Heikal: The supreme spiritual guide of the state

People received news of the passing of the most prominent Egyptian — and possibly Arab — journalist, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, with a lot of commotion.

Above all else, the furor surrounding Heikal’s passing stems from it being long-anticipated news. A centenarian with excellent cognitive capacity, Heikal embodied an era that refused to end; each false news of his passing marked yet another victory over those who wished for it. He was a major challenge to all Egyptian journalists, not because he was the alpha journalist of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s administration, but because he maintained this position despite the generational turnovers and the different presidencies.

Long after the official end of his world — that of Nasser’s Egypt — Heikal’s reappearance during the eras of former presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak was a reminder of his perseverance. This changed following the January 25 revolution, when his impressive malleable wit made him assume a different status. He was no longer just a representative of a bygone era, which he was, or a wise man in retrospect, which he also was. Heikal impressively molded a new place for himself and came to symbolize the spirit of the state. That is not to say that he represented the state as a government and an executive authority, but rather the concept of the state as a good rational actor. He then became the only mediator between the people and this so-called good state. In other words, he became the state’s one and only “supreme spiritual guide” — no wonder all parties visited Heikal after the revolution to ask for his guidance on the shape of the new state.

This also explains why many commentators mistakenly assumed that Heikal was the mastermind behind taking over power on July 3, 2013. It is true that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi often consulted Heikal, but in a manner no different than others who resorted to him as history’s wise man who rose above all events, movements and minor battles.

Heikal’s role as the government’s number-one journalist ended over 46 years ago now. He has, however, stood his ground as a representative of the “regime,” simply because no one succeeded in assuming a similar position during the eras of Sadat and Mubarak. Many major journalists in Egypt have tried to become new Heikals and failed. Their failures have only solidified this perception of him as an unattainable journalistic ideal.

Heikal’s journalistic brilliance is not what scored him this status, however — his partnership with Nasser did. Heikal was Nasser’s journalist, friend and private consultant. They were two parts of the equation that made up “Heikal.” In other words, Heikal was the product of a partnership between journalism and the state in Nasser’s Egypt. Attempts to reproduce this historical experiment have failed because the focus was always on reproducing Heikal, without paying much attention to his indispensible political partner.

This article was translated and edited for clarity. You can read the original Arabic here.


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