‘Icon of Arab journalism’ Heikal dies at 92

For nearly a century, Egyptian political writer Mohamed Hassanein Heikal remained one of the most famous and influential journalists in the Arab world

Shounaz Meky

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For nearly a century, Egyptian political writer Mohamed Hassanein Heikal remained one of the most famous and influential journalists in the Arab world, as well as a cherished source for the history of the Middle East.

Heikal died on Wednesday morning aged 92, having recently suffered kidney problems.

Described as the “Icon of Arab journalism”, Heikal spent more than 15 years as the editor-in-chief of Egypt’s largest state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram, widely regarded as the newspaper of record in the Arab world during his tenure.

He was closely associated with nationalist Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s. He helped articulate the Nasserist ideology of "Arab socialism" at a time when much of the Arab world was shaking off European colonial rule and entangled in an armed conflict with Israel.

The author was a close confidant of Nasser. His close friendship with the leader landed him in the role of a top authority on Egyptian and regional politics.

His eagerly awaited Friday column entitled "Frankly" in Al-Ahram offered the best clues on the thinking of Nasser and gave insight into the region’s political scene, said Emad Eddeen Hussein, Editor-in-chief of privately-owned Egyptian newspaper Al-Shorouk.

“To many readers, Heikal appeared as the closest man in Egypt to Nasser, during which he frequently met and maintained a good friendship with the leader,” Hussein told Al Arabiya News. “His columns were a reflection of Nasser’s thinking and an indicator to where Egypt was heading.”

Heikal valued his role as a writer and journalist more than anything, said Hussein, despite having served as a minister of national guidance and briefly as foreign minister.

However, he was often accused by critics of being an "apologist" for Nasser's authoritarian style and restrictions on individual freedoms, as well as for Egypt's humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel.

After Nasser's death in 1970, Heikal played a key role in ensuring that his successor Anwar Sadat consolidated power as president.

Heikal later fell out with Sadat, after Al-Ahram criticized the president. He was arrested along with hundreds of other figures seen as a threat to Sadat's policies, including the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and economic liberalization.

“Sadat thought the Heikal phenomenon would vanish when he sidelined him from Al-Ahram in 1974. On the contrary, his value as a writer increased more,” Hussein recalled.

In 1981, Sadat ordered him to be jailed along with hundreds of government critics just a month before the president was assassinated by Islamic militants. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, released Heikal and the others but kept the author at arm's length throughout his 29 years in office.

An author of about 40 books, Heikal’s distinguished journalism career brought him fame and influence, but he continued to be a controversial figure over the past decades.

He passed a damning judgment on Sadat’s 11 years in power in his 1983 book “Autumn of Fury, The Assassination of Sadat.”

His sharply critical views of Mubarak were evident in his Arabic-language book - "Mubarak and his age" - published in 2012, a year after Mubarak was ousted in the popular uprising.

Heikal’s books provided a record of his testimonies over historical events written in his own views. His books portrayed him as a confident to many Arab leaders, ranging from Nasser to Sadat, and King Mohammed V of Morocco to Gulf leaders.

Critics accused him of "fabrication" and "fallacy" for imposing his political views while recounting historical facts.

His ideas on the Syrian uprising and his support for Iran, in addition to his stance towards Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, ignited controversy and gained him criticism.

Despite his poor health, Heikal was frequently on TV in recent years, sharing his political views in lengthy interviews.

Late Wednesday, Heikal's body was taken to Cairo's landmark Al-Hussein mosque, where a prayer for the dead was held. He was later buried at the "House of Return" - the name his family has given to its private burial ground on the eastern edge of Cairo.

Sisi eulogized Heikal in a statement, saying the late author "established a distinctive journalistic school that combined political analysis with a magnificent writing style."

(with Reuters and the Associated Press)