Heikal speaks to Al-Ahram on Mubarak, Obama and Bin Laden

Labib El-Sebaay, Saturday 14 May 2011

In an extensive three-part interview with Al-Ahram Chairman, Egypt's top political commentator and long time critic of the Mubarak regime says the former president should be tried before parliament


Below are excerpts of the interview published in Al-Ahram daily on Friday:

You just returned from a quick overseas trip. How does the world view us now? How do they define the Egyptian revolution? What are the positives and negatives?

On 27 April, I was attending a dinner hosted by Lord David Owen, the former British foreign minister, and his wife Lady Debbie in the main dining hall at the House of Lords in Westminster. This coincided with the royal wedding and there were many international figures present on the sidelines of the event. I was bombarded with questions. Everyone was fascinated with the Egyptian revolution; they talked about the landmark of Tahrir Square and the historic atmosphere there. There was great admiration for a people they had lost faith in taking remarkable leaps forward. There was also an inclination to view what took place as part of a general phenomenon, but I disagreed.

There were many questions about the youth, the military council, Field Marshal Tantawi, plans for the future, and I responded at length. For everything I said, however, I made it clear that I am only expressing my personal views as a distant observer.


How did you view what took place in Egypt?

I believe the Egyptian revolution succeeded and the goal is almost accomplished, but we are not at the point of victory yet. We’re at the threshold; we have opened the door to the future, but the question remains: Who has the courage to go through this open door? The greater challenge is to achieve final and absolute victory.


What is needed to achieve victory?

We lack many things. Society has not changed yet. It is true that it removed all the obstacles and opened the door and its youth and millions of others were able to get very close to their goal, but there remains the power of all that was wrong and crooked. This must change on the ground; namely achieving the goals of freedom, democracy, aptitude, fair distribution and the sovereignty of law. This means renewing one’s life in every way to parallel one’s history, epoch and age; to define one’s goals and future; to decide on the necessary tools and marshal moral and monetary power to achieve them.


How do you describe the fall of a regime many believed was terrible?

Simply put, the regime made the common mistake of those who rely on violence. When the police force grows to 1.24 million people who have access to all forms of technology, the result is excessive force that created a great illusion for the former regime about its true influence on the ground. Force is often arrogant and overestimates its influence. Here, I reference Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch to help understand what occurred in Tunisia. The tyrant was feared by everyone, but the people broke the fear barrier. The regime there was like the one in Cairo but on a smaller scale. When the people came forward, the tyrant fell quickly, just like the patriarch in Marquez’s book.


Do you still hold to the opinion that there is a “contagion” in Sharm El-Sheikh, or is the counter-revolution being directed from other locations through other players?

Just by having [Hosni Mubarak] in Sharm El-Sheikh under these circumstances caused much suspicion. Without doubt —and it became evident later —this presence cast a long shadow that reached Cairo. I don’t think Mubarak is the only one responsible for the state affairs; sometimes I feel that the people of the Orient have excelled in producing tyrants. But also I have never known in the history of nations that revolted against their rulers an example where they dealt with the ruler as we have in Egypt with former President Hosni Mubarak.

In history, there are three ways of dealing with a former ruler. In the case of the kings of one of the most prominent European families, after revolution the kings were put on political trial, were all sentenced and their sentence carried out. In some cases there were executions or house arrest. Some countries that chose not to execute or put on trial were satisfied with exile, such as the case of some monarchies in southern Europe like Greece, Italy, Spain in the days of Alfonso XIII, and even Egypt with King Farouk. In Egypt, after the 25 January Revolution, we acted in a way that was unprecedented historically and politically.


How do you view what took place and how can it be explained?

To begin with, the former president went to Sharm El-Sheikh, where he used to live before, at the same location of power, at the same house, on the same site, with the same protocol. When it was revealed that over there the man was moving about, communicating, going out and casting his shadow over what is taking place in Cairo, no one took notice. Then it was reported that the man was travelling back and forth between Tobok and Sharm El-Sheikh; they said he left the country and then they said he didn’t; and the debate was endless as were the trepidations. Finally, it was announced that he was under house arrest.

Suddenly, the man was addressing the nation in his voice and he had not signed an official document denoting his resignation from the presidency. More restrictions were imposed on him; his sons were arrested, his health worsened and he was admitted to hospital where he was interrogated by prosecutors.



