Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the guru of Egyptian and Arab journalism and the ultimate inside storyteller of key political events in Egypt and across the region after World War II, passed away today at the age of 93 after a short illness that ended a momentous career and a highly eventful life.
Born in 1923, Heikal started his seven-plus decades in journalism in the middle of World War II. During this journey, he often cut across the borders between journalism and politics, especially in the 1950s and 1960s when his close intellectual association with the Arab world’s top leader, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, allowed him exceptional access to the corridors of power.
It was, as he wrote at one point of reflection on his career, a peculiarly complicated intertwinement of pathways, especially since it occurred in a developing country where politics and journalism are complicated almost by definition.
This relationship, tangled at times as it seemed to him and others, is perhaps one of the strangest ways in which politics and journalism have met, something Heikal often argued in his TV programme “With Heikal,” where the top journalist reflected on his career.
He also made appearances on the AlJazeera satellite channel before tensions arose between Egypt and Qatar, the channel’s owner, in the years after the outbreak of the Arab Spring when he decided to put aside his own narrative and to focus instead, as he told visitors in the early days of February 2011, on the “unprecedented events that are unfolding with great energy as a result of the efforts of young people that it seems we have not adequately observed.”
As the consecutive waves of the Arab Spring broke, coming from North Africa and crossing to the Mashreq and being met with counter waves from the other side of the Arab world, Heikal, then in his eighties, continued to do what he had been born to do – be a journalist.
“Throughout his career, Heikal saw himself first and foremost as a journalist. He took on other tasks at certain moments, and he was certainly an incredible source of information and obviously a remarkable and well-informed writer and commentator, but ultimately he saw himself as a journalist and he acted as such every day of his life until the very last day when he was too ill to continue,” said prominent commentator Fahmi Howeidy who worked closely with Heikal during his 17 years at the head of Al-Ahram.
Howeidy had been a friend of Heikal’s long before 1974 when Heikal left the institution founded in the late 19th century by brothers Selim and Bichara Takla and that he turned into the Arab world’s top news establishment.
“He never abandoned his capacity for journalism, even when he wrote his elaborate and layered analyses in the many books that he produced. These are ultimately exquisite pieces of extended journalism,” said Ibrahim al-Moallem, chairman of Dar Al-Shorouk, the publisher of Heikal’s books in Arabic since 1982.
“Journalism was second nature to him. He never met anyone without greeting them with the firm and serious question ‘what’s up,’” said journalist and commentator Ayman Al-Sayyad who worked closely with Heikal on the launch of the monthly book review Al-Kutub Wighat Nazer(Perspectives on Books) at the beginning of the millennium.
“If you had no news to share, then you might have been perceived as uninteresting for Heikal,” al-Sayyad added. Because he was such an accomplished journalist, Heikal was also a perfect listener who would take notes on writing pads that he accumulated over decades and that were efficiently archived first by himself and then by his aides either in his office on the fourth floor of the Al-Ahram building in Cairo or in the office next door to his Giza apartment overlooking the Nile that he went to almost every day he was in Cairo until late January this year.
“When I would go on business trips abroad, I would come back and be summoned by him. He would ask questions and take notes,” Howeidy said. When Heikal travelled himself with journalists and researchers on missions abroad “he would always take notes unfailingly,” said commentator Gamil Mattar who worked with Heikal first in the early 1970s at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a leading think tank.
At no point, and despite the many lucrative opportunities that were offered him, did Heikal ever even consider the idea of forgoing journalism.
“It was out of the question for me. I knew that this was me, that I was a journalist,” he once told a group of younger journalists in the 1990s in one of the many gatherings he generously found time for in his otherwise very tight schedule. He always wanted to support newcomers to the profession and to explore new potential for the mission he had dedicated his life to with passion and determination
Even when Nasser asked him in the midst of the preparations for a war that would reverse the huge military and moral defeat of 1967 to assume ministerial responsibilities at the ministries of information (called the ministry of public guidance at the time) and foreign affairs, Heikal knew, as he told Nasser, that he could not do anything that would take him away from journalism for long and certainly not for good.
