A well-connected journalist, commentator, and master propagandist, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal crafted the message of former president and pan-Arab nationalist Gamal Abd al-Nasser and defended his legacy long after his death. Heikal’s books were consistent best sellers in the Arab world, and his political analysis was accorded respect. His opinion was sought in hour-long television interviews and behind closed doors in the corridors of power. His influence endured the epochs of long-reigning presidents, a revolution, and its political uncertainty.
Born in Cairo on September 23, 1923 to a wheat merchant from the city of Dayrout in the southern province of Asyut, Heikal studied commerce in secondary school, shunning a traditional religious education at his mother’s insistence. He attended the American University in Cairo, where one of his instructors, British journalist Scott Watson, who worked for the English-language Egyptian Gazette, got the young Heikal a reporting job. He began his career at 19 as a correspondent on the crime beat before moving on to stories like the pivotal Battle of El Alamein during the Second World War, where the British faced off against the Germans and Italians. Heikal later joined the staff the weekly magazine Akher sa‘a (Last Hour) as an investigative journalist, where he tackled such issues as the deadly cholera epidemic. The magazine was owned by Akhbar al-Youm publishing house, and Heikal went on to cover the Greek civil war, three back-to-back Syrian coup d’états, the burgeoning conflict in Palestine, overthrows, assassinations, and political intrigues for its flagship daily.
His dispatches from the 1948 War, which saw the creation of the state of Israel, found a wide Arab audience. “His coverage of the war was not devoid of sensationalism, but he knew what the public wanted,” observed Ghada Hashem Talhami in her book Palestine in the Egyptian Press. “Satirizing the Palestinian theater and exposing the scandals perpetrated by corrupt and ill-informed military leaders became his passion.”[i] It was also during that war that he encountered Gamal Abd al-Nasser, then an army major. Nasser went to visit Heikal in 1951 to borrow a book. They chatted about Syrian coups and their friendship flourished, as well as Heikal’s connection with a band of young army officers who were secretly plotting to topple an inept and out-of-touch monarchy. The up-and-coming journalist was consulted by the Free Officers on the reaction of Great Britain, which had an occupation force in Egypt protecting the Suez Canal, if army officers seized power. He correctly predicted that the British would not be prepared to take offensive measures. The network of Free Ofﬁcers cells extended throughout the military services and excelled in planning, organization, and timing. On the evening of July 22, 1952, they effortlessly occupied key posts in Cairo and Alexandria. By the next morning, the Free Ofﬁcers were in charge. King Faruq was exiled, leaving Egypt on July 26 aboard a royal yacht bound for Monaco.
At the age of 29 and just after the demise of the monarchy, Heikal was named editor-in-chief of Akher sa‘a. In 1957, Heikal took the helm at the daily al-Ahram (The Pyramids) and was constantly in Nasser’s company. His close relationship with Nasser made him a champion of pan-Arab nationalism and an unabashed critic of Israel and its occupation of Arab lands, seeing it as an extension of Western imperialism. As chief editor, he fashioned al-Ahram into the Arab world’s most influential newspaper.
Heikal vigorously opposed Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel in November 1977 and the subsequent Camp David Accords, which isolated Egypt from the Arab world. A prolific writer, Heikal penned dozens of books, chronicling events as a witness to history, his legacy linked with his association with Nasser. He was not just a journalist, newspaper editor, and later historian. Heikal was Nasser’s emissary with Western diplomats, a champion of Nasser’s brand of socialism and pan-Arab nationalism. He composed his speeches and ghost wrote Nasser’s political manifesto, The Philosophy of the Revolution. As the president’s alter ego,Heikal’s writings were read for clues to Nasser’s thinking. His influence derived from his proximity to power.
Yet Heikal was not the example of a journalist that students of the profession are taught to emulate. “My father would tell me, ‘I want you to be like Heikal’ when I was 18, 19 and about to start my journalism career,” recalled Khaled Dawoud, assistant editor-in-chief of Al Ahram Weekly who teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo. “I would tell him, ‘Dad, when you tell me, ‘I want you to be like Heikal,’ what exactly do you want me to be? Do you want me to be a presidential speechwriter or do you want me to be like Bob Woodward, who made his name by bringing down a president—Nixon.’ If you ask me now, after practicing journalism for 30 years, of course I want to be a Bob Woodward. I don’t want to be a Heikal. If I wanted to be a Heikal, I would have joined the State Information Service.”
