Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 November 2004
Issue No. 717
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A man among men

Few have negotiated the minefields of Middle Eastern politics with as muck skill as Yasser Arafat, writes Amin Howeidi, who headed the Egyptian General Intelligence during the post 1967 tumultuous years

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"I introduced Abu Ammar to Abdel-Nasser and the relationship between the two men, and between Fatah and Egypt, improved"

Abu Ammar, aka Mohamed Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Raouf Al-Qudwah, aka Yasser Arafat, Arab leader and revolutionary icon, was supposed to become an engineer, building roads and erecting buildings. Instead he strayed into the minefield of politics, creating organisations, leading a revolution, and extracting a state from the grip of colonisers who had emerged from their Diaspora intent on usurping land and subjugating it and its inhabitants.

I first met Arafat in 1967, after the war that changed the face of the region. In July, just after the war, Nasser made me head of the Ministry of War, later renamed the Ministry of Defence. The country was passing through one of its darkest phases. On 26 August, 1967, I assumed command of General Intelligence after a difficult night during which Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer, vice president, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the man responsible for the defeat, was relieved from his posts. This was the only time in the history of the revolution that I had to wear two hats, so to speak.

Abu Ammar had created the Fatah movement and was at the time unpopular among some Egyptian officials owing to his links with Saudi Arabia, a country not on good terms with Egypt back then. Many officials saw Abu Ammar as Saudi Arabia's man, but I managed, with the help of others, to change that perception. I introduced Abu Ammar to Abdel-Nasser and the relationship between the two men, and between Fatah and Egypt, improved. Egypt started helping Fatah assume its role in a battle that proved to be long and arduous. It was our belief in Egypt that what had been taken away by force would only be restored by force.

The late Isam Sartawi, a key leader of another Palestinian group at the time, came to meet me at the Ministry of Defence. He reproached me for supporting Fatah and asked me to help his group instead. I objected, arguing that the Palestinians must unite to fight Israel, or at least divide the task among them. I pointed out that Egypt would assist all who proved their valour on the ground. My relation with Sartawi allowed for this kind of reproach, the reason being a story I think worth telling for the record, if only that future generations may know how things were done.

Isam Sartawi was a Palestinian born in Baghdad. I served in Baghdad as ambassador from 1963 to late 1965, a period fraught with difficulties. Isam came to see me at the embassy headquarters in Al- Azamiya. I met him though I didn't know him well -- it was always my policy to keep an open door. He told me that he was going to the US to study medicine and wanted to stop in Cairo and meet Nasser. I asked him to leave his address and promised to get back to him. I ran some checks to make sure he was all right then I sent a telegram to the president. Nasser had instructed the Baghdad embassy to contact him directly through coded messages. To my surprise Nasser agreed to see Sartawi and he travelled to Cairo and met the president. I have no details about their meeting though as soon as the 1967 war ended Sartawi returned to Baghdad, and then moved to Amman to lead his men, and we stayed in touch.

I recall a kind gesture of Isam's. After declining the posts Sadat offered to me after Nasser's death, Sartawi cut short a trip to Europe to visit me and make sure I was all right. Years later Sarwati was assassinated in Madrid after he had called for talks to begin with Israel even as the fighting continued. His position was that the battle was not an end in itself but a means to make people listen and talk. May God have mercy on Isam Sartawi, a man who crossed the red line at a time when a mere contact with Israel was considered treason.

Following a series of crises that were largely a result of the ambiguous relationship between the political leadership and the military command -- the minister of defence is a political post, a representative of the political leadership in the midst of a military institution -- I asked Nasser to relieve me from my duties as minister of defence. I resigned the post but kept my job as head of General Intelligence. In one of his visits to me, Abu Ammar asked for Egypt's help in creating an intelligence service for his group so they would no longer need to operate in total darkness. I agreed. We trained dozens of Palestinians, all of them highly disciplined and eager to learn. They were our guests for weeks. Years later I met some of them in Beirut and even had a discussion with them in a camp Mahjub Omar, an Egyptian volunteer in the Palestinian revolution, was helping run.

On 14 May, 1971, having shed many of my official responsibilities -- I had declined to take part in Sadat's second cabinet -- Abu Ammar visited me at home along with many Fatah members. Not having enough chairs some of us sat on the floor. We discussed the ongoing armed struggle. Once the discussion was over Abu Ammar said that he was going to meet President Sadat.

"Do you want anything?" he asked.

"Tell the president," I said, "that what was taken away by force will only be restored by force."

Abu Ammar then went to see El-Sadat.

On 13 May, 1971 Sadat had started arresting those later described as "centres of power". Two days later I was planting some trees on a farm I own in Begerm, a village near Quweisna, which I later began to refer to as the 15 May forest. One of my acquaintances told me of Arafat's meeting with Sadat. Abu Ammar had said to Sadat that they we're seeing him after visiting Amin Howeidi who sends his greetings and says that what has been taken away by force can only be restored by force.

"Is Amin still at large?" Sadat had asked, and that same night ordered my arrest. Later I would reproach Abu Ammar for not having warned me: had he done so I would have been able to hide my papers, a valuable record of Egypt's history during that period. The attorney general's men, having arrested me, searched my homes and seized six suitcases of papers. Following my arrest and the subsequent trial I asked the prosecutor for my papers since they had not been officially confiscated. The prosecutor agreed to my request and the suitcases were returned to me. They were empty.