And even as a dedicated researcher who worked with a group of intellectuals, most of them from the younger generation, to launch what is now the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in 1968, Heikal always knew that what counted most for him was the newsroom.
“The Centre was on the sixth floor of what was then the new Al-Ahram building on Galaa Street in Cairo, which Heikal had built, including the newsroom on the fourth floor, as it still is today. He was unequivocal in insisting that anyone working for the Centre should not venture into the newsroom or pursue membership of the Press Syndicate, as for him journalism was a profession in and of itself and it should not be confused with any other, even that of political commentator that he appreciated so much,” said Mattar.
It was in 1942 that Heikal started out in the world of journalists at what was then the home desk of the English-language newspaper the Egyptian Gazette.
He tried his hand first at crime news, where he saw individuals resort to violence to secure otherwise unattainable gains before he went to cover the battle of Al-Alamein to see nations resort to violence to serve the same objectives, as he later noted in his book “Between Journalism and Politics.”
It was in the office of the then British editor of the Gazette that Heikal met the man who came to be his mentor, Mohamed al-Tabei, then the owner and editor of the magazine Akher Saa’. There and then, Al-Tabei told Heikal that any Egyptian journalist who seriously wished to pursue a career could not do so without writing in Arabic for Egyptian readers. “This is your future,” he said.
After this short and impressive encounter Heikal joined Akher Saa’ where he ventured into two very similar worlds that seemed to have no direct connection to each other, except perhaps in his exceptionally perceptive eyes that always saw behind the scenes: theatre and parliament.
Before long, as a result of financial pressure Akhar Saa’ was bought by the newspaper Akhbar al-Youm that had been established in 1946 by the brothers Ali and Mustafa Amin. Along with Al-Tabei, and perhaps out of gratitude to him, Heikal moved to Akhbar al-Youm where he established himself as an extraordinary roving correspondent who covered the many unfolding political events that were taking place around the Middle East and beyond.
Most Heikal disciples have stories to tell about how proud he felt about this particular junction of his career and how he always thought it was instrumental to his formation. It was, as he himself wrote later in his career, the reason why so many state officials were keen to meet him and to hear from him – something that was always envied by other journalists who did not take risks and confined themselves to the comfort of briefing spaces or this or that official’s offices.
Heikal was not a stand-by reporter. He was an investigative journalist who always had great curiosity and searched out sources all over the world for what he wrote. However, he never, according to the testimony of the many journalists who knew him both when he was young and when he was old, bowed to power of any kind or decided what or what not to write because it would appeal to someone either high or low.
“This is precisely why he survived the Nasser era, which saw him enjoy a very close – but let me insist also very conservative – relationship with the head of state. Yes, he was very close to Nasser, but in what was arguably a very independent way. He believed in what Nasser had to offer at the time, but he was never, unlike others, a follower of what Nasser, or anyone else for that matter, necessarily had to say,” Howeidy said.
“Dignity was a key issue for Heikal, both on the personal and the professional levels,” he added.
Heikal, according to Howeidy, “was a proud journalist and rightly so, but he expected every journalist to be equally proud.” Howeidy added that Heikal had excellent and very close relations with his sources, but that this was all within the bounds of professionalism. “He would call up his sources, and at times they also called him, but when it came to writing he would only write the story he wished to tell and the one he thought should be told.”
Howeidy insisted that Heikal encouraged every other journalist to do the same. “I clearly remember that I once decided to drop an interview with the deputy prime minister in the early 1960s after having waited for him for close to 30 minutes beyond the scheduled appointment. When the official complained, Heikal supported me,” Howeidy recalled.
Howeidy and other prominent journalists who worked with Heikal have many accounts to share about how he would react firmly if any official stepped over the limits of professionalism in dealing with correspondents from Al-Ahram. Likewise, Heikal who welcomed views from his staff, expected a certain code of conduct in the newsroom. “I was once showing him a photocopy of an article that I had written, and when he took it from me he said, ‘if I get the photocopy who got the original,’” Howeidy recalled.
