Heikal the journalist and ‘propagandist’ – Part II
By : Abdulrahman al-Rashed
After the defeat of the 1967 war, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal must have faced a difficult mission when he undertook the tinkering task. This must have been similar to the Goebbels situation with the arrival of the first Allies troops on the outskirts of Berlin and the approaching German defeat.
However, we witnessed how Heikal tried to save whatever he could. When the Socialist Union was mobilizing thousands to rally in the center of Cairo, Heikal was directing the resignation of Abdel Nasser. We also saw how, later on, the people wanted Nasser to stay in power. Then Heikal blamed minister Abdul Hakim Amer for the defeat. Amer committed “suicide” in his cell shortly afterwards.
Heikal waged a cleansing war to smarten the image of his president, by promoting stories about internal and external conspiracies. Indeed, he succeeded temporarily in restoring the reputation of his leader, but the latter had changed the “agenda”. The gap between the truth and what he was promoting was getting larger, to the extent that it was no longer possible for Heikal to promote the image of the “nationalist pan-Arab socialist hero who believes in the use of force,” especially when he president appeared on the evening news with Americans and “reactionists”.
The “propagandist” needs a bit of truth and a bit of victory as was the case in the Suez War in 1956. Without these two factors the propaganda would fail to reach its target. Abdel Nasser died and the “propagandist” remained loyal to him for 40 years. It was confirmed later that Heikal is a propaganda engineer who cannot be replaced in Egypt. Nasser’s successors, presidents Sadat and Mubarak, have accomplished great achievements but their publicity was weak.
Sadat triumphed over Israel but was defeated in front of the propaganda of the Baath Party and the leftist current in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. As for Mubarak, he drowned due to his local publicity. Mr. Ahmed Mousselmani reported in his series about Heikal that the latter was close to Sadat and Mubarak but he did not get along with them. The same happened with Mursi and Sisi; Heikal’s pride surpassed what was given to him.
I guess that the problem with Heikal was himself, as he could not get off the very top ever since the death of Abdel Nasser because he was the sole commander-in-chief of the media and political partner. There is no doubt that he was an important figure but he must have kept in mind that the world cannot be filled by one person or one group; that history is like a train that can accommodate many people and it does not have just one station. When I say he could not get off the top what I meant is that because of his pride and his own history he did not come out of the box that he built for Abdel Nasser, his generation and era.
Heikal called me once in London and I met him for tea at the Claridges hotel. The reason behind our meeting was that he wanted me to help him arrange an interview with Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (may God have mercy on him), the Saudi crown prince at the time. I explained to him that I could not do so. I knew about the poor relationship between Heikal and President Mubarak, which must have been the reason why Saudi officials avoided meeting him, so as not to give the wrong signal to Mubarak.
The problem with Heikal was he could not get off the top since the death of Abdel Nasser as he was the sole commander-in-chief of the media and a political partner
In response to his invitation for coffee, I invited him for dinner with a common friend Mustafa Nasser. When I arrived for the dinner in St. Lorenzo, I accidently met an old work colleague Abdel Bari Atwan. When Heikal arrived at the restaurant, he saw me with Abdel Bari who started to blame him for not answering his calls and that he is now in the hospitality of “petroleum people”. It was a criticism yet looked like as a joke. However, Heikal quickly justified himself, claiming that he was invited by our friend Mustafa and not me.
That did not bother me, as it was a white lie and the dinner was indeed with our common friend. To soothe Heikal’s uneasiness, I told him: You are invited to a dinner by a “petroleum person” like me, but Abdul Bari was just joking as he has spent two-thirds of his professional career working for oil institutions.
I met him only a few times after that, in Cairo and London, where I was more than ever sure that he was like a general refusing to retire despite war coming to an end. He was working every day; he had a strong personality that can fascinate his addressees and he has an amazing vivacity in his 80s, at the time, as if he was a young man in his 30s.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad contacted him at the start of his ordeal with the revolution, and he tried to make Heikal promote the story of the Israeli conspiracy against the Greater Arab armies. Heikal tried to recycle Assad’s arguments but he did not defend him till the end; he moved on to work with the other camp “al-Jazeera”, where he found a warm studio to welcome him.
Heikal remains an important pillar of our media and political history. He is one of the most skillful political theater designers and one of the most brilliant image portraitists and novelists of our history, regardless of any other truth.
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.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.