ONE OF EGYPT'S premier journalists and more controversial pundits, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal was for many years chief editor of the Cairo daily, al- Ahram. In that capacity, his weekly column, "Speaking Frankly," was read from Baghdad to Rabat. A civilian confidant of Nasser's, he twice held cabinet rank and, after the severance of U. S.-Egyptian diplomatic relations in 1967, was for a time a channel of informal communications between the American Interests Section in Cairo and Nasser. Some swear by him, extolling his political insights; others at him, alleging untrustworthiness.
When Sadat assumed the presidency in September 1970, Heikal remained presidential counselor. Estrangement arose when Heikal voiced doubts about the 1974 Sinai I disengagement agreement and Sadat's drift toward the U. S. Heikal, like some other Egyptian leaders, decried that agreement, viewing it as incommensurate with Egypt's sacrifices and military successes during the October war. It would, he contended, enable the U. S. to "freeze" any further Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. Professing intimate knowledge of U. S. purposes, and casting these as immutably pro-Israeli, he publicly warned against reliance upon Washington and recounted alleged "secret" American plans to seize the Abu Dhabi oil fields. Such criticisms were embarrassing to Sadat, who had by then opted for a new policy of close cooperation with the U. S. Since Heikal would not remain quiet, he was dismissed from his editorship and offered the empty sinecure of presidential press counselor. This he refused to take up. Forbidden to publish in Egypt, Heikal did so abroad. In September 1981, immediately after Sadat's last visit to Washington, he was among several hundred Egyptian political figures whom Sadat had arrested and imprisoned. When Mubarak took office, Heikal was released, but not restored to any public role.
Heikal has always been the darling of foreign pressmen and visiting legislators. They regularly sought him out to probe "opposition" thinking. Though provocative and incisive, he has always reminded me of a professor whom I once knew whose lectures, while spellbinding, were marred by a cavalier indifference to factual accuracy. Heikal, too, tends almost unconsciously to elide from direct personal knowledge of events to facile notionalism.
Heikal's present volume has as its centerpiece Sadat's assassination by Islamic fundamentalists on October 6, 1981, and the almost indifferent Egyptian public response to that event. While denying any vendetta motive, his intent is clearly character assassination. In the tradition of ancient Egypt, in which monuments of deceased pharaohs were deliberately defaced by successors, Heikal seeks to defame the Sadat image. He casts his net widely and his litany of excoriations is broad: Sadat's alleged projection of a "superstar" image, base antecedents, sensitivity to his dark skin hue, penchant for gaudy uniforms, inflated autobiographical claims of his role in and before the 1952 Egyptian revolution, political vacillation, obsequiousness to Nasser, failure to order exploitation of military successes in October 1973, tolerance of corruption, giving out national treasures as gifts, cronyism, the "open door" policy, and Sadat's paternalistic and sometimes thespian style. Implicit in this gamut of indictments is bitterness that Sadat, by jettisoning Nasser's nonalignment and Arab socialist policies and tilting instead toward the U. S. and a mixed economy, led Egypt to what he dubs its "second ruin." Not only has Egypt been ill-requited for its pro-American shift, he argues, but it has lost its leadership role in the Arab world (along with Arab aid), antagonized the U.S.S.R., and is now being taken for granted by Washington.
Heikal's charges may please Sadat critics. Some have a kernel of substance, but as presented are one-sided, flailing and would hardly stand up in a court of law. What is more, most are irrelevant. The late president's World War II flirtations with the Nazis against the British, his earlier rhetorical attacks against the U.S., whatever exaggerations he may have included in his autobiography and elsewhere, were known to American leaders and diplomats. So was Sadat's flair for the dramatic. They mattered not a whit. He was hardly the first political leader given to burnishing his historical role. Nor was the Sadat of 1979 the man of 1952 or of 1956 of even of 1973. In my six years in Cairo, I saw him change and once asked him about his political metamorphoses. His reply was simple. He had learned judgment the hard way, from experience and responsibility, and wryly wondered how he could have held some of his earlier views. They were, he mused, products of particular times in Middle East history. Ingenuous? Perhaps, but also a rational expression of any political maturation process.
Sadat may have been sensitive about his dark skin coloring. Many Arabs, though they deny it, are. But whatever concern this may have given him, he could take it in stride in his later years. I recall, at a small private luncheon in 1975, Mrs. Sadat twitting him that because of his color he would not be received in the American south. He merely laughed and said he would have to take that chance.
Whatever faults Sadat may have had or political errors that he may have committed, and he made no claim to infallibility, they do not obscure his achievements. Who would deny that his trip to Jerusalem was one of the most courageous political acts of our times by any international leader? The evening he went, and I was involved in arranging the trip, the group of EgyptianssI was with had mixed emotions. Some wept, some cheered, a few were unhappy; all realized that a new chapter in Middle East history was being writ. And whatever one may think of it, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was a seminal achievement. True, it failed to catalyze a comprehensive Middle East peace, as Sadat had hoped it would, but it was an act of high statesmanship. The Nobel Peace Prize conferred upon Sadat was richly deserved. Similarly, and Heikal ignores this, Sadat's singlehanded success in changing American attitudes toward Arabs was an astounding feat--a promising field shortsightedly allowed to remain fallow.
Sadat's successes engendered disgruntlement and envy among many of his erstwhile Revolutionary Command Council colleagues and some intellectuals like Heikal. They could never take him seriously, belittled his capacity and resented his dismantling of Nasserism. Sadat, on his part, beset by intractable economic problems and an atrophied peace process, increasingly sought compensation in the plaudits of his external admirers. In the process, he inevitably became less finely attuned to critical home-front problems.
