By Mohamed Heikal. London:
HarperCollins, 1996, pp. 572.
OF the countless books published on Middle East politics, precious few become essential reading for those with a professional or academic interest in the region. Heikal’s latest book joins this select club. It is comprehensive and well-written, and provides a unique and refreshing insight into the machinations of Middle East diplomacy to which the author has been privy for the past four decades.
Born into a middle class family in Cairo, Heikal studied law and economics at Cairo University. After the 1952 free officers coup he became a friend and confidant of Gamal Abdul Nasser. In 1957, he became Egypt’s most powerful journalist after his appointment as editor of the semi-official daily Al-Abram.
Following Nasser’s death in 1970, Heikal initially had a close relationship with the new president, Anwar Sadat. However, relations soured after Heikal began criticising Sadat’s deviation from Nasserist principles. In 1978, Heikal lost his passport and was harassed by the police for opposing Sadat’s peace agreement with Israel. In 1981, his criticism of the president led to his imprisonment. He was released shortly after Sadat’s assassination.
Heikal no longer walks Cairos corridors of power, but he remains one of the Arab world’s most influential political commentators.
The book is true to its title. Heikal does not offer a standard history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but gives the inside story of one of the twentieth century’s most intractable political disputes. The covert contacts, the egos, the double dealing and the misconceptions starting from the first days of Zionist settlement in Palestine to the Oslo accords are all here in black and white.
There is a downside to reading a history book by a political insider like Heikal.
Although no individual escapes his critical eye, he is rather more generous in his treatment of some, such as Nasser, than he is with others, notably his former jailer Sadat.
This aside, Heikal brings to life some of the seminal moments in recent Middle Eastern history. His descriptions of Sadat during the first triumphant hours of the 1973 war are memorable. ‘He was wearing a Pierre Cardindesigned version of a field marshal’s uniform, a sartorial fantasy superb in its expensive understatement,’ Heikal writes. ‘The troops became ‘my sons in the army’, the airforce was composed of ‘my aeroplanes’ and the navy of ‘my submarines’,’ Days later, the Egyptian army command was in disarray and Sadat was desperately lobbying the US to secure a ceasefire from Israel: ‘The fact that Sadat had robbed Egypt, or himself, of a considerable military victory did not become known until later.’ Heikal is damning about Sadat’s style of rule. ‘The Egyptian leader’s wish to focus attention on himself and to exclude others from the decision-making process had high costs. The knowledge of the Egyptian civil service and the experience of prominent leaders was left untapped while Sadat listened to a handful of people, relying on hunch, intuition and capacity for improvisation,’ he writes.
Sadat needed all those powers of improvisation when he made his dramatic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977. Sadat decided on the initiative after a secret meeting in Morocco between Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Moshe Dayan and Sadat’s personal representative Hassan Tuhami. Heikal mocks Sadat’s choice of Tuhami for such a delicate mission. A few years earlier, Tuhami had been withdrawn as Egypt’s ambassador to Austria after claiming to have seen the Prophet Mohammed during a dinner with colleagues.
After a few months of rest in Cairo, Sadat appointed him a minister. ‘This therapy, however, did not work,’ says Heikal. ‘Tuhami subsequently reported receiving visits from Savyedna el-Khedr, a legendary figure in Islamic mythology who is regarded as a holy spirit roving the earth, carrying inspiration and performing miracles.’ Following the Morocco meeting, Tuhami told Sadat that Dayan had said that everything was negotiable, and Egypt had no idea of the concessions Israel was prepared to make if there could be direct negotiations. This spurred the Egyptian leader to defy the rest of the Arab world and visit the Jewish state. He was in for a rude shock. ‘When the two sides reassembled in Jerusalem they discovered that the whole visit had been based on a misunderstanding. Sadat began saying that Egypt had received a message (through Tuhami) that Israel was ready to withdraw, and (Israeli prime minister) Begin instantly interrupted:
‘Mr President we did not say that’.’ But the deed had been done and Sadat had been fatally compromised.
Heikal devotes the final chapters of the book to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. The author offers a wealth of new information about events leading up to the signing of the Oslo accords, but is pessimistic about the chances of an enduring peace in the Middle East. ‘Every initiative so far has been based on finding a way for Arabs to surrender with a figleaf of dignity.. the Middle East cries out for peace, but peace with justice and dignity. An agreement reflecting 90 per cent of one party’s demands and 10 per cent of the other’s is not a settlement; it is a formula for future shock,’ he writes.
The book ends on an ominous note: ‘No one can say how long the unjust Oslo peace will last, but the strength of Hamas and Islamic Jihad should be a signal.. If Islam is being radicalised, it is because the Arab soul has been deprived of other defences, leaving faith as the last redoubt of a taboo broken but not appeased. And therein lies the portent of coming dangers.’