Heikal blurred the line between the role of a journalist and that of a politician. “He introduced a model in Egypt and the Arab world about what your ambitions should be as a journalist. In the West or Europe, you gain your reputation from your independence as a journalist,” explained Dawoud. “When I am the president’s consultant and I attend his close meetings and I write his speeches, there is definitely a lot of information that I would have to keep secret. That goes contrary to my job as a journalist, which is to find as much information as I can.”[ii]
State ownership of the media
Gamal Abd al-Nasser nationalized the private press in 1960, bringing it under the control of the Arab Socialist Union, the sole political organization, and branding it the “media of mobilization.”[iii] The move was justiﬁed within the socialist vein of being anti-capitalist. The press has lost touch, Nasser said. It was not serving the public function the press should play by being much too concerned with tantalizing society gossip and Cairo nightlife.
The state media wholeheartedly embraced socialism and pan-Arabism, becoming a ﬁlter of information and propaganda, instead of the promised transformation of the institution into one that supposedly guides the public and builds society. Critical voices were muted, the military junta was sacrosanct, and Nasser was fortiﬁed as a national hero. The failings of the regime were not attributed to the president, but to the reactionary and destructive forces of capitalism and feudalism. Nasser’s personal conﬁdant Muhammad Hassanein Heikal was appointed chairman of the board of al-Ahram, then later of Dar al-Hilal and Akhbar al-Youm publishing houses.
Pioneers in Arab journalism, Akhbar al-Youm founders and twin brothers Mustafa and Ali Amin published ﬁve best-selling newspapers and magazines before the state’s takeover of the press, a move Heikal lauded. The Amin brothers continued to manage the publishing enterprise they started in 1944 and were reappointed editors and board chairmen in 1962. Long committed to a free media, Mustafa Amin was imprisoned for six months in 1939 for an article in Akher sa‘a (Last Hour) magazine deemed critical of King Faruq. An advocate of democracy and Western liberalism, he was arrested in 1965, tried secretly in 1966, and convicted of being a spy for America and smuggling funds. Sentenced to a life sentence, he spent nine years in prison before being pardoned by Nasser’s successor, President Anwar Sadat. Ali Amin, accused by Heikal of working for British and Saudi intelligence, went into exile in 1965.[iv]
The connection Heikal had with Nasser allowed him to favor a more open editorial line, and in a series of articles titled “Zuwwar al-fajr” (The Visitors of Dawn) he rebuked the fearsome practice by the intelligence services and secret police of making arbitrary and warrantless arrests and detentions in the middle of the night, a practice that was a hallmark of Nasser’s security state. Room for expression existed mainly in the literary pages of al-Ahram, where writers under Heikal’s wings, like Naguib Mahfouz, could publish works of ﬁction that could be read as challenges to the status quo.[v] As far as the press was concerned, censorship was directed at politically oriented news and commentary rather than the literary sections.
Egypt was taken by surprise when Israel struck in June 1967, annihilating in a coordinated air offensive the Egyptian air force on the ground within the first hours of the war, then burrowing across the Sinai Peninsula. In six days the Jewish state seized all of Sinai, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Syria’s Golan Heights. The brief and humiliating war for Arab armies claimed the lives of some twelve thousand Egyptian troops, with another five thousand captured or missing. Eighty percent of all military equipment was lost. During the conflict, as the Egyptian army, under Field Marshal Abd al-Hakim Amer’s command, was hastily retreating from Sinai, broadcast outlets aired invented reports of fabulous victories against the Zionist foe. At no other moment did the state media prove so woefully deﬁcient, contributing to a deep sense of public betrayal.