On 8 August, 1970 Cairo agreed to the Rogers Plan, which called for a ceasefire (the war of attrition was underway) and even promised Egypt the return of its territories in full. Nasser rejected the offer of land, considering it a unilateral solution that would jeopardise the restoration of Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Golan. The ceasefire was temporary and Egypt used it to rebuild its air defences and move missile launchers closer to the Suez Canal, where they were later used to cover the troops crossing the canal. Arab countries that had not fired a single shot rejected the Rogers Plan and so did Fatah, which began attacking Egypt and its policies even in programmes aired by the Cairo-based Palestinian radio service. Cairo was forced to close down the radio station.

Months later I was at the head of an official delegation to Cuba to take part in its national day festivities. We travelled to Havana via Madrid. With us on the plane was a Sudanese delegation led by the late Hashem Al-Ata, a member of Sudan Revolutionary Council who was later executed after being accused by President Jaafar Al-Numeiri of planning a coup. On the same plane there was a Palestinian delegation whose members refused to sit near us. I walked over to greet them and explain Egypt's position. When we approached our first fuelling stopover I instructed a member of my delegation to prepare a large table so that the Palestinians could sit with us. As we had breakfast together I suggested that the head of the Palestinian delegation should speak on behalf of the three delegations once we were in Havana so as to end speculation over a rift between Egypt and Fatah. Everyone agreed and we did just that. Once I returned to Cairo I got a call from Abu Ammar who apologised for the conduct of the Palestinian delegation and thanked me for what I had done.

"What do people think?" he chuckled. "Would I ever boycott Cairo?"

In the mid-seventies Abu Ammar was still living in exile in Beirut, a fact that worried the Lebanese who feared Israeli retaliation. In one of my visits to Beirut I stayed at the Bristol Hotel. Although the media reported my arrival Abu Ammar did not call, something which I found disappointing. Instead he sent me an invitation for lunch through emissaries. I declined to go, explaining my reasons to the emissaries, and had lunch alone at the hotel. Abu Ammar then phoned, apologising in his charming manner, and swearing that had it not been for the danger to his life he would have come to the hotel in person to accompany me. He then sent key Fatah members to my hotel, who honoured me with their presence for a long time. Then they took me to meet Abu Ammar at an undisclosed venue. We drove for some time, changing routes and cars more than once. I reproached Abu Ammar for not warning me on the day of my arrest, which cost me my precious notes, and for not calling me when he was in Cairo or when I happened to be in Beirut. You contacted me regularly when I was in the ministry, I said, and you forget me now I have left. Abu Ammar stood up and gave me some of his famous kisses.

Although he was in exile in Lebanon, Arafat continued to stage attacks against Israel. The latter retaliated with an offensive led by Ariel Sharon, minister of defence under Menachim Begin. The offensive was launched in agreement with US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who specified to the Israelis lines that they should not cross in what was dubbed Fatah land in south Lebanon. Sharon traversed all red lines, reaching Beirut. The crisis ended with Arafat leaving Beirut and his forces scattered in various Arab countries. Abu Ammar ended up in Tunisia.

During a visit to Tunisia Abu Ammar invited me to dinner at his house. He was still boycotting Cairo, as were many other Arab countries, following Sadat's visit to Jerusalem. The Arab League had moved from Cairo to Tunis and was under a new secretary general, Chadli Klibi. Having switched cars and routes more than once I eventually arrived at Arafat's residence. The building was totally dark and heavily guarded. After dinner, when the other guests had left, I sat alone with the Palestinian leader. He asked how things were and I told him. Then I asked him why he was boycotting Cairo, and whether he thought that was good for the cause. He was taken aback.

"Quite a statement, coming from a man who has been abandoned by Cairo," he said.

"Egypt doesn't abandon its sons, though people do," I told him, before embarking on an anecdote about the Algerian revolution. Its leaders, I stressed, ignored Arab differences and refused to allow anyone to interfere in their affairs. The Algerians focused on the success of the revolution, I argued, and advised Abu Ammar to improve his ties with Cairo. Arafat changed the topic until he had had time to think, and then came back to the point.

"Let's say that I agree with what you're saying. Would you be able to smooth things first?"

Impossible, I said, the regime was boycotting me and my intervention could do more harm than good. I advised him to contact Cairo directly. Abu Ammar said nothing but a few days later he was in Cairo.

Abu Ammar led a revolution for 40 years and will remain a symbol of that revolution in his death. He kept the struggle alive through difficult times, negotiating a minefield of potential difficulties. He fought his way home from exile, with bullets, words and even stones. Yet he was a man of peace, and will go down in history as such.

I watched his coffin carried on a horse- drawn carriage near Al-Galaa Mosque in Heliopolis, Cairo, before it was flown to Ramallah, where he had spent his last three years incarcerated. He was as defiant under siege as he was in freedom. He will be buried in Ramallah until such time as he can be moved to Jerusalem. As I listened to the funeral marches, tears swelled in my eyes. Abu Ammar was a man among men.

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