Heikal's book has instructive sections. His account of the influence of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt, part of a complex story, warrants pondering. Equally so, his recital of Egyptian Coptic attitudes and the political aspirations of the Coptic patriarch, Shenouda, is illuminating. Both Nasser and Sadat were deeply aware of the destructive potential of latent Muslim-Coptic confessionalism and strove, with only limited success, to contain it.
Heikal's account of his own arrest and those of many respected political colleagues, a month before Sadat's assassination, is revealing. Sadat had cause to worry lest domestic opponents, both political and Islamic fundamentalists, might in the ensuing six months seek to mount actions that Israel could seize upon in order to delay its scheduled military withdrawal from Sinai, but his detentions were too sweeping and hurt his image.
The arrests reflected what Egyptians termed Sadat's "nervousness" over the fact that the Middle East peace process, for which he had taken such great political risks, had stagnated and that the Reagan Administration seemed indifferent to rejuvenating meaningful autonomy talks. Sadat's reliance upon Washington before and after Camp David heightened his vulnerability, domestically and in an Arab context, and he felt increasingly boxed in, frustrated and ignored. In leaving him thus exposed, the U.S. shares culpability for his assassination. The lesson will hardly encourage other Arab leaders to take the word of American presidents on faith.
Despite his friendship for Presidents Nixon, Ford and especially Carter, Sadat was frequently disappointed with Washington's erratic pursuit of Middle East policy. At my last meeting with him in September, 1981, he wearily recalled that in eight years in office, he had had to "educate" four Amercian presidents! Each time the wheel virtually had to be reinvented. If he erred, it was not in the sense that Heikal suggests, i.e., the Nasserite view that only through equidistance between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. can Middle East peace be obtained, but rather because he placed too much confidence in the presumed capability of American presidents and failed adequately to recognize the structural problems in the American governmental system that constrain even well-intentioned presidents and preclude this country from ever pursuing a sustained foreign policy on issues with high domestic interest.
Heikal is entitled to his views, but he could have checked some of his facts a bit more. This reviewer counted well over 100 factual errors. Space permits citing only a few. There was no CIA employee installed in the presidential office in 1974. The U.S. did train Sadat's bodyguard and there was intelligence liaison with a presidency official, but this had already existed in Nasser's time. Unfortunately, Sadat's innate fatalism made him indifferent to personal security considerations. The Soviets were not excluded from the first Geneva conference in December 1973. They were very much present, as their then ambassador, V. Vinogradov, who stayed behind in Geneva for weeks after the seesion expecting it to resume, can ruefully attest. Only with the first Kissinger shuttle effort were they excluded from the American-brokered peace process. It is sophistry to claim that the Arab world fractured only after Egypt's leadership role was compromised. Heikal is well aware of the vicious internecine feuding that characterized inter-Arab relations long before that time and reached a peak in the Nasser-Faisal feud prior to 1967. Nor was Arab aid showered upon Egypt, as Heikal implies; it was dribbled out, often in what Egyptian officials flayed as humiliatingly niggardly fashion. Because of Arab reluctance to underwrite Egypt's seemingly unending current account bills, financial aid from the Gulf Organization for the Development of Egypt was disbursed in fifty million dollar increments, the last of which was never paid because of inability to agree on uses. U.S. aid was not used as a lever to help lift the Arab boycott of Ford, G.E. and Xerox. This flowed from the second Sinai disengagement agreement.
Sadat was not rebuffed by the Americans in 1975. On the contrary, his trip to the U.S. in the fall of that year was a great success and included an appearance before a joint session of Congress, the first Arab leader ever invited to do so. It was in connection with this trip, incidentally, that Heikal rushed to the U.S. in advance and seemed to go out of his way in talks with American newsmen to undermine the upcoming trip of his chief of state. He later claimed that he had not known he would be quoted, a curious performance for an experienced journalist. It is wrong to suggest that when Carter assumed office, he raised with Sadat the possibility of another step-by-step approach. Carter, after a study of options, deliberately dropped the Nixon-Ford- Kissinger interim approach and made clear his desire to work for a comphrehensive Middle East peace. Syrian obstructionism, rather than any U.S. intent, subsequently caused the peace process to take another path. In short, Heikal's observations about matters in which he was not directly involved should be taken with a grain of salt.
Corruption, alas, is a way of life in Egypt and the Middle East. For the past 30 years or more, there has scarcely been an Arab country in which charges of corruption were not leveled against national leadership elements. In Egypt, such charges were not entirely eliminated in the Nasser era and continued in Sadat's time. Mubarak has unquestinably enhanced his image by his public crackdown on corrupt elements, but charges of corruption on someone's part will persist. Unfortunately, the Middle Eastern cultural value of family loyatly and cohesion strengthens these tendencies.
Heikal's contrived expos,e of Sadat may sell copy, but its patent partisanship demeans the book's historical value. American readers might ponder it for a more salient reason, however. It represents the protest of an informed Egyptian intellectual about his nation's close association with this country, which remains suspect to many Egyptain thinkers because of what they perceive to be a skewed and ineffective Middle East policy. They criticize Sadat for trusting the U.S. and, by neutralizing Egypt in the Arab-Israeli dispute, blame him for the post-Camp David actions of Israel in the West Bank, Lebanon and elsewhere. They denigrate American economic and military aid as at best a palliative for floundering American peace efforts and remain unconvinced that the U.S. has any serious interest in furthering Arab or Palestinian interests. Unless taken more seriously than Washington tends to, such views will spread and could in time still unravel the only recently built U.S.-Egyptian relationship.