A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, 1923- 2016

In his 93 years, some 70+ of them as a journalist and pundit, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal went through several incarnations, made powerful friends (Nasser), powerful enemies (Sadat), and outlived them all. And then played a major role in recording the history of his times. He was often as controversial as he was prolific. But he remained to the end a major voice in Egypt and the Arab World as a whole as a journalist and author, and in the past decade in a lecture series for Al-Jazeera.

I've known enough of the players in those years to know that many of them felt Heikal's books distorted facts and claimed greater knowledge than he possessed, and they may be right, but he wrote so many books that he may well control the narrative. Most people write only one memoir (Sadat is an exception), but Heikal wrote many. Al-Ahram, which he long edited, remembers him here.

He cut his journalistic teeth covering the Battle of Al-Alamein in 1942; he started out with the English-language Egyptian Gazette. He later moved to the weekly Akher Saa and then to Akhbar al-Yom. He first met Gamal Abdel Nasser during the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948, and was with the Free Officers on the night of the 1952 coup.

With Nasser at Al-Ahram
His golden age was the Nasser era. His 17 years as Editor of Al-Ahram (1957-1974), and his reported role as a ghostwriter for Nasser's Philosophy of the Revolution cemented his role as the public interpreter of Nasserism. To some, he was an apologist, though he liked to portray himself as a trusted adviser. He straddled the line between journalism and government.

After Nasser died, Heikal never enjoyed as close a relationship with Sadat. He remained at the helm of Al-Ahram through the 1973 war, but in 1974 Sadat replaced him as Editor. He fell out further over the peace with Israel, and in 1981 Sadat jailed him in a widespread crackdown on his critics. After Sadat's assassination and Heikal's release, he wrote a book, Autumn of Fury (Kharif al-Ghadab), ostensibly about the Sadat assassination but really a scathing treatment of Sadat's whole career, retailing every scurrilous rumor, with or without evidence.  Though the book was banned in Egypt for years, the jailed journalist had his revenge.

Heikal was a frequent critic of Mubarak. He never took a full-time newspaper post again but wrote columns and articles for a variety of papers and magazines across the Arab world. In 2003, at age 80, he announced he was stopping writing. But he continued his commentaries in interviews, two "lecture series" on Al-Jazeera, and after Al-Jazeera became anathema in Egypt, with the Egyptian satellite channel CBC.

Whatever else one may think of Heikal as a reporter, analyst, and commentator, no other Arab journalist enjoyed so long and prominent a career.

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