INTERVIEW: Abdallah Sennawi discusses legendary Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 3 Aug 2017

Abdallah Sennawi talks to Ahram Online about his recent book, The Berkash Dialogues, which reveal Heikal's role in some of Egypt's most historic moments


Berkash is a countryside venue in Giza where the late Mohamed Hassanein Heikal (1923 - 2016), arguably the most prominent Arab journalist of the past century, had a home.

It was there that he kept his books, entertained his sources and guests, and inevitably penned the largest volumes of his works.

These works offered incredible insight into the politics of Egypt from the early days of the 1952 Revolution, which set the stage for ending the Egyptian monarchy in favour of a military-led republic, to a few days after the 2013 mass protests that ended the short rule of Egypt’s first civilian and Muslim Brotherhood leader, president Mohamed Morsi.

It was then that Heikal's home was torched, leading to a devastating loss of priceless documents reflecting over half a century of Middle East politics, along with invaluable works of art that stood testimony to the country’s legendary painters and sculptors.

It was also there, rather than at Heikal's prominent office overlooking the Nile, that political commentator and journalist Abdallah Sennawi had his "dialogues" with Heikal on over seven decades of Egyptian political history.

These dialogues were published by Dar Al-Shorouk in the book The Berkash Dialogues: Heikal Without Frontiers.

The book covers Heikal’s early days in journalism during the World War II battle of Al-Alamein, through the 1952 Revolution and up to August 2013, ending in the wake of the dispersal of the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in, which forced the two friends and like-minded journalists to take their discussions into the heart of the capital.

“I share in the book the accounts Heikal shared with me in long hours of conversation that dealt with the path of history during over half a century and the men therein,” Sennawi said in an interview with Ahram Online.

Divided into 17 chapters (or dialogues), the 300-page book is not a biography of Heikal, who could have easily written his own autobiography, but chose not to.

It is also not the reflection of a Heikal disciple on the journalist who literally revolutionised Egyptian journalism and had an undeniably strong impact on politics in Egypt post-1952.

It is rather a record of Heikal's thoughts along his path of great accomplishments.

What makes Sennawi's book different from the many talks Heikal himself gave, especially over the last 10 years of his life, or the many books he published in Arabic and English, is that “it reveals accounts he would not necessarily have shared. I examined these accounts not just from Heikal's perspective, but also from my own intense research through documents that relate to the accounts discussed in the dialogues,” Sennawi said.

There is very little that is personal in the book, which adheres to the iron rule the late journalist had maintained in keeping his privacy tightly guarded.

The book, despite some very detailed accounts, is also not anecdotal in the traditional sense, despite the obvious access the author must have had to many incidents and stories, not to mention exclusive access to some of Heikal’s carefully preserved papers, including notes and dairies written by Gamal Abdel-Nasser ahead of his ascent to power in 1954.

“I was not looking to write a book 'on Heikal,' but rather a book 'for Heikal',” said Sennawi.

“In this book, I am not trying to over-analyse the Heikal-Nasser relationship or association, because he had talked about this many times, including in his book 'For Egypt, not for Nasser', which he published during a period of anti-Nasser sentimentin the mid-1970s,” Sennawi said.

In the book, Sennawi quotes former President Hosni Mubarak as telling Heikal during one of their few encounters in the early days of Mubarak's rule that he had often thought that it was Nasser that influenced Heikal, though Sennawi has a different perspective.

“As Heikal believed, it was neither this nor that; they just happened to be two men who shared a set of beliefs that materialised in the 1952 Revolution, and who agreed on matters related to national pride, pan-Arabism and social justice, but disagreed on the course of Nasser’s rule on matters related to freedoms and governance,” Sennawi said.

“[Heikal] was certainly very present, not just as an advisor, but as a partner – or let us say a co-author – in the story of the 1952 Revolution. As the book shows, he was the custodian of sorts of the forgone dream of this revolution after the death of Nasser. This continued through a rough phase with Sadat, as he witnessed [Sadat's] foreign and domestic policies, such as giving up on Egypt's role as a leading regional player and a potential welfare state,” Sennawi said.

It was about this dream in particular that Heikal engaged young revolutionary leaders in the winter and summer of 2011, following the ouster of Mubarak, and throughout the three years leading up to "Egypt’s summer of fury in 2013.”

As Sennawi wrote in his book, “It was at a gathering of [a group of journalists] to mark his birthday in 2015 (only a few months before he passed away) that Heikal reminded his audience that ‘One cannot hope for Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s popularity if one is opting for the policies of Ismail Sedki'."

Sedki, one of the most unpopular prime ministers in the history of pre-1952 Egypt, implemented aggressive police rule, limited political opportunities, and oversaw a failed attempt to replace the liberal constitution of 1923 with one that granted Egypt’s ruler at the time, King Fouad, unlimited powers.

Sennawi dedicates his book to “a unique mentor who always had faith in the youth and in the future.”

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