American Interest

In Service of the State

Samuel Tadros on the legacies of Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Mohamed Hassenein Heikal

Former Senior Fellow
Egyptians mourners carry the coffin of the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal during his funeral at the al-Hussein mosque in Cairo on February 17, 2016. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptians mourners carry the coffin of the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal during his funeral at the al-Hussein mosque in Cairo on February 17, 2016. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

As coincidence would have it, Egypt lost two of its most famous, if somewhat rickety, intellectuals in two consecutive days. To the casual observer, which perforce in this case includes most Americans, the lives of Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Mohamed Hassanein Heikal could not be further apart. One was a UN Secretary General and a scion of one of Egypt’s leading pre-1952 revolution Coptic families, the other Al-Ahram ’s editor in chief, who became the voice of that revolution and its leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. One accompanied Sadat to Jerusalem and defended the peace treaty with Israel; the other became one of the treaty’s leading critics and a defender of Egypt’s Nasserite legacy. The public lives of the two men thus seem never to have overlapped except by accidental chronology.

But appearances can be deceiving. Behind the two men’s diverging careers lay a more fundamental reality: Both were the products of an Egyptian intellectual class that never imagined a life outside the state, and of serving its ruler. Had the two been characters in A Thousand and One Nights they each would have played a quintessential vizier.

Born in 1922, Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s life was shaped by the tragic saga of power and loss that was the Ghali family. The boy was named after his grandfather, Boutros Ghali Pasha, who in 1908 had become Egypt’s first Coptic Prime Minister, only to be assassinated 16 months later. But the family’s tragic political career had begun earlier. Mo’alem Ghali Sargious had risen in the service of a Mamluk lord at the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, before being elevated by Mohamed Ali Pasha as the country’s leading Coptic civil servant—only to be killed at his hands in 1822. Mo’alem Ghali’s grieving son was brought in front of Mohamed Ali who inquired as to whether the young man was saddened by his father’s death. Basilious Ghali’s reply to his father’s murderer summed up both his understanding of his status as a dhimmi in service of the ruler and his hunger for power: “My father has not died as long as you my lord are alive.” Boutros Ghali Pasha’s sons adopted a similar attitude after his assassination, insisting that his murder was not driven by sectarianism. The Cairo mob thought differently, celebrating the assassination with chants “El Wardani killed El Nosrani” (the Islamic term for Christians).

While two of Boutros Ghali Pasha’s three sons later served as ministers in various Egyptian cabinets, his youngest, Youssef, the father of the future Secretary General, was traumatized by the assassination and focused his energies on expanding his land possessions. The Secretary General’s mother came from a similarly famous Coptic family. His maternal grandfather was Mikhail Sharobim, a civil servant and historian who wrote The Ample Guide to Ancient and Modern History and, like the Secretary General’s paternal grandfather, had played an important role in the fights between the Coptic intelligentsia and clergy over control of the church, a struggle in which Boutros Ghali Pasha succeeded in deposing and banishing Pope Kyrillos V in 1892, only to acknowledge defeat five months later when the Pope triumphantly returned to his seat.

That episode left Boutros Pasha reluctant to engage in the community’s affairs and proved to be the beginning of the family’s complicated relationship to their Coptic identity, with their rise both tied to and limited by their faith, and with the family constantly struggling to diminish that element of their identity. It is no surprise that Youssef’s three sons married outside their community, in the case of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a Jewish convert to Catholicism. His two brothers in turn married a Muslim and a Protestant.

As Boutros Boutros-Ghali was benefiting from his family’s privileged status, studying in a Jesuit school and receiving a doctorate in international law in Paris in 1949, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal was starting his career as a talented young journalist. Born a year after Ghali to a wheat merchant who had emigrated from the countryside to Cairo, he belonged to a generation called in Egyptian historiography the New Effendis. These were young men whom the process of modernization, industrialization, and mass education brought to the city, but whose distended dreams soon confronted the reality of Egypt’s so-called Liberal Age, 1923–52. That age held little promise for them, with its lack of social mobility and failures in representative democracy. Their frustrations became the breeding ground for the rise of illiberal currents in the 1930s and 1940s, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the fascist Young Egypt, and to the belief that a strong man was needed to save Egypt. That belief came true when Nasser and his fellow Free Officers, members of that same generation, brought down the monarchy in July 1952.

Determined to carve a career for himself, the young Heikal was willing to take risks. He agreed to report from the field of the Battle of El Alamein for the Egyptian Gazette in 1942. With an eye for the story and a determination to associate with the great men of the time, coupled with his apparent writing talent, he landed at Al Akhbar, a leading newspaper known for its sensational stories. The 1940s saw his career advance as he attached himself to leading journalists like El Tabei and the brothers Ali and Mostafa Amin, and anti-liberal politicians like Ali Maher. In 1948 he travelled to cover the Arab war with the newly established State of Israel. It was on one of that war’s battlefields that he met a young officer by the name of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Four years later kismet struck him as rebel army tanks rolled into Cairo.