Typical of Heikal, the remark was said in a composed tone of voice that reflected his views with respect to his colleagues. “There is no question that he thought very highly of himself, which was perfectly legitimate, but he also respected the views of others for sure,” al-Sayyad added.
“When we were launching Al-Kutub Wighat Nazar, I barely knew him, but I never felt intimidated about openly disagreeing with him and he never felt insulted about this. On the contrary, I always found that he liked it when someone had something interesting to say to him, even if he would then disagree,” he argued.
This was always the case throughout the decade when the magazine appeared. Heikal’s claim to journalistic fame was very high, since he had been an informed news reporter who had broken top stories for many years, especially as editor of Al-Ahram, which he joined on 31 July 1957. He was also a top analyst of the news.
“He produced a newspaper with an incredible news content that readers keenly waited for, and so did foreign journalists, diplomats and top state officials inside and outside Egypt,” Howeidy said.
He added that this had been the product of “unfailingly hard work and discipline. He never assumed the unfortunate profile of the well-informed top-notch journalist who does not need to be on top of the news or does not need to be in the middle of the newsroom. On the contrary, Heikal was always in his office from the early hours of the morning, and he was always meeting with his staff and taking notes and calling up his sources. Without any hesitation he would break off his holidays and routine in order to be in the newsroom when big stories broke no matter what,” Howeidy recalled.
According to Mattar, for Heikal Al-Ahram was never just a workplace, no matter how prestigious. Instead, “it was his passion and his vocation. He cared about everything about it: the stories on every single page and not just the front, the opinion articles, the columns, the culture pages, and for sure the very buildings and every single member of the staff, journalists, researchers, administrators, everyone,” he said.
Heikal, Mattar insisted, was not willing to compromise on anything related to Al-Ahram. The quality of the news stories had to be as high as the performance of the staff and the cleanliness of the corridors and offices. “He delegated authority, but he was always personally involved. He wanted Al-Ahram to be big because he believed in thinking big,” Mattar recalled.
Heikal’s keenness on associating Al-Ahram with a reputable think tank, considered by the financial department to be an expensive luxury, was part of how big he perceived the news institution to be, Mattar argued. His keenness that the nation’s top writers and best researchers should be associated with Al-Ahram was part of this sentiment, Mattar added.
This is perhaps why, Howeidy agreed, the name of Al-Ahram is associated in the minds of many with Heikal rather than with the Takla brothers who founded it, even though Heikal always had the greatest respect for them. In a sense, Heikal’s name as a journalist is perhaps most closely associated with Al-Ahram, he added.
It was for perhaps this reason that Nasser’s successor, the late president Anwar Al-Sadat, decided to avenge his political differences with Heikal over the management of the post-1973 negotiations with Israel by taking him off the helm of Al-Ahram. “He was proud, but he was not broken. He left [in February 1974] and declined any official offer, deciding instead to continue to write his books and articles. But somehow we all knew that there was always this affinity with Al-Ahram and that he could not have parted with it,” Mattar argued.
In fact, Heikal, despite endless offers, never ventured to work permanently for any other newspaper. He supported the launch of many new publications, including the Al-Ahram Weekly in the early 1990s and Al-Shorouk practically on the eve of the 25 January Revolution. He wrote many best-selling books. But he would not associate his name with any other publication, except as a writer and commentator, as he did with Al-Kutub Wighat Nazar.
If there is one name that Heikal’s was more associated with even than Al-Ahram it is that of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, whom he first met during the 1948 War when Nasser was a young soldier and Heikal was a young journalist.
“There are so many readings of this relationship. I think it was comradeship between two men who were on the same wavelength and who supported one another in good faith. It was candid and warm, but boundaries were always observed on both sides,” Mattar said.
Heikal is the man who stood by Nasser during the hardest political challenges, especially after the 1956 Suez War. He was there with him during almost every key political event, and he voiced what he had to say, sometimes beyond what Nasser himself would have wished, as some of his close associates have suggested.
