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Muhammad Husain Haykal

Muhammad Husain Haykal

Muhammad Husain Haykal (or Heikal) (born 1923) was a powerful journalist and editor of Al Ahram (1957-1974), widely read in the Arab world and internationally. He also served as an adviser to Egyptian Presidents Nasser and Sadat.

Muhammad Husain Haykal (or Heikal) was born in Cairo in 1923 into a family of middle class origin. He finished his studies at Cairo University with a degree in economics and journalism. At the age of 19 he began his lifelong career in journalism, which not only took him nearly everywhere in the world, but brought him in close contact with many of the world's statesmen and politicians, most notably Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. His writings gave him world renown; during the peak of his career in the 1960s and 1970s he may have been the most powerful journalist in the world.

Early Career

Fame and power came rather quickly to Haykal. He began his career as a simple editor of a Cairo English language daily, The Egyptian Gazette, and it was for this paper that he covered the famous World War II Battle of El Alamein. Between 1942 and 1957 he worked for almost all of Egypt's leading newspapers and weekly magazines, including Rus al-Yusuf; Akhar Sa'a; Akhbar al-Yawm, and al-Akhbar. He not only covered domestic events but travelled extensively as a foreign correspondent reporting on world events and international crises. He covered the Arab-Israeli war in 1948 (when he met King Abdullah ibn Husein of Jordan and Prime Minister David Ben Gurion of Israel), the Greek civil war (in 1947 and 1949), and the Korean War (in 1949). By the age of 25, when he won the King Farouk Prize in journalism for the first—but not the last—time, he was already a celebrity in Egypt. Between 1953 and 1956 he was the editor of the weekly Akhir Sa'a; then he became editor of Akhbar al-Yaum, a daily. Finally in 1957 he became the editor of the powerful, semi-official Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, a post he retained until he was removed by President Anwar al-Sadat in 1974.

Haykal and Nasser

Haykal first met Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli war, when Nasser was a major commanding a batallion in the Negev desert. In July 1952 the Egyptian monarchy was ended by a military coup planned and executed by a group of officers led by Nasser. After holding several high offices, Nasser became president of the new Egyptian Republic in 1956.

The real beginning of the relationship between Nasser and Haykal took place in 1952 when Nasser asked Haykal to edit and publish his memoirs. Haykal persuaded Nasser to turn his memoirs into a book which would explain Nasser's thinking to the Egyptian public. Thus was born Nasser's famous work, The Philosophy of the Revolution (1959).

Thereafter, Nasser and Haykal became friends. Nasser was charmed by Haykal's lively mind and attentive ear and eagerly sought the insights Haykal brought him on social and political life in Egypt. Soon Haykal was as powerful as most Egyptian cabinet ministers; indeed, many ministers sought Haykal in an effort to gain Nasser's ear.

For ten years in the 1960s Haykal was Nasser's unofficial political and press adviser, working closely with Nasser in formulating the ideology and policies of the Egyptian government. His Friday editorial in al-Ahram, "Bi-Saraha" ("Frankly Speaking"), was the barometer of Egyptian policy. In it he explained and justified the actions of the Egyptian state. These articles were closely read not only in Egypt, but throughout the Arab world for what they told of Arab and Egyptian politics, and they were regularly quoted and analyzed in the international press.

Haykal was an advocate of Arab nationalism and patriotism, of the need for a united Arab front against Israel, and of democracy in Egypt. He felt that Egypt could never stand against the Israeli challenge unless it fought backwardness at home and created a more open society based on the rule of law.

Haykal was generally considered a moderate in Nasser's entourage and a man of pro-Western sentiments. This reputation created some enmity toward him among Egyptian Leftists, chief among them Ali Sabri, prime minister from 1954 to 1957 and later secretary general of the Arab Socialist Union, Egypt's sole political party under Nasser. The rivalry between Sabri and Haykal only ended in 1973 when Sabri and his men were arrested for plotting a coup against Sadat.

For a brief time in 1970 Haykal was minister of national guidance, and in this position he played an important role in the formation of a joint Egyptian-Libyan-Sudanese information service and in creating the Egyptian Radio and Television Federation. He resigned from this post after Nasser's sudden death in October of the same year.

At the height of Haykal's political influence in 1970 he was the editor of al-Ahram, minister of information, acting minister of foreign affairs, a member of the National Security Council, and a member of the Central Committee of the Arab Socialist Union.

The history of al-Ahram will always be inextricably associated with Haykal's name. It was Haykal who gave the paper the organization and direction which made it the best newspaper in Egypt and in the Arab world. He built an impressive news building as al-Ahram's headquarters and equipped it with the latest and most sophisticated technology. Under his guidance, al-Ahram's daily circulation reached nearly one million, making it the most widely read newspaper in the Arab world. In association with the newspaper he developed a publishing house, a large advertising agency, and a computer service used by many Egyptian companies.

Haykal and Sadat

After Nasser's death and the subsequent election of Anwar Sadat as president, Haykal resigned as minister of information, but he kept his post as head of al-Ahram. At first, his relationship with Sadat was close; he became Sadat's adviser and helped Sadat foil the plot against him led by Sabri. Haykal is credited with having persuaded Sadat to follow moderate policies and to establish close ties with the United States. However, the relationship soured after 1973, when Haykal managed to convey the impression that Sadat was not a competent successor to Nasser. In 1974, after al-Ahram printed a series of articles critical of Sadat's policies, Haykal was removed as editor. From then on he worked as a free-lance journalist and writer. When domestic opposition to the Sadat regime grew more vocal in 1978, Sadat accused Haykal, among other things, of atheism and plotting to establish a rival "center of power" and had him arrested. Haykal denied the allegations. His arrest was followed by such strong international protest and indignation that Sadat was compelled to release him, although he was prohibited from writing in the Egyptian press and from travelling abroad. These restrictions were removed in 1981 after Sadat's assassination and the election of Hosni Mubarak as president. Haykal returned to his role as a free-lance journalist.

Haykal maintained his prestigious position as Egypt's leading journalist, writer and intellectual; and was considered as a negotiator between Egypt and other Arab states which were hostile to Egypt, notably Libya.

Haykal was the author of several books in Arabic and English, all known for their lively style and clarity. Among the most famous are those dealing with Nasser and his foreign policy: The Cairo Documents (1973), The Road to Ramadan (1975), and The Sphinx and the Commissar (1979). Autumn of Fury: The Assassination of Sadat, New York: Random House, (1983) provided insight into the political history of Egypt, especially the post-Nasser period, and clarified the confusion of extremist groups which operated in the Middle East.

Further Reading

The best works on Haykal are those written by Haykal himself, especially the three mentioned above: The Cairo Documents, The Road to Ramadan, and The Sphinx and the Commissar. A good biography of Haykal by Edward R. Sheehan is found in the introduction of the edition of The Cairo Documents published by Doubleday (1973).

Yaacov Shimoni's Biographical Dictionary of the Middle East, Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Publishing House Ltd., (1991) provides an encapsulated biography of Muhamed Heykal (sic) which is clear and detailed. □

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