What political influence did veteran journalist Heikal have since 'Arab Spring'?

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 20 Feb 2016

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal (Photo: Bassam Alzogby )

“But have you heard anything lately of what Heikal thinks of the current situation?” asked the European ambassador towards the end of January.

His question came second to a somber statement he had made: “Things do not seem to be picking up right for Egypt; you know we do want Egypt to make it through and we were willing to understand that stability could take precedence over democracy for a while but we don’t seem to see this happening.”

This ambassador had wished to schedule a meeting with Heikal “just to try and understand given that he seems to be the only man in town who does have inroads in the presidential palace these days.”

No such luck; Mohamed Hassanein Heikal was already feeling unwell and his office was declining appointments.

On Wednesday, as Heikal was being laid to rest, this ambassador remarked, “what a pity; now we are left with nobody to offer a coherent assessment of the situation in Egypt that goes beyond the pieces of information.”

There is nothing particularly new about the assumption that Heikal, the most prominent political journalist and commentator on Egypt during the last century, had access to information about what has been going on behind the walls of the presidential palace.

This, as his books, TV talks and published material reveal, has always been the case – since his close association with Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the mid 1950s and until the death of Nasser in the autumn of 1970.

Close associates and some of the aides who had worked with Heikal throughout seven decades of exquisite journalism say that this has equally been the case during the rule of Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, even after the fall out between the president and Heikal in the mid-1970s and also throughout the three-decade rule of president Hosni Mubarak with whom Heikal had no particular close association in the beginning and was directly critical of towards the end.

“He had incredible sources going to him and meeting with him all over the world and they loved to answer his questions and at times they even volunteered stories just to impress him – being the man who has always had his hands on confidential documents and classified material,” said a journalist who had worked closely with Heikal in the late 1990s and early years of the 2000s.

This, foreign diplomats and close associates insist, was the case after the Arab Spring just as it was before the eve of 25 January 2011.

“Let me tell you this, when we were sending delegations to Egypt during the 18 days [of the January Revolution] we made sure that all the top delegates would schedule a meeting with Heikal; and it was worth the nagging on the phone with his office; and of course he asked more than they did but still it was always very informative,” said a Western diplomat who had served in Cairo during the last year of Mubarak and beyond.

These and other foreign diplomats don’t have any question in their minds about Heikal’s access to information – they knew he had them as they unfolded. What some of them seemed to be wondering about as the rule of Mubarak was hitting its end how influential would Heikal be in the writing of the next chapter of Egypt’s politics?

According to a former European ambassador in Egypt, “We were not sure how much influence he would have because we were not very certain about the nature of his relations with the leaders of the SCAF”.

For sure, not very many of the members of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces had real chemistry with the guru of Egyptian journalism who had previously during very tumultuous points in Egyptian history assumed political capacity along the side with the legendary leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

However, as one informed journalist who has had a very close contact with Heikal said: “they did not like him but they were still keen to know what he thinks and what he tells to the foreign diplomats and the officials from world capitals who pursued him”.

He added, as the time was running out for Mubarak, some members of the SCAF were on the phone with Heikal explaining to him ‘what was going on’.

According to several testimonies, the time, Heikal who had clearly saluted the calls coming from Tahrir – “with considerable admiration” as some of his interlocutors at the time note – was not at all trying at all to influence developments in any direct because he knew that Mubarak’s day in office were coming to an end.

The question on his mind at the time, however, was what next.

“I went to see him, it must have been 7 or 8 February, and when I arrived he did not ask me what is going to happen to Mubarak, although he knew I was coming from a meeting with one of the SCAF members but rather what will happen next for Egypt,” said an informed civil society figure.

“He was not questioning whether or not Mubarak would ‘go’ - “one way or the other,” as he put it – but about what comes after Mubarak,” the same figure added.

“He was asked what should be done after Mubarak stepped down by some around the SCAF and yes by a couple from within the SCAF – among others,” the same source said.

The narratives differ about what Heikal prescribed as a post Mubarak path but one thing is reiterated: he told everyone that tomorrow is for the youth who made the revolution and that anyone who is over 70 should take a backseat and should only try to help without soliciting any official positioning.

During the weeks that followed, Heikal who had invariably kept a tightly disciplined work schedule was doing his rounds of calls and meetings – as becoming of the journalist he always was – and was trying to share a few reflections with some of those he thought would be directly or indirectly involved in setting the scene for the post Mubarak transformation.

According to the testimonies these rounds included military figures, judiciary figures and business figures. He also spoke to the journalist whose views he trusted and to members of the political parties.

And, he did receive some from the people who would be labeled as youth figures; they came with some public figures or alone because he wanted to listen to them.

What Heikal was suggesting in brief without putting it to his interlocutors in many words is that there should be a stable transition whereby collective efforts should be assembled to allow for the administration of the country pending the due preparations for presidential elections.

And, as the many journalists and intellectuals who met him at the time would say in almost identical wording, he was not really concerned about the positioning of the armed forces and he believed that when all is said and done it has bowed to the wish of the masses.

He also, according to the same journalists, favoured a wide political inclusion – and he was not inclined for trying to impose any pressure on the public space because he was worried, as he himself had often said, that the country was recovering from a rule that had left it with hardly any serious political mobility.

“There are too many politicians without the politics required and they are just there by virtue of old illusions or renewed dreams,” Heikal wrote in his remarks printed in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm practically hours before the announcement of the end of Mubarak’s rule was made public.

Almost all the key presidential runners approached Heikal – for consultation and for support.

