Modern Egypt — (XXIII) The political writer

Tarek Osman
Friday 24 Mar 2023

Egyptian writer Mohamed Hassanein Heikal occupied the summit of Arab journalism and political writing for over six decades, writes Tarek Osman in his series of articles on the makers of modern Egyptian culture.


Mohamed Hassanein Heikal always dubbed himself a journalist. But he was also Egypt’s most influential national-security strategist in the seven decades after the fall of the monarchy in 1952 and the creation of the republic.

Heikal followed what he called the “Easternists School,” which in his definition saw Egypt’s history orienting the country towards the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and often even further and towards Iran. In this view, Egypt has always looked to the “East” for influence and trade, for averting the risks that have repeatedly arrived at its eastern borders, and even for inspiration as both mainstream Christianity and Islam came to Egypt from the east. 

In the Easternists’ narrative, modern Egypt from Mohamed Ali and Ibrahim Pasha in the 19th century to King Farouk and Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 20th internalised this orientation towards the East, placing it at the core of the country’s view of itself and its neighbourhood.

This view led Heikal to define Egypt’s identity as solidly Arab. He was a well-rounded thinker, and his exposure to some of the most-sophisticated Western cultural centres had led him to realise the importance of Egypt’s ancient past in the trajectory of its history and had made him appreciate the immense power that the country’s ancient past has had on how different cultures near and far have imagined Egypt. He was a sophisticated conceptualist, and he understood complex intellectual constructs such as a multi-layered conception of national identity. 

Nevertheless, in Heikal’s Easternist narrative Egypt’s ancient past as well as the succession of Greek and Roman and non-Arab epochs that had followed it had had far less impact on the modern Egyptian psyche than the impact of influences from the East. Heikal was also a pragmatist, and he did not waste words on debates about identity and national feeling. What mattered to him was how that identity and view of the past had affected decision making in modern national security domains. 

His thinking was part and parcel of the project associated with president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. According to one view, Heikal was Nasser’s closest friend and confidante in the period from the late 1950s until his death in 1970. This friendship had evolved through a two-decade dialogue that revolved around international relations but also extended to culture, philosophy, and religion. For many, Heikal was Nasser’s sole intellectual partner when it came to the latter’s thinking about the world.

However, according to another view, one invoked by some of Nasser’s most ardent opponents, Heikal was the architect of Nasser’s foreign policy. This view said that Heikal had woven a conception of the Nasserite project that not only stretched historical facts, but also went beyond Nasser’s own ideas. In this assessment, Heikal spent decades after Nasser’s death making sense of what had been an essentially well-meaning, certainly nationalist, but also ill-thought-through and chaotic foreign policy that had effectively been designed and run by one man.

Whatever the truth of the matter might be, Nasser’s foreign policy, itself the cornerstone and most-important guide of Arab nationalism since the end of World War II, was defined and presented to the world through the writings of Heikal. In hundreds of articles and a succession of major books, he presented detailed analyses, and often an insider’s account, of the Arab-Israeli struggle, key Arab-Western interactions in the 19th and 20th centuries, and incisive assessments of the thought-worlds of some Arab leaders and ruling families.

Heikal’s closeness to Nasser gave him a unique position in Egypt and the Arab world and later opened valuable avenues to him globally. He was by far the most successful Arab journalist in the second half of the 20th century. International publishers published his books, with some of them being serialised in leading Western newspapers, and from the 1970s to the early 1990s and during the aftermath of the Second Gulf War he was the go-to analyst of Middle Eastern politics in international affairs circles. 

When one of Japan’s largest newspapers commissioned a series of articles on global politics and was looking for thinkers deemed the most authoritative on their regions, Heikal was chosen from the Middle East and Arab world. 

He used such opportunities masterfully, but he was also methodical, disciplined, had been exposed to the best in the class in international journalism, and above all was an extremely talented writer. He had a beautiful command of Arabic’s lyrical capacities as well as an artist’s talent for employing its transcendent poetry. He could masterfully deploy Arabic poetry to summarise a point or conclude an argument either in his writings or later on the succession of TV shows in which he lectured his audiences on Egypt’s and the region’s modern history.

Millions were impressed by the gravitas of his record and reputation, as well as by the power of his delivery. Such factors placed Heikal ahead of all his Arab counterparts for over half a century. Many tried to imitate him, and scores of others attacked him. But he remained until his death at the summit of Arab journalism and political writing and a highly sought-after commentator on what had been and on what was likely to come. 

However, the flair of the rhetorician could trump the rigour of the thinker. The seductions of stardom and his appreciation of his own achievements relative to the rest of his generation of Arab journalists drew him to what was less than his best. It is also impossible to consider Heikal to be a detached, let alone an objective, reader of Egypt’s or the Arab world’s modern political history. Not only was he Arab nationalism’s grandest theorist for over six decades, but he had also been a party to, and often a participant in, the history he was recounting. 

Yet, Heikal’s work remains the most-authoritative, best-documented, and most widely read account of Egypt’s and the Arab world’s modern political history and a major contribution to how the Egyptians and the Arabs have seen themselves and the world over the past seven decades with all their ambitions and struggles and dreams and delusions.

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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