Every writer has a major weakness. Mine is a reluctance to write about other writers whom I knew personally on the occasion of their anniversary their birth or their death. If I plan to write at all, I generally wait a while before putting pen to paper. I read and listen to what other friends and colleagues have to say, contemplate how they express their praise, affection, dedication to the deceased and reverence for what they stood for. This was the case a couple of weeks ago when many writers and journalists paid tribute to Mohammed Hassanein Heikal on the occasion of the anniversary of his birth on 23 September 1923. The institute he founded, the Heikal Foundation for Arab Journalism, commemorated the occasion with its annual presentation of awards for journalistic excellence to young journalists in the Arab world.
When I and other journalists of my generation embarked on our careers, Arab journalism was in the era of Heikal's unparalleled preeminence. He was the "guru." Although I entered Al-Ahram a year after he left, there was no question in anyone's mind that the guruship belonged to him alone. It was also clear that, despite how much the times had changed, he still commanded widespread loyalty and untold thousands continued to await his weekly column "Frankly Speaking" like an addict awaits his fix.
I personally was a great admirer of his professionalism, writing style and analytical skills. My admiration never dwindled, even though my first attempts to meet him were unsuccessful. The first time occurred in February 1968, after the student protests against the overly lenient verdicts handed down against Egyptian airforce leaders for their role in the 1967 defeat. At the time, I was a student at the Faculty of Economy and Political Science in Cairo University and the chairman of the Society for Socialist Thought. I went to Al-Ahram, which was still in its old building on Mazloum Basha St., and asked his secretary, Nawal al-Mahalawy, to deliver our invitation to the university so we could meet with him. She returned with the message that Heikal would be glad to meet a group of members of our society, but in his office instead of the university. Back at the university, I asked my political science professor, Dr. Ibrahim Saqr, how to proceed. He had an important lesson to impart: Cairo University goes to no one; others come to it. I taught myself another lesson at the same time: I had to draw a line between my intellectual faculties and my great admiration for the most celebrated journalist in Egypt and the Arab world. The catastrophic defeat in June 1967 had made it imperative to rethink many things.
I eventually did meet Heikal, albeit about 20 years later. I called on him in his office on the Corniche el-Nil near the Sheraton to give him books from his brother Fawzy Heikal whom I got to know when I was a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institute in Washington in 1987-1988. That meeting marked the beginning of an acquaintance and a professional dialogue that lasted until 2003, which was when he retired from public life. He marked this transition with a series of articles dedicated to his readers in Al-Ahram, although the substance was primarily a lengthy critique of President Anwar Sadat and his policies during and after the October 1973 War. Heikal's opinion of Sadat was well known. What I could not understand was why he would choose that occasion to vent his spleen against a victorious president who was no longer around to defend himself. As my PhD dissertation was on the 1973 war, I knew that Heikal's accusations against Sadat were unfounded. This did not prevent him from reiterating these charges on Al Jazeera TV and on another programme in Egypt in which he recited passages from Thirteen Days in September (Lawrence Wright, 2014) that he felt were insults President Carter delivered to Sadat during the Camp David talks but that the Egyptian president had left unanswered. Heikal's presentation was an exercise in cherry picking and insinuation. More importantly, what was left unmentioned was that the meeting ended with a promise from the US president to support the Egyptian view which called for the evacuation of all Israeli settlements, not to mention the evacuation of all Israeli air bases in the Sinai. Heikal had turned the facts upside down.
Once I spent a full day at his place in Hurghada with the purpose of identifying the discrepancies between the strategic thought of the maestro for generations of Arab journalists and the modern strategic thought that emerged with the end of the Cold War and the rise of the third technological revolution. Heikal's was a consummately classical political worldview. It was informed by extensive readings of the memoirs of Western leaders during World War II, such as Churchill and Charles de Gaul, and by the writings of the military historian Liddell Hart on the "indirect approach" in military strategy. He was a walking encyclopaedia on 20th century world history and the history of this region up to, perhaps, the 1980s. His journalistic experience brought him close to many major events, such as the 1948 war in Palestine, the Korean war, the coup against Mosaddegh in Iran and the Greek civil war. But his analytical abilities had chronological limitations. He was not even able to appreciate the strategic abilities of a leader such as Anwar Sadat. Once when I pointed out that Anwar Sadat was a master strategist, Heikal fully agreed. But when I asked why he didn't write about that aspect of Sadat, he answered that his was a task for other historians.
We certainly had our share of differences and they were not limited to approaches to handling the Arab-Israeli conflict. They extended to the Gulf War and much that has happened since. When Illusions of Triumph appeared, I felt duty bound to respond with a book of my own: The Gulf War and Arab Thought: A Critical Study of Mohamed Hassanein Heikal's Book.
Still, by and large, our differences did not spoil the space for friendship. My admiration for him, his commitment to writing and argument, not to mention his love for reciting poetry which he did until his nineties, never died. More importantly, he had compassion. When I came under – sometimes very vicious and hurtful – attack for my opinions on the question of Arab-Israel peace, he phoned me to express, not his support for my views of course, but his sympathy. He also refused to be lured into an interview to voice an opinion against me.
Personal feelings aside, his status and contributions to journalism and political writing in Egypt and the Arab world are undeniable. Any tribute to him, whether in commemoration of his birth or death, should inspire a deep and much merited reexamination of his prolific writings in both Arabic and English. We should simultaneously recall that he was also a consummately political person. Once, during a discussion on his book about the Thirty Years War, I asked him a question he often put to others: Was he a journalist or a participant in the decision-making process, a message bearer or a political player? I was an advocate of awarding him the Order of the Nile, not least for having persuaded Nasser to change his mind about having Shams Badran take over as president after the June 1967 defeat.
Heikal was more than an extraordinary person and prolific writer, which is all the more reason he merits not just praise but a full appraisal of his life and work.