel Hamouda, al-Forsan publishing house, 2000]
Heikal enthusiastically embarked on what was to become an illustrious career.
At the time, Cairo teemed with WWII Allied soldiers. Egypt had a ‘prostitution law’ which licensed prostitutes. Needless to say, the soldiers were among their best customers. But when several cases of sexually transmitted diseases were discovered among the soldiers, Egypt’s Interior Minister Abdel-Hamid Haqqi issued a decree annulling licensed prostitution. The move infuriated the soldiers as well as the prostitutes. The soldiers were vocal in their opposition, but no one heard the voice of the prostitutes. This is where Heikal entered the scene; he was assigned by the Gazette to conduct a poll among 100 prostitutes.
Heikal wrote of his experience later in the Cairo weekly Akher Saa, No 546. “It was a challenge that would prove my journalistic capacity, I was told by my supervisor.
“I went to Cairo’s red light district and visited one after another of the houses there in an attempt to get answers to my questions. Once the women discovered I was merely asking questions they threw me out to the accompaniment of a string of abuse damning me and my forefathers all the way up to the time of the pharaohs. Downhearted and frustrated, I walked into a nearby café to think what to do. I noticed that in one corner there sat an older woman who appeared especially important; she was treated with exceptional respect by everyone around. Impulsively, I approached her and told her of my predicament, explaining that my entire professional career hinged on that assignment. She gave the matter some thought then asked me to sit down. She began calling the women one by one to answer my questions and by the time I was through I had the ‘mission impossible’ all done.”
With his reputation as an able journalist secure, Heikal was given several assignments as a war correspondent. He reported on the battles in Alamein and Malta, and on the independence of Paris. While in Paris he ran into Fatma al-Youssef, owner of the widely read Cairo weekly magazine Rose al-Youssef, who invited him to be on her staff. Heikal joined Rose al-Youssef in 1944 but did not stay long; he moved to another prestigious Cairo weekly Akher Saa. In 1947, Heikal reported on the Upper Egypt serial killer Khutt al-Saeed in a feature which made him a household name in Egypt. This he followed, again in 1947, with a field report from the village of al-Qareen in which a cholera epidemic had broken. His work earned him the prestigious King Farouk award in journalism.
More success followed throughout the following five years. Heikal covered the Palestinian Israeli war in 1948; the coups d’état that took place in Syria; and that which overthrew Mohammad Mossadagh in Iran; the assassinations of King Abdullah in Jerusalem, Riad al-Solh in Amman, and Husni al-Zaeem in Damascus. In June 1952 he was made editor-in-chief of Akher Saa; he was 29.
It was in 1952 that Heikal became friends with Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the army officer who led a coup d’état that came to be famously known as the 23 July 1952 Revolution. The Revolution ended the monarchy in Egypt and, in 1953 turned it into a republic. Nasser became President of Egypt in 1956 and until he died in 1970. The friendship between Heikal and Nasser was to last till the end of the former’s life, and lent Heikal the aura of being the insider in Egypt’s top political circles.
Building up al-Ahram
In 1957, Heikal accepted an offer from Al-Ahram to be both chairman of the board and editor-in-chief. He retained these posts till 1974, and worked to transform Al-Ahram into the biggest news establishment in the Arab World. He spearheaded the foundation of specialised research centres, among them a centre for journalistic studies and another for the documentation of Egypt’s contemporary history, and the famous Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Under his tenure Al-Ahram became a newspaper of record for the Arab World, and turned into a vibrant printing and publishing house which issues numerous specialised papers such as the economic Al-Ahram al-Iqtisadi, the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly, and the French language Al-Ahram Hebdo. Heikal set a tradition of upholding the highest production standards.
Heikal’s first weekly full-page editorial under the title Bi-Saraha (Candidly Speaking) appeared on 10 August 1957, his last on 1 February 1974. The editorial was a skilful analytical piece but, given the relationship between President Nasser and Heikal, it was seen as Nasser’s mouthpiece and as such was awaited eagerly by the public every Friday morning. These were times of opacity and obscurity in politics and news reporting in Egypt, and Bi-Saraha was seen as a rare glimpse by an insider into that intricate world. Yet the public was adept at reading the meanings hidden between the lines; they knew Heikal wrote what the political leadership wished to relay.
On the political level, Heikal rose to be a member of the Central Committee of the Arab Socialist Union from 1968 to 1974 and Minister of National Guidance from April to October 1970.
Critics say that Heikal harnessed his speech-writing skills and his job as the nation’s top journalist during the 1950s and 60s to promote Nasser’s ideas, sometimes at the expense of what was real and fair.
Anwar al-Sadat became Egypt’s president in 1970 and, despite initial support for him by Heikal, the two men disagreed and Heikal lost the advantage of being a presidential insider. He criticised Sadat and his decisions which he saw as taking Egypt outside the Russian orbit and into the arms of the US. When in October 1973 the Egyptian army succeeded in the near-impossible task of crossing the Suez Canal into the six-year Israeli-occupied Sinai, opening a breakthrough for regaining the full Sinai and making peace with Israel, Heikal criticised Sadat for his handling of events. In 1974, Sadat issued a presidential decision removing Heikal from his posts at Al-Ahram. Enmity between the two men set in; it was no secret. Incidentally, Egypt did sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and regained Sinai in full.
Heikal continued to live in Egypt as a freelance journalist and writer. He authored several books which he printed outside Egypt and which got translated into many languages. Among them were: Nasser: The Cairo Documents (1972), The Road to Ramadan (1975), Sphinx and Commissar (1978), and Autumn of Fury (1983), the last a damning criticism of Sadat. Daniel Pipes, an American historian, writer, political commentator, and president of the Middle East Forum, offers a full analysis of the book on
He sums it up with: “A polemic written with the single-minded purpose of destroying a man’s reputation cannot be relied upon as biography. Parts of Autumn of Fury may be true, to be sure, but how can the reader tell which ones? Rather than guess mistakenly, it would do better to ignore Mohamed Heikal’s angry testimony and await a more solid account.” Not surprising, given that Heikal was among the 1536 men imprisoned by Sadat in September 1981 on account of allegedly opposing him.
On 25 November 1981, Heikal was among the ‘September Detainees’ pardoned by President Hosni Mubarak who succeeded Sadat—Sadat had been assassinated by Islamists on 6 October 1981. Heikal hailed Mubarak’s pardon and offered to support him, but the President apparently could not put his trust in a man who had scathingly and non-objectively criticised his predecessor. Mubarak had previously described the Autumn of Fury as inaccurate and in specific instances positively untrue. The relation between the two men remained no more than lukewarm, and Heikal frequently criticised Mubarak.
In his later years he became an attractive figure on satellite TV. From 2007 Heikal hosted a series of lectures on world events entitled Ma’a Heikal (With Heikal) which was broadcast on Al Jazeera. He was hosted by Egyptian TV talk shows, the most recent of which was the series Misr, Ila Ayna (Where to, Egypt) hosted by Lamees al-Hadidi on CBC channel.
Of his last years, Al-Ahram Weekly wrote: “In 2015, he chose to go on a long trip with Hedayat, his wife—he always referred to her as his life partner—to visit all the places he had loved and to see all the people he had cared for. He particularly spent more time with his family. He was the proud father of three sons, Ali, a medical doctor, Ahmed, an entrepreneur, and Hassan, a financier, and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren they gave him.”
24 February 2016