The defeat was an unforgivable embarrassment for Nasser who on June 9, a day before the war came to an official end, took responsibility and told the Egyptian people that he was resigning the presidency. “My brothers, we are accustomed, in times of victory and in times of adversity, in sweet hours and in bitter hours, to sitting together and talking with open hearts, honestly stating the facts, believing that we are on the same path, always succeeding to ﬁnd the true way, no matter how difﬁcult the circumstances and no matter how faint the light,” began a remorseful Nasser in a live 6:30pm radio and television broadcast.
“We cannot hide from ourselves that we’ve faced a devastating setback during the past few days,” he continued, taking responsibility for the war’s outcome and telling the Egyptian people that he was resigning the presidency. “I have decided to step down completely and forever from any ofﬁcial position and any political role, and to return to the ranks of the masses to fulﬁll my duties as any other citizen.” The speech was written for him by prominent journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal and tactfully framed a romp of Arab armies as a “setback,” displaying Heikal’s knack for being both a propagandist and political powerbroker.
It was a moment that brilliantly served to shore up Nasser’s support. Egyptians took to the streets demanding that their leader stay in power. “The People Say ‘No,’” declared Akhbar al-youm (News of the Day) in large red writing. In smaller black lettering the headline read, “The Leader Discloses the Whole Truth to the People.” It is difﬁcult to say how populist and genuine the appeal was and how much of the public display of support for Nasser was behind-the-scenes political machinations of the regime and its media. While Nasser did stay in power, it was only later that Egyptians could comprehend the true extent of the defeat—especially in light of ofﬁcial propaganda—and the institutional failures that placed the whole of Sinai under Israeli control.
Waves of student protests erupted on college campuses in the war’s aftermath, with slogans shouted and scrawled on building walls that demanded: “Stop the Rule of the Intelligence,” “Down with the Police State,” and “Down with Heikal’s Lying Press.” Student periodicals posted on the walls of the campuses emerged as the freest press in Egypt. Nasser for the ﬁrst time became the object of direct criticism in the public space. A campaign against student unrest was waged in the state-owned media, which labeled the activists as provocateurs and counter-revolutionaries goaded by foreign elements.[vi]
Heikal spearheaded the construction of a new edifice for the state-owned publishing house, a lavish building on Galaa Street in the working class Cairo district of Boulak, its construction completed a year and a half after Egypt’s 1967 defeat, making the fourteen-story high-rise an object of ridicule among critics, who labeled the folly “Heikal’s Pyramid.” Still, al-Ahram had one of the most advanced newsrooms and printing equipment in the world, complete with IBM System/360 Model 30 mainframe computers humming on the eleventh floor’s data processing center.
“Heikal is fascinated by the American mystique, and the bright young editors who roam his gleaming corridors, all of them dressed as impeccably as he, seem to evince a sort of Islamic New Frontier,” described the journalist Edward R. F. Sheehan in a New York Times Magazine profile of the newspaperman.[vii] “He created new divisions that modernized and streamlined the operation of al-Ahram to everyone’s amazement,” added Ghada Hashem Talhami in Palestine in the Egyptian Press. “A centralized editorial secretariat, called the Desk, was founded, as well as the Center for Strategic Studies and the Information Division. To his detractors, these innovations appeared to be spying sessions of an extensive empire dedicated to intelligence gathering. Some even described al-Ahram under Heikal’s control as a secret political party capable of undertaking grave activities.”[viii]
With Egypt lands under occupation, Nasser appointed Heikal to the post of minister of information and national guidance, a role he assumed for six months in 1970 until Nasser’s death. Yet the self-described journalist confided his frustration of being assigned a ministerial post, perhaps intended to distance him from the publishing empire he built, to a colleague, the leftist writer Lutfi al-Khouli, at his home. The encounter was surreptitiously recorded by the secret police, leading to the arrest and brief imprisonment of al-Khouli, and Heikal’s secretary and her husband, who were also present. “Now, Nasser’s regime had two aspects: it had great achievements to its credit but also it had a repressive side. I do not myself believe that the achievements . . . could have been carried out without some degree of enforcement,” Heikal wrote in The Road to Ramadan. “But after the 1967 defeat the positive achievements came to an end, because all resources were geared to the coming battle, while repression became more obvious. When Nasser died the executants of repression took it on themselves to be the ideologues of the new regime as well. They held almost all the key posts in the country. The people resented this and came to hate what they saw as their oppressors.”[ix]
