Monday,17 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)
Monday,17 June, 2019
Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The journalist who is president behind the scenes

Reflections on practice and renown of one of the Arab world’s greatest intellectuals

When defining journalism, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal says the core of journalism is information. At the heart of freedom of the press is the free flow of information on events and ideas. There is such a term as news of ideas.

Then, there is room for opinion and analysis, he says. Advice is based on logic because everyone is on the same page and all are well informed on reality. Logic gives differences in opinion and methods of analysis a standard and barometer to maintain a debate and reach conclusions that are ammunition for a solid and participatory public opinion.

Heikal says of himself: “I began as a junior reporter in the crime section for one year until the chief editor chose me to cover World War II battles in Alamein as a war correspondent. I published a feature article that drew attention.

“I met Mohamed Al-Tabei in the office of the chief editor of The Egyptian Gazette, Harold Earl. Al-Tabei invited me to meet him at the magazine and asked me to work with him at Akher Saa magazine. And I transferred from working in the foreign press to the Arabic press.”

I was no stranger to the Arabic press. My colleagues and I would go with Philip Haneen, the editor of the local news section at The Egyptian Gazette, to have lunch at Bayzbana restaurant close to the newspaper, and Miss Rose Al-Youssef also ate there. We were introduced to her by Heikal and I met her several times. She always encouraged us and invited us to her table sometimes.

Heikal continues: “At Akher Sa’a I entered the foray of politics, following events from the balcony in parliament. The magazine was Wafdist, and I naturally found myself closer to the Wafd Party because of my work and sources. The party left power after Mustafa Al-Nahhas’ famous resignation on 8 October 1944, and Akher Saa joined the opposition against a coalition government led by Ahmed Maher, president of the Saadist Party under the auspices of the palace.

“Akhbar Al-Youm was published one month after Al-Nahhas resigned and it made a huge political and journalistic splash. It was heavy artillery against the Wafd Party and Al-Tabei was unable to complete with the more advanced Akhbar Al-Youm, and so decided to sell Akher Saa and become a writer at Ahkbar Al-Youm. I moved from Akher Saa to work with Mustafa and Ali Amin.”

I saw Heikal as quick in movement, quick witted, quick to respond. In the first second, you find yourself attracted to his support of change and his passion charged with knowledge and curiosity. We could barely keep up with his conversation; he spoke quickly, softly, firmly, continuously, like the hammer of a telegraph coated in velvet. If you wanted to speak, and he spots you, you are immediately on the spot without time to prepare, arrange your thoughts or give introductions. Go ahead, talk after he has pinned you down to your chair.

Heikal practised politics as a journalist but he never practised journalism as a politician. The difference, according to him, is the difference between journalism and politics; he cannot be anything else other than a journalist. It is more than just a job or hobby or source of income. It is his life.

Heikal told us:

“The Arab world is living an information blackout which is difficult to accept in the era of satellite channels;

“Gamal Abdel-Nasser told me: ‘I swear to God, if the Egyptian people took me to Tahrir Square and hanged me, I would not object. They are right’;

“I watched the play Al-Zaaim [The Leader] during a matinee performance because I sleep early. I like Adel Imam because he is preoccupied with public concerns and the Egyptian citizen;

“I would ask myself in prison: Am I right or am I stubborn? At the end of my soul searching, I was more convinced of my positions;

“After the book The Rise and Fall of Arab Nationalism, they asked me and my response was two verses of poetry by Hafez Ibrahim:

My burden is heavy for you and I see it teetering; Rejoice, I am leaving and heading to my doom.’”

After Heikal published his book The Suez Files, Ahmed Bahaaeddin wrote “this is the most important book in the art and science of history.” I read it in Arabic and foreign languages years ago. It will upend all that is published before on this issue, and anything that will be published afterwards. It will become a principal resource.

Many veteran writers wrote about Heikal. Historian Yunan Labib Rizk said Heikal was “an addicted reader of information. When the state wants to know the details of a political fact, it will seek out Heikal for complete information.” Emad Adid said “He is the greatest writer who is simultaneously read by the ruler and the fuul vendor with great pleasure.” Salah Montasser wrote that “Heikal’s relationship with Gamal Abdel-Nasser reached a closeness that no other journalist in Egypt has reached until today.” Sanaa Al-Bissi said “Heikal said there is no such thing as Nasserism. Gamal Abdel-Nasser did not come up with a new theory; it is not fair to say that. I believe Nasserism is an expression we should not use; it does more harm than good. Nasser’s experiment is part of a nationalist historical context.” Abdel-Sattar Al-Tawila wrote “Heikal is a great national treasure we must cherish. We pray God gives him a long life and good health to continue writing and writing, speaking and speaking… His words are not idle, but stir up new fundamental debate that triggers thought and contemplation — even if you partially or fully disagree with them.”

The proverb goes: “He who has self-discipline can discipline a city.” Heikal had very good self-discipline. He woke up early and slept early and worked precise hours.

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