Modern Egyptian Culture
– Part 23: The Strategist
Mohammed Hassanein Heikal always dubbed himself a journalist. In addition he was Egypt’s most influential national security strategist in the seven decades since the fall of the Egyptian monarchy and the creation of the republic.
Heikal effectively followed what he called the “Easternists’ school”, which, in his definition, saw Egypt’s history orienting it towards the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and often further beyond towards Iran. In this view, Egypt has always looked to that “East” for influence and trade, for averting risks that had repeatedly arrived at its eastern borders, and even for inspiration. (Both mainstream Christianity and Islam had come to Egypt from the east). In the Easternists’ narrative, modern Egypt, from Mohammed Ali and Ibrahim pasha to King Farouk to Gamal Abdel-Nasser had internalised that orientation towards the east and placed it at the core of the country’s view of herself and of her neighbourhood.
This view led Heikal to define Egypt’s identity as solidly Arab. Heikal was a well rounded thinker and exposed to some of the most refined Western cultural centres to realise the importance of Egypt’s ancient past in the trajectory of its history as well as to appreciate the immense power that ancient past has had on how different cultures close and far have imagined Egypt. Heikal was also a sophisticated conceptualist to conceive of complex intellectual constructs such as a multi-layered national identity. Still, in Heikal’s easternist narrative that ancient past as well as the succession of Greek and Roman and non-Arab epochs had by far lesser impact on modern Egypt’s psyche than the impact of the influences from the east.
Heikal was a pragmatist. He did not waste too many words on endless debates on identity and national feelings. What mattered to him was how that identity and view of the past affected decision making in national security domains.
Heikal’s thought was part and parcel of Nasser’s project. In one view, Heikal was Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s closest friend and confidante in the period from the late 1950s until Nasser’s death in 1970. In this view, this friendship had evolved through a two-decades-long dialogue that revolved round international relations but extended to culture, art, philosophy, and religion. For many, Heikal was Nasser’s sole intellectual partner when it came to the latter’s thinking about the world.
In another view - invoked by some of Nasser’s ardent opponents - Heikal was the architect of Nasser’s foreign policy. Their view is that Heikal weaved a conception of the Nasserite project that not only stretched historical facts, but also transcended Nasser’s own ideas. In this assessment, Heikal spent decades after Nasser’s death making sense of what was essentially a well-meaning, certainly nationalist, but ill-thought through, chaotic foreign policy effectively designed and run by one man.
Either case, Nasser’s foreign policy, itself the cornerstone and the most important guiding reference of Arab nationalism since the end of World War Two, was defined, scoped, and presented to the world through the writings of Mohammed Hassanein Heikal. In hundreds of articles and a succession of major books, Heikal gave detailed analyses, and often an insider’s account, of the Arab Israeli struggle, key Arab-Western interactions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in some cases incisive assessments of Arab leaders’ and ruling families’ thought-worlds.
Heikal’s closeness to Nasser gave him a unique positioning in Egypt and the Arab World, and later opened to him valuable gates globally. Heikal was by far the most successful Arab journalist in the world in the second half of the twentieth century. Serious international presses published his books, which in several cases were serialised in leading Western newspapers. And for a period - from the 1970s to the early 1990s during the aftermaths of the Second Gulf War - he was the go-to analyst of Middle Eastern politics at leading international affairs circles. When one of Japan’s largest newspapers commissioned a series on global politics and selected for its writing a handful of thinkers it had deemed the most authoritative voices on their regions, Heikal was the choice from the Middle East and the Arab World.
Heikal used his opportunities masterfully. But he was also methodical, disciplined, exposed to the best in class in international journalism, and before and after an extremely talented writer. He also had a beautiful command over Arabic’s lyrical capacities as well as an artist’s usage of the language’s transcendent poetry. Regularly in his writings, and later in a succession of TV shows in which he lectured his audience on Egypt’s and the region’s modern history, he would masterfully deploy Arabic poetry to summarise a point or conclude an argument. Millions were impressed by the gravitas of the man’s record and reputation, as well as by the power of his delivery. These factors placed Heikal way ahead of all of his Arab counterparts for over a half century. Many tried to imitate him, and scores attacked him. But he remained until his death the highest summit in Arab journalism and political writing, a highly sought-after narrator of what was and a man of foresight of what was to come.
Repeatedly, however, the flair of the rhetorician trumped the rigour of the thinker. Also often, the seductions of stardom and his appreciation of his own achievements relative to the entirety of his generation of Arab journalists drew him to what was lesser than his best. And with all of that, it is impossible to consider Heikal a detached, let alone an objective reader of Egypt’s or the Arab world’s modern political history. Not only he was for over six decades Arab nationalism’s grandest theorist; he was also a party to, and often a participant in the history he was recounting.
Heikal’s oeuvre remain, however, the most authoritative, documented, and well read account of Egypt’s and the Arab world’s modern political history, a major contribution to how Egyptians and Arabs saw themselves and the world, their ambitions and struggles, and their dreams and delusions, in the past seven decades.