Muhammad Hassanein Heikal worked behind the scenes to advise the new president, Anwar Sadat, in foiling a plot against him by those “executants of repression,” which included the vice president and powerful interior minister. In May 1971, Sadat purged those conspirators in his “corrective revolution.” Heikal remained at the helm of al-Ahram publishing house three years into Sadat’s presidency. Sadat asked him to draft the letter of instructions to the military commander and minister of war, initiating the start of the October 1973 War. Heikal’s weekly columns published on a Friday, Bisaraha (Frankly Speaking), were widely read in Egypt and around the Arab world, but after his increasing criticism of Sadat’s handling of the October 1973 War and appeals to the United States to address the impasse, Heikal was removed from al-Ahram in 1974. He remained a proliﬁc author. In May 1978, Heikal was one of dozens of writers accused by the state prosecutor of defaming Egypt and weakening social peace and was subject to an interrogation that extended three months.[x] Sadat compared Heikal with the Irish-British fascist William Joyce, known as Lord Haw-Haw, who broadcast Nazi propaganda from Germany during the Second World War goading the British to surrender. “The British sentenced him to death for directing propaganda against his own country,” Sadat reminded a journalist in a 1978 interview.[xi]
Opposition to the Camp David Accords was reaching a fever pitch, so were attacks against the government’s economic policy, corruption, and the widening disparities in wealth. Sadat attempted to bring the dissident cacophony into line through the mass arrest in September 1981 of more than 1,500 intellectuals, writers, journalists, and opposition elements of every stripe. Among those arrested were leading members of the Journalists’ Syndicate and prominent ﬁgures like the political writer Muhammad Hassanein Heikal and novelist Nawal El Saadawi. Sadat’s crackdown against his opponents culminated in his assassination by Islamic militants on October 6, 1981 during a military parade to commemorate the start of the 1973 War. Soon after Hosni Mubarak assumed power, Heikal was released from prison.
Heikal and Mubarak
The satellite network Dream TV hosted Heikal in 2002 in a show called al-Ustaz (The Professor), where he gave his analysis of the Arab world as the scene was set for a U.S.-led war in Iraq. That year, to a packed audience at the American University in Cairo’s Ewart Hall, he gave a lecture reflecting on 50 years since Egypt’s 1952 revolution. He stated that Egypt needed to transcend the legitimacy of rule by a father figure and attacked the notion of Mubarak’s choreographed succession of his son to presidential power. A transition to a more participatory form of government must be considered in the three years remaining in Mubarak’s presidency, asserted Heikal, since no ruler or party can assume guardianship of the state or a monopoly on power.
“The republican system in its nature and philosophy does not know the inheritance of power,” he alleged. “What is needed is not a transfer from one man to another, but from one era to another.” Heikal urged a comprehensive dialogue on how the nation should move forward. “We will enter into a kind of democracy that is not complete and sound,” he speculated, “but I believe that legitimacy of a father-figure ruler has reached its end.” By holding tightly to power, Mubarak threatened the renewal of ideas necessary for the advancement of nations, Heikal argued. “The rotation of power in itself is not the slogan. The slogan is realizing the right of choice, and guaranteeing the right of choice, and whoever has a clear popular mandate is the one who controls power.”[xii] When Dream aired the lecture Heikal gave at the American University in Cairo, direct pressure was placed on the owner’s business interests, and the veteran journalist found a new forum on pan-Arab satellite broadcasting. The influential writer has made opposition to Gamal Mubarak’s succession a staple of his newspaper columns. In an interview with Robert Fisk, Heikal described Mubarak as “living in a world of fantasy” in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh.[xiii]
With the rise of satellite television, Qatar’s Al Jazeera commanded audiences not only with news but with popular discussion programmed, like Ma‘ Heikal (With Heikal), a program by Heikal that began the year after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and which was watched by the Arab public with eager interest. Seated behind a desk and looking into the camera, Heikal gave his narrative of historical events and commentary on Middle Eastern and world affairs, exposing the intrigues of regional and global powers from his perch, having privileged access to leaders, diplomats, and decision makers. He has been a critic of Saudi diplomacy, its ballooning regional influence given the power of petrodollars, and its confrontation with Iran. Saudi pundits have consistently taken potshots at Heikal.