Mr Heikal added that the crimes that caused the revolt against the man and his regime are beyond what the general prosecution can investigate. These “political crimes” include the assault on the spirit of the republic, staying in power for 30 years, amending the constitution to allow a succession scenario, expending the country’s resources and wealth as if it were personal property, acute negligence on issues that are imperative such Nile water and sectarian strife, cooperation with Israel at the expense of the interests of the Egyptian people, ordering the forging of the people’s will in election after election, violating human rights by making Egypt a destination for torture, and conspiring in clandestine operations to achieve illegal political and financial gains that harm Egypt’s reputation, national security and stature.


The people’s charges against Mubarak are numerous, but can he be held accountable before law?

All this is beyond the powers of prosecutors and current law, which was passed or drafted during his term in office and under his authority to implement what he wants. The political charges, not legal ones, must be dealt with politically. I cannot possibly imagine that Mubarak’s trial will be based on whether the price of selling gas to Israel was below world prices or not.

Many people sense the man is being prosecuted for the wrong crimes and the reflex reaction is to treat him harshly and address him with disrespect. Then we are told he fainted during questioning and repeatedly said “God is Great.” At such moments, even I, who monitored and opposed his policies, could not help but sympathise with Mubarak as a human being, a father and a husband. The revolution that ousted Mubarak’s regime was not against the person but against a politician under whose rule all this transpired.

There are three choices: immediate retribution (and I believe it’s too late for that); a public people’s trial, although I feel this is untimely since the country should not be distracted from focusing on the future and this step can be deferred to the next parliament; or conditioned exile.


Why did you choose this time to assert Mubarak’s minor role in the October 1973 War?

Talk about the air strike was exaggerated and intentional fabrication to give a legitimate foundation for an entire regime, built on one incident that was completely taken out of context. This issue must be discussed objectively. I will give you my perspective, not opinion, because I was there as a witness and monitor.

First, the performance of the Egyptian Armed Forces throughout the October War was exemplary, especially in the planning and preparatory phase led by several senior officers. Second, the original plan of operations included an air strike by 12 to 18 jetfighters, simply because the range of the Egyptian jetfighters at the time could not go farther than the Sinai Peninsula. This meant that any air strike against Israel was limited to enemy troops at the Bar Lev Line and the straits behind it.

Third, using nearly 140 jetfighters after 6 October 1973, instead of 12 or 18, was proposed by President Sadat as a psychological effect. The move was heatedly debated by most of the leaders of the October War, including Field Marshal Ahmed Ismail, commander of the Egyptian Armed Forces during the war. Sadat argued that he wanted to restore morale after the 1967 strike by Israel, and wanted the pilots to recover confidence in themselves by starting the war. He also believed that an air offensive at this intense scale would inspire the troops ready to cross to the West Bank of the Suez Canal.

And so Sadat got what he wanted. But something happened later and no one should forget or overlook it, namely that Israel found out about the war more than 36 hours before it started.


Is it true that Israel knew when zero hour was?

Absolutely. It was informed by one of its spies (and I don’t accuse anyone in particular). What actually happened —according to secret documents and investigations by the US, Israel and Europe —is that Israel was informed 36 hours before battle when the 6 October War would start, and that it would be a joint operation simultaneously on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. Also, that it would be at 6pm with the last light of day, and this was correct information until Wednesday, 3 October 1974. But zero hour changed from 6pm to 2pm by agreement between Field Marshal Ismail and Damascus to resolve a dispute between the leaders of both armies about when to launch the attack.

After receiving this information, Israel thought about carrying out a pre-emptive strike but changed its mind because —supported by advice from the US —it believed it could sustain a first attack (by the Egyptians) and then respond. This would be instead of initiating an attack and losing its entire political premise, because the world would view this as a war of aggression following occupation by aggression.

Although Israel decided to let Egypt carry out the first strike, [Tel Aviv] quickly moved to limit its losses through preventive measures, primarily withdrawing its fighter planes based at Al-Maleez Airport, which targeted by Egypt. Also, removing any valuable equipment at Om Khosheib communication centre and sending the armoured unit stationed in the straits behind the Bar Lev Line to defensive positions. Egyptian Special Forces, led by the martyr Ibrahim Rifaie, sabotaged the napalm pipelines that Israel planned to empty in the Suez Canal to turn it into a wall of fire. This was critical in securing the crossing even though Israel knew about the war plan. There was also a highly organised and efficient surprise raid on the barricades of the Bar Lev Line.




How did you interpret the news about Osama Bin Laden’s death? Could this assure Obama’s bid for re-election, or could it be detrimental if Al-Qaeda decides to take revenge?

Osama Bin Laden’s assassination is an important event and deserves closer scrutiny. First, I would like to state that I do not sympathise with the man, reject his ideas on principle, and disagree with his position. But his story is the tragic epitome of a nation that was deceived and diverted from its goal, manipulated in the wars of other parties, and then used to malign its own religion. After that, they were killed in cold blood by those who misled, used and manipulated them.

