Sunday 25 September 2016

Obituary: Mohamed Hassanein Heikal

Veteran Egyptian journalist best known as Nasser's mouthpiece

Independent.ie Newdesk

Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30

Critic: Hassanein Heikal
Critic: Hassanein Heikal

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who has died aged 92, was a veteran Egyptian political commentator, sage, and distinguished journalist whose career spanned more than 70 years; he was best known as an outspoken supporter of Egypt's first president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

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Heikal was a critic of Nasser's presidential successors Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, as well as for 17 years the head of the influential semi-official Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.

Heikal, with his trademark cigar, saw himself as an authority on the Middle East. Inevitably he often cut across the borders between objective reporting and politics, especially in the 1950s and 1960s when he espoused the pan-Arabist views of his mentor, President Nasser, who wanted to create a single Arab nation from the Atlantic to the Gulf.

Heikal's fame increased with his highly regarded Friday column in Al-Ahram titled Bi-Saraha (Frankly Speaking, which ran from 1957 to 1974), which he used to convey Nasser's messages, acting as a barometer of Egyptian government policy. In 1970 he became a member of Nasser's ruling Arab Socialist Union party and briefly an acting foreign minister.

Heikal clashed with President Sadat over his domestic and international policies, including rapprochement with Israel, prompting Sadat to relieve him of his duties in 1974. In 1981, Sadat ordered Heikal to be jailed, along with hundreds of others, although he was released a month later when Mubarak came to power. (Later Heikal became a critic of Mubarak.)

During the years that followed he wrote some of his most influential books, including Autumn of Fury about the assassination of Sadat, and he embarked on a broadcasting career with the Qatar-based Arabic news channel Al Jazeera, and other outlets, commenting extensively on the 2011 Arab Spring.

His book Secret Channels: The Inside Story of Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations, published in 1996, is considered among the few books that examine in depth the secret talks that led to the Oslo Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993.

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal was born on September 23, 1923, into the family of a wheat merchant in the Nile Delta. His father thought Mohamed, as his oldest son, should help manage the business. Instead Heikal decided to seek to improve his education at the respected American University in Cairo.

In 1943 Heikal joined the British-edited Egyptian Gazette, whose contributors included George Orwell and Lawrence Durrell.

He won praise for his coverage of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, the Korean War, and for his reporting on the military coup that brought Nasser to power in 1952. He met Nasser while reporting on the 1948 war and they became firm friends.

Al-Ahram grew in stature during his tenure as editor, becoming Egypt's and the Arab world's authoritative newspaper, prompting the Washington Post to describe Heikal's writings as "the voice of Egypt" and the outside world's "window on the secretive regime".

His last book was Mubarak and His Time which poured scorn on former President Mubarak as "inept and corrupt". Heikal supported the candidacy of US educated Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egyptian President since 2014, after the fall of Mohammed Morsi, claiming the strong leader would be the best option to save the country from chaos.

Heikal suffered from kidney disease in his final years, before dying on February 17.

He married Hedayt Elwi Taymour, his "life partner" as he called her, in 1955 and she survives him with their three sons.

Telegraph.co.uk

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