On his show on Al Jazeera, Tagrubat al-hayat (Life’s Experience), in September 2010, Heikal floated the conspiracy theory that Sadat might have been behind Nasser’s death by giving him a poisoned mug of coffee during a meeting with Nasser and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In the aftermath of the Gulf Wars, Heikal commented, “We have proved that we cannot afford democracy.”[xiv]
Egypt after Revolution
“People ask: am I happy Mubarak went out? I am not happy that anybody went out, I am happy that everybody came in,” Heikal told London’s Sunday Times after Egypt’s revolution. “This is the most promising thing, that after 30 years of silence the Egyptian people are talking. They are saying what they want to say—including a lot of nonsense—but I say ‘let it come’ because anything is better than a silence that was very oppressive.” Heikal met with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi soon after he was elected Egypt’s president in 2012. “They have been on the scene for a long time and they represent a trend that some people think is salvation,” Heikal said of the Brotherhood. “The Iranian revolution gave people the idea of Islamic government as an option and there is no way of evading it or pushing it away. It has to be tried. My sense is that Egypt is by nature secular and that the problems of the modern world are too complicated to be solved by religious thinking that only sees black or white, heaven or hell, so I don’t think it will succeed, but it is the choice of the majority—for now.”[xv]
A couple of months before Morsi’s ouster on July 3, 2013, Heikal was contacted by Morsi’s defense minister Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi for a meeting, which had led to speculation that the Heikal devised the behind-the-scenes scenarios for an elected president’s removal as the dominant political player, the Muslim Brotherhood, was sinking in popularity. After Morsi was expelled from office, Heikal suggested to the military leader that he seek a popular mandate to lead the country, mirroring Nasser-style populism. Attired in full military regalia, al-Sisi at a July 24, 2013 graduation ceremony of the naval and air defence academies, broadcast live, warned that national security was in peril and summoned nationwide rallies two days later. Heikal supported al-Sisi’s bid for the presidency viewing him as the candidate born of necessity. In the summer of 2013, Heikal's ranch in the Giza village of Birkash was set ablaze. The fire consumed his collection of books, artwork, and documents gathered over decades. Accusing fingers have been pointed at the Brotherhood for the alleged arson.
Heikal later took a more critical posture to the holdovers from the Mubarak regime that lingered in al-Sisi’s administration, warning in television appearances of the gulf in the president’s optimism and the realties as seen by Egyptians. Heikal made his observations known in interviews with Lamees al-Hadidi on the CBC satellite network in a series titled Masr ayn wa Masr ila ayn? (Egypt, from Where and to Where?). “The problem is that I see neither a harnessing of the power of this nation nor do I see a vision,” opined Heikal in his final televised interview. “There are good intentions, and there is a safety that commands respect. All right, but the train has stopped at the station for too long. The luggage carriers have gotten off and the passengers have boarded. When will we move? When will the whistle blow? And we do not know where the train is going.”[xvi]
While Heikal had access to the politically powerful, they did not always heed his advice or share his vision of Egypt’s natural leadership role in the Arab world. “My problem with Heikal is that he did not consider issues like human rights and freedom of the press to be a priority. His priority was this grandiose vision of the entire Arab world,” said journalist Khaled Dawoud. “Heikal’s experience was more the circles of power than the man of the people. He is used to moving between presidents and palaces and closed doors.” If he was searching for a resurrection of Nasser in Egypt’s new president, he was disappointed. “Heikal quickly realized that Sisi is not a new Nasser. Sisi’s ambition for Egypt is very different than someone like Heikal, who still thinks of Egypt as the heart of the Arab world and uniting the Arab world.”