I was in London and Paris after the assassination, and heard many details that I believe are true, [based on trusted sources]. The US killed a man it knew was about to die from kidney failure … He had one of his kidneys removed in Saudi Arabia back in the years when he was a respected citizen there. Then, in the eyes of the US, Al-Qaeda became the primary suspect behind the 11 September 2001, catastrophe … which was one of the most bizarre terrorist attacks in modern history.

While being pursued in the mountains of Tora Bora, Bin Laden developed kidney failure and army doctors with Pakistan’s intelligence agency (ISI) decided that he needed regular dialysis … So, in 2004, he decided to find a secure location to hide instead of the mountainous bases of Al-Qaeda. And as a result of the war on terror, Al-Qaeda had become more of a fear factor than a genuine threat, while many elements in several countries adopted the infamous name. As the leader of the group was losing his health, Al-Qaeda became the bogeyman in a psychological war where more taped recordings were broadcast on news channels than actual jihadist, suicide or terrorist operations on the ground. Anyone could call themselves whatever they liked.

Bin Laden began looking for refuge in Pakistan and sought far away locations, with the help of Pakistani intelligence, to find treatment facilities for him. A plot of land in Abbottabad near the Pakistani army’s Supreme National Military College was chosen, and was close to the city’s hospital. But the pursuit by the US made the Pakistanis cautious with Bin Laden, although some senior intelligence officers remained loyal to his safety.

The Pakistani military doctor who was treating Bin Laden asked to be relieved of his duties in early 2005, and Bin Laden’s third wife, Najwa, went in search to find a Muslim doctor willing live with Bin Laden and supervise his healthcare. She secretly called a doctor in Lebanon, another in Jordan and yet another in Syria. She was unsuccessful in her search, as her husband’s condition continued to worsen. In 2007, Bin Laden was in critical condition and needed dialysis twice a week, and to remain under medical supervision even if it were rudimentary. A dialysis machine was bought in Karachi and placed next to Bin Laden’s bedroom, and dialysis exhausted him more than other patients because his time in the mountains had weakened him. On the day of dialysis, he would become tired and dizzy the entire day, and stay in bed with his eyes closed and not speak.



Mr Heikal said that since June 2010, the CIA, with the help of Pakistani elements, began surveillance of the house built for the man in 2005. In the summer of 2010, the CIA was able to find an entire floor in a house near the area to watch Bin Laden’s house from a distance. From that moment on, everything that went on inside the house, including dialysis twice a week, was known in detail by US surveillance.

Recent reports about confessions by Bin Laden’s aides detained in Guantanamo, in which they revealed his location, admitting that there is courier who conveys his orders to them and transmits information to him, are highly exaggerated although based in fact.

In the last few weeks, Bin Laden’s condition was quickly worsening and there was a general sense that his days were numbered, and that he was likely to die of his illness within three or four months.


When Washington decided to kill Bin Laden it had other goals and plans, correct?

First, President Obama’s popularity is waning and the election season is almost here. The president wants another term amid fears that the party will nominate someone else for the presidency if Obama’s chances seem slim in November 2012. There were rumours that Hillary Clinton could be a candidate, especially that opinion polls show she is more popular than the president. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is contemplating a new and capable candidate, such as General David Petraeus, commander of the war in Afghanistan, who is popular in political and military circles.

Second, conditions in the US are worsening and an inflated defence budget is the main target for expenditure cuts because of its high toll on the US economy, most prominently the war in Afghanistan costing more than $1 trillion, which must —and quickly —be cut to help the economy. But finding the proper pretext to withdraw partially or entirely from Afghanistan is problematic and requires an intelligent solution ahead of withdrawal in summer.

Third, since Obama has a drive for re-election, demands by the people that must be met, and cuts in war expenses, Bin Laden’s immediate death addresses all these issues. It would raise the president’s popularity —and indeed it did, from 44 per cent to 56 per cent —and gives cover for comprehensive or partial withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Fourth, killing him was necessary before he died of kidney failure and in order to meet all the needed targets.

Do you have more details about the assassination itself?

That night, the man was exhausted with illness and sleeping on his bed. The attack team reached his bedside where he was lying 13 minutes after the first helicopters landed. The man was not alert, and his fourth wife, Amal Al-Sada, from Yemen, was with him. When he came to, in his bed, and finally realised there was commotion around him, he was shot with dumdum bullets, which explode on impact. The man’s head exploded as he was getting out of bed, and before he completely realised what was happening. After that, every document and CD and recording in the house was confiscated, and Bin Laden’s body also taken.

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