Posted On

Bush says Iraq is a threat. Arab leaders warn of chaos in the region in the event of a strike against the Gulf country. Heikal says something else altogether. Amira Howeidy listened in.

Despite US President George W Bush’s attempts, including his speech on
Monday, to convince the American public and people around the world to
support a war on Iraq, Egyptian political and intellectual quarters are more interested in what someone else had to say. During a two- hour-long televised talk, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, one of the region’s most well-known political analysts, argued on the private Dream TV channel on 4 October that contrary to widely-held belief, Iraq and the Arab world are not the US’s ultimate target, but merely the “battlefield”.

“It’s all a side show,” he said.

“What is about to happen in Iraq is a process of taming the coming
international monsters, or international competitors who do not include Iraq nor the Arab world,” he argued. The primary targets are “China, Russia, Japan, Germany and other countries.
Unfortunately the Iraqi people will suffer, and so will we all, but this has nothing to do with us… this has to do with international
strategy.” Following the end of the Cold War, a new international
reality began to take shape, said Heikal.

The US needed some time to adjust to the changed international
environment in which it emerged as the world’s sole superpower. With the advent of the younger Bush’s administration, Heikal explained, America’s strategy became more defined in terms of the ways to maintain its position as the sole power in the international order.

“It’s insulting to believe that 9/11 was a turning point that made of
Bush an angry Greek god, bent on destruction… States don’t go mad and this cannot be said of a country like the US. The American empire grew faster than any empire in history. It is the most powerful in the
history of mankind and it’s a power that plans and does not improvise
its policies — it made think-tanks an industry. It surpassed other
empires in that it realised very early on that thought is the beginning of any action… In short, the US is a real state, one comprising institutions, that does not allow anyone, even its own president, to go mad. That is why we have to understand that we are faced with carefully studied calculations [about the future regional and international configurations].”

Heikal, an icon of Egyptian journalism and, for close on 20 years, a
close confidante of and advisor to President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, is not today just a renowned political commentator, however. Heikal’s
association with political power and indeed any other sort of political activity ended in the mid-seventies, when he fell out with Nasser’s successor President Anwar El- Sadat over the latter’s policies on the Arab- Israeli conflict. Imprisoned by Sadat in September 1980, and later released, along with hundreds of other political and intellectual figures, by President Hosni Mubarak, who took over power following Sadat’s assassination in October of the same year, Heikal has firmly stayed away from the political stage, whether government or opposition.

Nevertheless, he has uniquely come to enjoy a wide popular appeal that
in most countries is the preserve of leading political figures, whether in the state or the opposition. For many years he rarely published in the Egyptian press, preferring the censorship-free international press instead. But with the launch of the Egyptian monthly Weghat Nazar
[Points of view] magazine less than three years ago, Heikal found a
regular platform to address the Arab world. Also, he was invited to
lecture at the annual Cairo International Book Fair several times.

But the massive audiences that filled the lecture hall, extending to the
gates of the spacious fairgrounds, as Heikal voiced political dissent,
discouraged the organisers of the state-run event from inviting him
again.

Launched less than a year ago, Dream TV, a private satellite channel
primarily owned by Egyptian businessman Ahmed Bahgat and 10 per
cent-owned by the state-run Egyptian Radio and TV Union (ERTU), is
believed to be Egyptians’ most popular TV channel. In homes, coffee
shops, shops and almost any public venue with a TV, everyone seems to be
tuning into Dream. In the absence of viewer ratings, it’s impossible to
measure its popularity. But according to the channel’s general manager,
Osama El- Sheikh, “Since there are two million decoders in Egypt, then
something like 10 million people watch us,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Given that it was the channel through which Heikal chose to address the
nation, that might not be much of an exaggeration.