His doors were open for all – and he shared his views and asked and listened. At the end of the day, nobody could ever tell with any considerable degree of confidence who got Heikal’s vote in the first or second rounds of the contested elections – some argued it is the Nasserit candid Hamdine Sabbahi and others said it is for the leader of Strong Egypt AbdelMoneim AboulFottouh.

One of the closest people to Heikal said: “do you want the truth; I really don’t think he went voting; I think he felt it was not his thing anymore; he felt that it is the future and that he would not be there to live it and it should be decided by those who will live it; but I don’t know because the thing is no matter how close you get to Heikal you don’t get to have him share everything with you”.

Whatever the preferences of Heikal, he had shown respect to all candidates, including Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister.

Shafik, who ultimately went to the second round face to face with Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, and to Omar Soulimane, Mubarak’s long time intelligence chief and his assigned vice president during the January elections who ultimately – and for some conspicuous reason – did not run for a drop in his legal paper work.

Heikal had earlier proposed a longer transition based on participatory state-management to allow for a more constructed transition.

However, he bowed to the developments and showed respect to the final result and offered, through press interviews and some direct unannounced talks, his ideas to the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood who had approached him repeatedly.

“I think that he told them they needed to be inclusive and that given they had decided to contest the presidency at such an early stage they need to count on prominent bureaucratic faces for top jobs – and I think he proposed some names too,” said a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who had defected towards the second half of the Morsi presidency.

Clearly, he added, neither Morsi, nor the strong man of the group Khairat El-Shater acted upon his advice.

It was perfectly understandable that the Muslim Brotherhood leadership who legitimately associated Heikal with the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser when they went through what they had considered their worst ordeal and harshest times of torture.

As the public anger against the Muslim Brotherhood style of rule was increasing, Heikal started to warn of complications and to urge the rulers to reconsider their path.

At this point, Heikal, according some of the sources, was approached by ‘some’ of the leading members of the National Salvation Front to join them but he firmly declined. He also declined any formal meeting with the NSF and welcomed, as always, direct chats with some of its members.

In retrospect, the same sources say, Heikal must have been aware of the direct channels that some from the NSF had with the state bodies that were encouraging their anti-MB mobilisaiton and he must have known that the MB time in office was running out but he still offered a candid advice – mostly indirectly at that point - and appealed for prompt reforms that lead to participatory rule.

Weeks before the 30 June demonstrations, a military source say, Heikal could have had a picture of how the days and weeks that followed would unfold. And, the source added, he did not object.

Some say it was in May and others suggest it was in April when Heikal received the first direct contact from Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, by then the minister of defense, who solicited his analysis and his advice – and it was becoming clear that Heikal had agreed to lend his ‘intellectual’ support to the coming transition.

“I think he saw it as inevitable or even necessary to spare the country from serious havoc because he saw that the Muslim Brotherhood had lost the support of the people – the details of this were not exactly relevant at that moment of how much was genuine contempt and how much was orchestrated from the security body; it was clear the country was going through its summer of furry,” one of the confidents of Heikal stated.

Following the ouster of Morsi, some of his closest associates insist, Heikal called for caution and insisted that a harsh political confrontation should be averted as much as possible.

He also offered, according to his confident, a detailed theory for “those in charge” about what needs to be done and who could be of help.

He offered support to El-Sisi’s decision to run for president both privately and publicly “because that seemed to be the only path at the time – the army was in charge and the country was at the brink and someone should have taken over; this is what he meant by “the president of necessity”,” the same confident added.

During the early weeks for El-Sisi in office, Heikal was consulted at length – an exercise that took a lower profile with time because El-Sisi was getting heavily involved in his new routine and because Heikal, as several of his frequent interlocutors suggest, seemed to be in the wait-and-see phase.

According to one, Heikal would not at all reveal anything about these contacts – “he felt it was unbecoming and that whatever he said he said in confidence and he also felt that he was bigger than referring to some talks with any new official with the kind of history that Heikal had both in journalism and in politics”.

It was in the media, however, that Heikal made very brief references to those meetings – “much later after they took place, I have to say,” said the interlocutor.

This, he knew, might not have been to the liking of all concerned but he did it because he was getting some early signs that things are not picking up the right way.

“Still, he wanted to encourage change; his statements on TV regarding this matter were always, at the earlier stage that is, a mix of stating the hard challenges ahead of the president and of carefully worded warnings of what should be averted,” the same interlocutor said.

By the spring of 2015, Heikal was showing – not sharing still – frustration. And with the summer, he started to nod in agreement to criticism that was being subtly made about the presidential choices of policies and lack of choices of advisors. With the autumn of last year he was agreeing that things were not on the right track and his media statements included tones of skepticism.

“He felt disappointed,” his confident said. “He felt things could not go on the way they were and he put his message across in his way – once and for all,” he added.

When was the message last put? The confident answered: “it was public in his last TV appearance when he said we need to find the compass – privately, I am not sure but I think it was a few weeks before”.

Heikal never denied that he did support the transition of 3 July and he never denied his support for El-Sisi – neither publicly nor privately. However, he took exception to those who suggested that it was his doing because he genuinely convinced it was happening anyway and that his contribution was to make it orderly – a much as possible.

He also shrugged those who suggested his contribution was designed for a purpose of personal nature – either for himself or for his children especially the youngest Hassan, a financer, who contrary to the rumors was never freely acquitted of the charges of illicit financial management and who chose to come back to Egypt from his overseas stay days before the death of his father and who said he would be here for the relevant process of litigation.

“I am not wishing by virtue of so many things, age and experience for any role; I am worried for a future that I shall not be here to see… I am walking my last mile towards the end of the day and all I had hope for is to leave feeling that my country is on the right path,” Heikal said over and again during the past few months.


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