Millions are expected to tune in to Al-Jazeera tonight as the Arab world's leading commentator makes a comeback, writes Amira Howeidy
It is only in the Arab world, perhaps, that a TV station, Al-Jazeera, and a writer, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, exercise the kind of influence normally reserved for governments and their leaders. In a region characterised by war, tension, oppression and despair many continue to look to the 81 year old commentator whose association with Gamal Abdel-Nasser still dominates his public profile. Al-Jazeera, on the other hand, is the product of more recent times and rather different political calculations, its founders listed by Time magazine's April issue as among the 100 most influential people in the world.
Tonight the two join forces almost a year after Heikal announced his retirement at the age of 80. Then, in a two-part article, "Permission to exit", Heikal had summarised his 61-year long career, which extended from the end of WWII to the end of the cold war, insisting that he would retire but would not be absent. He noted that he was considering several TV offers. But news of Heikal's return, and on Al-Jazeera, was greeted with a mix of surprise and anticipation of what he has to say.
According to Jihad Balout, Al-Jazeera 's PR director, Heikal has already recorded nine episodes in the station's Cairo studio which tackle current events in the region. The first episode, which will be broadcast tonight, Thursday, at 19:05 GMT will explain why he returned and why he chose Al- Jazeera. Sources close to Heikal say he will argue that he selected the station not only because of its influence and popularity in the Arab world, but because US President George W Bush, in his efforts to improve America's image after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, refused to address the Arabs through Al-Jazeera, opting for the US- funded Al-Hurra and the Saudi-funded Al- Arabiya stations instead .
"By doing so Heikal is effectively dismissing accusations [in the Arab world] levelled against Al-Jazeera that it serves American interests," Ayman El-Sayyad, managing editor of the cultural monthly Wujhat Nazar (Points of View) , which published Heikal's articles since 1999 until his retirement, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
With Heikal, the title of the broadcasts, will adopt the same format as earlier TV talks in which Heikal directly addresses viewers. A tenth episode has yet to be decided, but it is expected to be live, allowing Heikal to receive live feedback.
Another batch of episodes, approximately 50, are still to be recorded. In these Heikal will chronicle events of the second half of the 20th century, many to which he was a witness. According to Balout this documentary series will draw on previously unpublished documents in Heikal's possession.
"We expect high viewing figures because of Heikal's political, historical and professional clout," said Balout. Approximately 35 to 40 million viewers watch Al-Jazeera across the world. A significant percentage is expected to tune in to the series.
Heikal, for close on 20 years a close confidante of and adviser to Nasser, is not just a renowned political commentator. His association with political power and, indeed, any other sort of political activity ended in the mid- 1970s when he fell out with Nasser's successor, President Anwar El-Sadat, over the latter's policies on the Arab-- Israeli conflict. Imprisoned by Sadat in September 1980 and later released, Heikal has since stayed away from the political stage.
Yet he has come to enjoy the wide popular appeal that in most countries is the preserve of leading political figures. For many years he published rarely in the Egyptian press, preferring the censorship-free international media instead. Only with the appearance of Wujhat Nazar less than three years ago did Heikal find a regular platform to address the Arab world.
Following the launch of Dream, a privately-owned Egyptian TV station in 2001, Heikal agreed to appear on Al-Ustaz, a programme in which he voiced his views on current affairs every three months. Despite, or because of, the popularity of the show (the transcripts were published verbatim in several newspapers and disseminated widely) Heikal's TV talks were not tolerated by the government for long. In his second appearance in July 2003 he referred to "secret" clauses in the Camp David accords stipulating that Egypt play a role in maintaining security in Gaza. The government vehemently denied such clauses existed.
"Everything he said happened," said El- Sayyad. "Today Egypt is openly talking about a security role in Gaza."
A couple of months later Dream came under fire after it aired a lecture Heikal gave at the American University in Cairo (AUC) in which he commented on speculation surrounding the bequeathing of the presidency in Egypt. Heikal reminded the audience that President Hosni Mubarak, and the son around whom the speculation revolves, have both rejected the notion on a number of occasions. Egypt is not like other states, Heikal said.
Republics, he argued, do not allow for the inheritance of power. It was the last time he appeared on Egyptian TV.
The expected popularity of the series is a result not just of Al-Jazeera 's professional standards or Heikal's exceptional status but "also the outcome of a political void in the region", says Al-Sayyad.
Balout acknowledges Al-Jazeera 's influence on shaping public opinion but maintains that his TV station "does not practice politics". The viewer is "not naïve" he says "and when he chooses to watch us, it's because of our credibility, not because of any political cloak others want us to wear."