Al-Ustaz, or the professor, is the name of what has become the Heikal
programme. According to El-Sheikh, when Dream was launched it was keen
to showcase “national symbols”, “because, after all, we are an Egyptian
channel”, and of course Heikal was at the top of the channel’s list.
After intensive efforts by the channel and much reluctance on Heikal’s
part, he agreed to appear last March when Israel invaded the West Bank,
committed the Jenin massacre and besieged Palestinian Authority leader
Yasser Arafat. “He decided it was time to talk, and talk he did,”
El-Sheikh says.

Heikal, explains El-Sheikh, thought it would be a one-time appearance,
but the response called out for him to take to the airwaves again. In
that first appearance, Heikal criticised the Arab summit in Beirut, the
Saudi peace initiative and those who viewed Arafat’s siege as more
important than the dangerous situation befalling the Palestinian people
themselves. His address did not, however, make reference to Egyptian
politics.

Because of his huge impact, says El- Sheikh, “we convinced Heikal to
make another appearance three months later and it was agreed that he’d
appear every three months.” But the second appearance, which was
broadcast in July, proved more controversial as Heikal pointed to
information disclosed by a British official about “secret” clauses in
the Camp David accords stipulating that Egypt play a role in maintaining
security in Gaza. The government later vehemently denied the existence
of such secret clauses.

In his third and most recent appearance (which was broadcast three times
this week), Heikal contested claims that Iraq is a threat, “and America
knows it more than anyone else”. He said that Iraq has never possessed
nuclear weapons, and all its weapons of mass destruction were destroyed
with the full knowledge of arms inspectors. “All they’re looking for now
are the documents that detail Iraq’s armament programme, which they
think are hidden in Saddam’s [Hussein] presidential palaces, and the
names of all the scientists and technicians who worked in the
programme.”

Nor is the US interested in a regime change, he contended, because the
sanctions that have been imposed on Iraq since its invasion of Kuwait in
1990 not only isolated the country completely, but would eventually lead
to regime change anyway. “You don’t need a violent war to do that,” said
Heikal. He went on to dismiss common theories of why the US wants a war
in Iraq. It’s not the Zionist lobby that is pushing the Bush
administration “because this lobby is only allowed to be effective when
it meets the interests of the US, it’s never the opposite. America is
using Israel, not the opposite… America knows its interests very well,
and it really doesn’t need our advice.”

Although the topic was the war on Iraq and the US, Heikal struck on some
very sensitive local chords. The Arab world has weakened, he said, since
Egypt lost interest in its leadership, and that is the reason that today
Saudi Arabia is effectively leading the Arab world. “It’s inaccurate to
make statements about how we suffered in our wars.” Egypt didn’t go
bankrupt because of war “and we shouldn’t invent things that didn’t
happen in order to justify our withdrawal from history”.

In the 1956 Suez War, only 980 people were killed and in the 1967 War,
we lost 6,700. In total, the Arabs have lost only 45,000-50,000 people
in their wars with Israel, “And no one received as much money as we did
following the war… between 1973-1977, Egypt received $27 billion from
[Gulf] Arab countries.”

It was not surprising therefore that members of the public would start
wondering about such unusual freedom of speech allowed on the only
private television channel sanctioned by the state, which is also
partially state-owned.

Dream TV’s El-Sheikh believes that official tolerance of free speech is
evident. “We’ve never received official complaints because of Heikal, or
anyone else, but then, overall we’re quite balanced.”

And while El-Sheikh acknowledges that such programmes as those involving
Heikal could be viewed as contributing, however indirectly, to the
government’s democratic and free-speech credentials, he denies that this
is done on purpose.
“Of course, the government believes we’re good for this [democratic] image,” El-Sheikh agrees, “but we’re not doing this for the government.
We’re not a political channel, we’re interested in politics but we don’t
follow any specific political line.”

But with the growing impact of the media on shaping public opinion,
especially in a region suffering from political stagnation, some are
wondering where this will lead.
For Heikal, change has to come from “this place, this capital, this
country called Egypt… when this country moves, the entire [Arab] nation will follow”.