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Michael Jansen: The demise of two Arab giants
February 22, 2016
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Egypt and the Arab world lost two of its most controversial personalities last week: Muhammad Hassanein Heikal and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Heikal was controversial because of his close association with Gamal Abdel Nasser, beloved by the Arabs but excoriated by the West; Ghali because he was beloved by the West and condemned by the Arabs.

Heikal, who died at 92, was a voice of the Arabs, the region’s most famous journalist and analyst-explainer. Born in 1923 into a middle class family in Cairo, he began his long career at the age of 19 writing for The Egyptian Gazette, which sent him to cover the landmark World War II Battle of El-Alamein. He soon shifted to a leading Arabic paper and by 24 he had won fame for his dispatches from the first Arab-Israeli war. During this time he encountered Nasser, who was serving with the army in Sinai.

Three years later when the two men met again Heikal, reportedly, asked Nasser why the military did not stage a coup against the British-backed king. In 1952, the “Free Officers,” led by Nasser, did just that. Heikal became charismatic Nasser’s close confidant and, occasional, speech writer as well as a daily columnist for Al-Ahram where he reflected the thinking of the government and promoted the cause of pan-Arab nationalism.

Egypt became the powerhouse of the Arab world, Nasser the “rais” of the Arabs. Heikal stood by Nasser in the dark days after the 1967 war when Israel defeated the Arab armies for a second time and seized Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Syrian Golan. When Nasser died suddenly in 1970, Heikal hinted, darkly, that he might have been poisoned.

Heikal advised Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat to remove Nasser loyalists in order to gain a firm grip on the presidency but fell out with Sadat over his policies, particularly his 1979 peace deal with Israel. By withdrawing Egypt from the Arab front against Israel, Heikal and other critics contended, Sadat had removed the main Arab deterrent, the Egyptian army, and encouraged Israel to wage war against other Arab states. Heikal was right. All one has to do is to count the wars Israel has since waged on the Arabs: 1978-79, 1982, 1996, and 2006 against Lebanon; 2002 against West Bank Palestinians and 2008-09 and 2014 against Gaza. All these wars were waged in spite of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and the 1993 Oslo agreement with the Palestinians.

Heikal and fellow opponents of the deal were jailed but released in 1981 after Sadat was assassinated. Heikal went abroad and did not return until the 2000s when, once again, he became a regular commentator both in Al-Ahram and on television. In 2007, in an interview with Robert Fisk of The Independent Heikal criticised Mubarak, arguing that he lived in a “world of fantasy” in his mansion in Sharm al-Shaikh. Heikal was proven right in 2011 when Egyptians rose up and ousted Mubarak, who remained divorced from reality until his last day in office, February 11th. Initially supportive of the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Heikal grew critical of the crackdown on all dissent. In addition to his journalistic articles, Heikal wrote 40 books, several translated into English and other languages.

Ghali, 93, died last Tuesday in a Cairo hospital after he broke his pelvis in a fall. The office of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi issued a statement praising Ghali for his part in the negotiations that produced the peace treaty with Israel and secured the return of Sinai. Since, however, a wide range of Egyptians oppose this treaty, the peace with Israel remains “cold,” relations formal and frozen.

Ghali was born in Cairo into a celebrated Coptic family. His grandfather Butros Ghali was assassinated while serving as Egypt’s prime minister under King Farouk. Ghali studied law at Cairo University and in Paris. He served as minister of state for foreign affairs from 1977-91 and accompanied Sadat on his dramatic, sharply criticised visit to Jerusalem. After the resignation of Egypt’s Foreign Minister Muhammad Ibrahim Kamel in protest against the treaty with Israel, Ghali was made acting foreign minister for a brief period.

In 1992, Ghali became the first and so far only Arab UN secretary general. Although he presented to UN heavyweights a plan for management of conflicts, his proposal was ignored. He was criticised for failing to act during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and to secure international support for intervention in the Angolan civil war. He opposed Nato’s bombing of Bosnia following the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Ghali sharply condemned Israel when on April 18, 1996, its forces shelled the UN peacekeepers compound at the southern Lebanese village of Qana where 800 Lebanese civilians had taken refuge. More than 100 were killed and 120 injured, including Fijian UN troops. The attack took place during an Israeli incursion dubbed “Grapes of Wrath” in an attempt to crush Hizbollah, which had mounted an effective campaign against Israel’s occupation zone in south Lebanon.

The US was angered over Ghali’s castigation of Israel over Qana as well as his refusal to go submit to Washington’s agenda on other issues as well as his criticisms of UN non-payment of dues and his independent meetings with foreign leaders. When his appointment came up for renewal, ten Security Council members approved. But the US vetoed a second term for Ghali following a campaign by key members of the administration, including then UN ambassador Madeline Albright, to convince President Bill Clinton to go against US allies by adopting this unprecedented course of action.

Ghali subsequently served as head of the Francophonie, an organisation uniting French speakers, and as director of the Egyptian National Council of Human Rights, regarded by other rights organisations as being too close to the government although it has taken strong stands against abuse of power, particularly by the Mubarak regime.

Thanks to the unpopular peace treaty with Israel, Ghali was accorded a full-scale military funeral with his body being conveyed on a horse-drawn gun carriage and President Sisi walking at the head of the cortege.
____________________________________________
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict
 

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