“It was a decent and close enough relationship between two men. And it was this that allowed Heikal to step up next to Nasser during an overwhelming welcome in Damascus and to whisper in the president’s year that ‘the crowds are going wild with joy to have you here, but you must always remember that you are only human’,” Mattar recalled.
Critics say that Heikal harnessed his speech-writing skills and his job as the nation’s top journalist during the 1950s to promote Nasser’s ideas, sometimes at the expense of what was real and fair and that after Nasser died Heikal manipulated history to champion Nasser’s achievements.
“What is the job of a journalist? The job of a journalist is to tell a story as he sees it. If there are five journalists reporting one story in the same place, each will probably write a different, or at least slightly different, narrative. Nasser never claimed to monopolise the truth. He just told his version of it,” Al-Sayyad said.
According to Al-Moallem, Heikal never took exception to the right of others to offer a counter-narrative. “When we published his book about the end of the rule of king Farouq, I told him that we had to offer a perspective from the other side and he fully agreed. He believed in what he thought, but he never wished to keep others from saying what they believed in either, whether it was with him or against him,” Al-Moallem added.
As Howeidy said, “when all is said and done, Heikal never went back on what he believed about Nasser, even years and years after Nasser died and during the hardest moments of pressure that he was faced with during the rule of Al-Sadat.”
Beyond the Nasser era and following his fallout with Al-Sadat over the management of relations with Israel, Heikal focused on writing his books. “These volumes, some of which were originally written in English upon agreement with foreign publishers, have been translated into 40 languages. They document outstanding moments in the history of this country in a way that no other writer or commentator has managed to do,” Al-Moallem said.
In 2003 when the generally very health-conscious Heikal was diagnosed with kidney cancer he decided he would have to slow down his volume of work. “As a writer, he was very diligent and he took care over every detail of his books. He would go through the drafts with the publisher and seek remarks on every page. It was very hard work, and it was only to be expected that he would want to slow down a bit,” Al-Moallem said.
However, he added, Heikal remained highly active in following the news and he was always in touch with sources all around the world.
It was at this moment that Heikal decided to establish the Heikal Foundation for the Training of Journalists, whose activities were later suspended at his own decision when he felt the work of the Foundation was being hampered by the previous Mubarak regime from properly performing its role.
He focused on his TV appearances, first on AlJazeera and then in the series of interviews accorded to CBC top anchor Lamees Al-Hadidi. “There, too, he was never just another commentator or analyst. He was always first and foremost a journalist who was using a new medium to reach out to his audience,” Al-Sayyad said.
It was through this series of interviews that Heikal, to the joy of many and dismay of some, supported the candidacy of president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in the wake of the ouster of Mohamed Morsi as the only option to save the country from chaos. It was during his last appearances that Heikal expressed his scepticism about the ability of the current regime to handle the many challenges facing Egypt.
Heikal’s last appearance with Al-Hadidi was in January this year, just a few days before he started to feel frail and ill. Those close to him say that last year was his goodbye year. He loved to live, but he felt he was due to go soon.
“He started to feel that the clock was ticking in the summer of 2013 when his mansion in rural Giza (Birkash) was burned down with its priceless collection of books and documents and incredible art collection. It broke his soul, even though he put a brave face on it,” one close associate is quoted as saying.
In 2015, he chose to go on a long trip with Hedayat, his spouse – 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, and 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.
Heikal was briefly hospitalised for a lung infection and kidney failure before he died. He declined to be kept alive on a machine and asked his family to recognise his pride and let him go with the integrity he had always lived with. He will receive the last respects of his family and close friends at the tomb he had built in his Birkash garden.
Heikal’s death brings to a close the long journey of a journalist who rubbed shoulders with world leaders during a world war, the Cold War, and the various Middle East wars, as well as during the period of globalisation, the IT revolution and the Arab Spring, with all the ups and downs that these have brought in their wake.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly