Book Review: Nasser, Heikal and the intellectuals... mere memories

Mahmoud Al-Wardani, Monday 23 Dec 2013

Writer Youssef El-Qa'eed gathers a collection of interviews conducted with influential journalist and thinker Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, producing over 400 pages of the latter's memories of his relationship with Egypt's Nasser

Nasser  and Heikal
Nasser (Right) and Heikal (Left), reviewing an issue of Al-Ahram Newspaper

Heikal Yatazakkar: Abdel-Nasser wa Al-Muthaqqafoun wa Al-Thaqafah (Heikal Remembers: Abdel-Nasser, Intellectuals and Culture) by Mohamed Youssef Al-Qa'eed, General Egyptian Book Organisation, Cairo, 2013. pp.431

For over five years of early morning sessions, and before setting out on his daily appointments, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal narrated to writer Mohamed Youssef Al-Qa'eed all about Nasser's relationship with culture and intellectuals, producing a collection of dialogues extending across 400 pages.

Former Egyptian president and Arab leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser died over 43 years ago and his successors – Anwar El-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak – stood in stark contrast to him, both in approach and ideology. Thus, the dialogues conducted by Al-Qa'eed could only revolve around the past, since neither of the presidents who succeeded Nasser were an extension of him in any conceivable way, if not entirely opposed to him. The reader is therefore offered a glimpse of history, with all of its implications on the present.

Although Heikal reiterates information previously written by him in several volumes – or by other contemporary historians concerned with events that shook Egypt, its Arab as well as international circles – the reader will most likely be astonished at the presence of mind, sharp observations and accuracy in detail which Heikal demonstrates nearly 60 years after the Free Officers executed their movement in July 1952.

As for the main topic of the dialogues, Heikal points out that Nasser, in his early formative years, was "adept at receiving icons and interacting with them, attempting thereafter to produce cultural icons [himself]." He added "He attempted to write a novel [...] titled 'For the Sake of Freedom' before which he'd written an essay about 'Voltaire Man of Freedom'."

According to him, intellectuals are those with an opportunity to learn who take the intellectual helm in various fields. This definition of intellectuals was transferred by Al-Qa'eed from "The Intellectuals' Crisis," a book written by Heikal and published once in 1961. 

Heikal had also added in this book that, since the number of intellectuals in Egypt is vast, they constitute a class with its own interests, distinguished from those of the masses, whose close connection to the ruling class consequently ensures that said interests remain exclusive.

Surprisingly, in the course of his dialogue with Al-Qa'eed, Heikal contended this loose definition of intellectuals.

The book comprises 23 chapters, including the first meeting between Nasser and Heikal in Al-Falluja in August 1948 during the Palestine War, which Heikal was covering on behalf of Akhbar-Al-Youm newspaper. Several meetings then followed, perhaps the most significant of which occurring on 18 July 1952, mere days before the revolution. The main question Nasser has asked Heikal was: will the British intervene if a revolution were to take place? To which Heikal replied in the negative, enumerating the reasons. The discussion, attended by the 1952 Revolution second-in-command Abdel-Hakim Amer, was a prolonged one.

Throughout the book, Heikal does not tire of labelling his relationship with Nasser a friendship, since it precedes the Revolution and was consolidated over the two years during which Nasser occupied a number of posts under the rule of Egypt's first president Mohamed Naguib. 

Under Nasser's rule, and specifically from 1955 onwards, Heikal wrote "every political text [Nasser] announced," to quote Heikal. In addition to his speeches, Heikal redacted different political documents such as Nasser's book Philosophy of The Revolution, The Covenant and The 30th of March Statement, all of which constitute key documents of the revolution.

As for the two political movements that captured Nasser's interest, they were the Muslim Brotherhood and the communists. Three attempts were made to lure Nasser into the former, while his interest in the communists took the form of listening and showing keenness about their ideas. It is quite noticeable that both movements suffered from severe suppression during his rule and those belonging to them underwent all form of torture, displacement, detention and dismissal from work. Heikal defends it all ferociously, perceiving the practices as necessary measures for the protection of the revolution against the menaces it faced.

Heikal also tackled in his dialogues the relationship between Nasser and numerous prominent Egyptian intellectuals, such as El-'Aqqad, Taha Hussein and Tawfiq El Hakim, in addition to his relationship with the artists of his era, Umm Kulthum, Abdel-Halim Hafez, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and others. 

In spite of all this, Heikal's standpoint towards Nasser's nationalisation of the press in 1960 was utterly bewildering. Heikal asserted that the decision of the Arab Socialist Union – the only political organisation at the time – to seize Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar, Dar Al-Hilal and Rose Al-Youssef, he rejected as a matter of "principle" the day this law was issued in a general meeting held in Al-Ahram.

Heikal's standpoint was astonishing in that his announced rejection of the law – which bore catastrophic consequences on the press – did not hinder its execution. This law transformed the press into a mouthpiece for the authorities; a lying mouthpiece that incites nuisance without providing any service to the reader and without allowing an equal opportunity to different points of view and political currents to interact and produce a creative dialogue.

As water runs under the bridge, however, all of it belongs in the annals of history.

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