Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who passed away a few days ago, was an important part of the history of the media and political conflict in Egypt and the region. He witnessed and participated in the eras of King Farouk and Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, as well as the second phase of the Egyptian revolution. Heikal kept working as a journalist from the palace to the street until he died in his nineties.
He was innovative and always added value to the media and politics, but he divided opinions. Those who are in Heikal’s camp will cheer him without thinking, and those who are against his camp will cheer against him without thinking.
He handled media propaganda under Abdel Nasser. When we see Heikal’s work in this context, it is not difficult to understand and appreciate it, like Joseph Goebbels, who was such a master of Nazi propaganda that his theories are still being taught in media institutes.
Heikal was a distinguished professor and outstanding journalist in the propaganda media. He achieved fame and success under Abdel Nasser because propaganda was one of the three most important weapons along with the political and military ones. Heikal’s performance, and the power of his media apparatus, were an important reason for the popularity of Abdel Nasser, who relied a lot on the media.
Truth vs propaganda
However, the 1967 war was the first media defeat for Heikal because his embellishments failed, calling the defeat by Israel a “setback.” When student demonstrations erupted against Abdel Nasser in Cairo University - previously the scene of demonstrations supporting him - Heikal’s propaganda failed to convince the people.
Heikal realized late the enormous difference between what was being fed to the people and the truth.Abdulrahman al-Rashed
However, Abdel Nasser failed to understand Heikal’s mission and task. The late president wanted to combine flagrant contradictions after the 1967 defeat. He wanted to retain the image painted by Heikal of a pan-Arab nationalist leader against imperialism and Zionism, but at the same time accepted American imperialism and indirect negotiations with Israel. Heikal was able to redraw Abdel Nasser’s image from a revolutionary akin to Che Guevara, to a tolerant leader such as Mahatma Gandhi, but Abdel Nasser did not want to change his image.
Heikal realized late the enormous difference between what was being fed to the people and the truth. During the 1967 war, he was promoting military data sent to him, publishing them on the front page of Al-Ahram newspaper.
He reported, for example, that “Egypt downed 130 enemy aircraft,” but discovered later that not only were no Israeli aircraft downed, but the enemy had destroyed Egypt’s air force and airports and seized the Sinai Peninsula, which is three times larger than Palestine. Israel had reached the bank of the Suez Canal, and it was no longer possible for any ship or tanker to sail through it without Israeli approval.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Feb. 19, 2016.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.