“The president can decide on my departure from Al-Ahram but where will I go after this is only my decision … and my decision is to devote my time to writing books,” prominent Egyptian journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal had said after former president Anwar Sadat decided to dismiss him from his position at Al-Ahram newspaper in 1974, after 17 years of being its editor-in-chief.
This was a turning point in the life of Heikal that ended his career as the head of the most important Arabic newspaper at that time, which shaped the Arab public opinion. Afterwards, Heikal began writing his widely-read books, marking an important form of documentation of several political eras, not only in Egypt but in the Middle East.
Several factors and reasons contributed to his epithet among many Arabs as “journalist of the century”, including his closeness to decision makers, his extraordinary memory, and his age, which allowed him to live through numerous political eras and events.
A coincidence led Heikal into the house of Mohammed Nagib, the leader of the Free Officers’ Movement on 23 July 1952, when the movement seized power. Both men went to the army headquarters that night, where Heikal met the real leader of the movement, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The moment marked a commencement of the extraordinary relationship between the two men, that would determine the key features of Heikal’s long-spanning career.
This relationship was also behind widespread accusations that Heikal purely wrote based on his firm Nasserist ideology, or that he used his relationship with Nasser to gain access to more information. “Absolute loyalty to one person is a trait only dogs display; but I am loyal to the idea represented by Nasser,” Heikal once said, describing his relationship with Nasser.
Both critics and admirers agree over his professional iconicism and his craft. Heikal was able to meet and interview some of the most important decision makers and public figures in the 20th century. Walking with Albert Einstein in Princeton, sitting with Al-Khumani in his exile in Paris, or riding a train with the former US president Eisenhower during his candidacy, Heikal built on the facts he obtained to create his unique worldview.
Heikal remained prominent and influential, even in his final years. His television programme “A Lifetime’s Experience” was controversial, featuring his own recollections of important incidents in Arab history and showing hundreds of original documents.
The journalist did not put down his pen after the 25 January Revolution in 2011, and wrote three books to document the Mubarak era.
Mostafa El-Fekki said in his eulogy that Heikal was an extraordinary journalist and the mentor of many generations. “Heikal is bigger than any words we can say today,” said prominent Egyptian writer Youssef Al-Qaeed.
The Egyptian presidency mourned Heikal and said Egypt has lost a witness of several important events of modern Egyptian history. “Through his books, he contributed to documenting many important points in the history of the Middle East,” the presidency stated.
Photos by Ahmed Hendawy and Mohamed Omar