I don’t think I can say anything about the late Mohammed Hassanein Heikal’s work in journalism, politics, or the public sphere that hasn’t already been said by his friends, colleagues, and students who had the chance to work closely with him throughout his decades-long journey. But I would like to share two of my experiences with him, one personal and one political.
Like others of my generation who first encountered Heikal through his Autumn of Fury, I followed his writings, but my personal connection with Heikal comes through my father, the late writer Ahmed Bahaa-Eldin. Brought together by the same profession, al-Ahram newspaper, and a tumultuous period in political life, they disagreed on many issues, but shared a mutual friendship and esteem and a profound human and familial relationship.
In 1990, my father suffered a severe brain hemorrhage that kept him from writing, moving, and socializing for six straight years until he passed away in the summer of 1996. Throughout these years, Heikal and his wife Hedayat were constant visitors, asking about my father’s health and checking on his family. Even after the hemorrhage made speech impossible for him, they nurtured a friendship that went beyond the professional to include every member of the two families.
When my father died in August 1996 in his summer home on the Abu Talat beach on the North Coast, Heikal was the first person I called and he was the first to come to the beach house. That morning, Heikal contacted al-Ahram to assist us in moving the body to Cairo and arrange the burial and funeral ceremony, knowing that he helped us avoid the pain and embarrassment of dealing with the leadership of an institution that at that time had little concern for its former writers. Two days later, Heikal stood to accept condolences with a few of my father’s close friends, Abd al-Mohsen Qattan from Palestine, Kamal al-Shaer from Jordan, and Lakhdar Brahimi from Algeria.
In the following years, Heikal and his wife remained close to my family, demonstrating a sincerity, loyalty, and care that is no longer common in our era. When my father’s friends—first among them Heikal—established the Friends of Ahmed Bahaa-Eldin Association, he made sure to attend every ceremony honoring the young people who won the annual award. His presence every year in the Greater Cairo Library helped enormously to spread awareness of the prize at a time when the state fought every cultural activity and looked askance at any cultural occasion or meeting.
As time passed, I had the opportunity to get to know Heikal myself, but politically, I had little contact with him until after the June 30 revolution, when I met him during the formation of the new government. He was excited about my participation in the government, aware of the dangers and challenges, and appreciative of the sacrifice made by those engaging in public work at that difficult moment.
In late August 2013, after I announced the Initiative to Protect Democracy, which sparked broad controversy and disagreement along the political spectrum, Heikal called me and I paid him a visit at his office in Giza. He was nervous, perceiving the seriousness of the widening gulf between the new regime and the young people that rebelled in January and June, hoping for a return to the democratic course.
I know that more than once he sought to persuade various government parties of the need to close ranks, protect the June 30 coalition, and avoid further score settling and fanning the flames of hatred, but his efforts unfortunately came to naught. When I resigned in January 2014 due to disagreement with the protest law, Heikal again called me, first to ask about me and second to express his severe distress, not at my resignation per se, but because the country’s course no longer seemed to express the dream that led people to rise up twice.
I think that over the next two years, he did all he could to persuade state officials of the importance of political engagement instead of security solutions alone, and the need to rely on people with expertise and competence in state management instead of just a trusted inner circle. He tirelessly said the same thing in his television interviews with Lamis al-Hadidi.
I believe if these opinions were heeded we’d be much better off today. In any case, I knew that he followed my political activity in this period not only because of his well-known passion for public affairs. It was also a demonstration of his interest in the family of his old friend and his concern to offer advice and counsel when needed.
May God have mercy on the man who left an indelible imprint on journalism and politics in Egypt and the Arab world. My condolences to his family and friends, his vast public and everyone who will miss not only his political and media presence, but his personal company.