The two men were destined for each other. Both were young, ambitious, and disdained liberal democracy. Heikal became Nasser’s voice, his alter ego, as the New York Times obituary described him. It was he who ghost wrote Nasser’s The Philosophy of the Revolution and all of Nasser’s speeches. His closeness to the idol of the Arab masses brought him fame and opened the gates of power to him. Many a world leader was happy to meet the journalist who knew the leader’s mind best. In 1957 he became Al Ahram’s editor in chief and turned it into the Arab world’s leading newspaper. His weekly column, Frankly Speaking, not only became the window into understanding Nasser’s thinking, but for generations of Arabs defined how a political column should be written. His linguistic talents in service of Nasser’s totalitarianism were on full display as he wrote Nasser’s resignation speech following the 1967 defeat, which Heikal masterfully termed Al Naksa (The Setback).

Heikal sought to replicate that relationship with Egypt’s new leader; Anwar es-Sadat, and for a while Sadat’s need for Heikal’s pen and talent at propaganda in his internal power struggles, and in dealing with the extended ramifications of the 1967 defeat, ensured Heikal that closeness. But a rift between the two was inevitable. Unlike Nasser, Sadat was no character in search of an author, as in Luigi Pirandello’s masterpiece. He soon found that he no longer needed Heikal’s voice. The 1970s proved to be Heikal’s most challenging decade. Kicked out of Al Ahram in 1974, he found himself in the wilderness, removed from access to power. But the masterful propagandist managed to reinvent himself by taking upon himself the mantle of defender of Nasser’s legacy and worldview. It is in that capacity that generations of Egyptians came to know him. Heikal’s prolific writings—39 of his fifty books were written after 1974—came to define how they understood politics and their country’s modern history. In a world before cable television, Heikal had a talent for captivating readers with the breadth of his knowledge of world events and contacts with world leaders. It was only as one matured that one was to discover that many of those facts and encounters were nothing more than conspiracy theories and fabrications by a mind that was second to none in its understanding of propaganda. Heikal was, as the Egyptian-American intellectual Maged Atiya described him, “a writer of fiction made believable by his own fervid faith in it.”

My one encounter with the defender of legends came in 1992. At the age of 13 and already an Arab nationalist, I had read 14 of his books when I encountered him by chance at a play. My father, who detested both Nasser and Heikal, was forced to take me to my idol and gave Heikal his business card. For the ten-minute break between acts, the young believer was given access to the High Priest of his adopted religion. The topics of discussion, if a conversation with a deity can be described as discussion, ranged from the new post-Soviet world to Algeria’s then-raging civil war. One year later, my father received a call from Heikal’s assistant and his newest book, October 1973: The Arms and Politics, with a nice dedication landed in my hands. If Sadat had kicked him out of his propaganda pulpit at Al Ahram, Heikal was determined to win the legacy battle; and he did.

The 1970s brought Heikal’s career in service of a leader to an end, for Hosni Mubarak kept him as far away as possible. But those same years brought Boutros Boutros-Ghali back to the spotlight. Like many sons of Egypt’s pre-1952 leading families, he had spent the Nasser years with his mouth wisely shut. Samir Raafat, a student of his during those years, remembers how the international law professor went to great pains never to comment on Egyptian politics, remarking that Ghali’s behavior was “a modern adoption of Talleyrand-ism.”

It is doubtful, however, that Ghali ever thought that changing times would bring him back to the spotlight, to write another chapter in the Ghali family’s tragic story. In 1977, however, Sadat unexpectedly appointed him Minister of State for Foreign Affairs on the eve of his visit to Jerusalem. With the Foreign Minister resigning in protest, it was Ghali who accompanied Sadat on his visit and came to play an important role in the peace negotiations.

So power had finally returned to the grandson of Boutros Ghali, but bitterness was to accompany it. No matter how much he served the regime, no matter how much he was willing to downplay the discrimination against the Copts and defend the regime, the prized post of Foreign Minister was never his. His bitterness only grew as one Foreign Minister, many of them younger and less talented than him, replaced the other while he remained merely the Minister of State, relegated to handle unimportant profiles such as Africa. Their only real edge over him was that they were Muslims and he was not. Egypt had changed since the days of his grandfather, and a Copt was not to be appointed Foreign Minister.

In the UN post he assumed in 1992 he thought he had finally broken the barrier, only to be humiliated there and forced out by Madeleine Albright. A conciliatory appointment as head of the Francophone organization was meaningless. Humiliated, he accepted a post as head of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights, returning once again to being a nice face to defend the regime’s dismal human rights record, especially its discrimination against Copts.

It is perhaps both men’s views of the discrimination against Egypt’s Copts that best captured their worldview—a worldview anchored in an Egyptian intellectual class that emerged from the bosom of the state instead of as an independent bourgeoisie. So inherently statist were both of their views that when a human rights conference was scheduled in 1994 to tackle the question of minorities, including Copts in the Middle East, Heikal was incensed. The pages of Al Ahram were for the first time since 1974 opened for him to write a tirade against claims of discrimination and the very idea of Copts being a minority, coupled with cynical questioning of foreign agendas and funding. But if Heikal’s attacks could be rationalized (the man after all was hardly a liberal, having served throughout his life as the mouthpiece for totalitarianism), it was Ghali’s longstanding role as a defender of discrimination against his fellow Copts that is most telling. In her masterful book Christians Versus Muslims in Modern Egypt, Sana Hassan summed up Ghali’s and his fellow travelers’ position. They were “more finely attuned to the call of the minaret than to their own people’s cry of distress.”

In their nineties, both men were to step once again into the political spotlight. Heikal’s aura forced even the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi to court him. The man who toppled Morsi, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, similarly reached out to Heikal to listen to his fables and wisdom. Never tried for his role in Nasser’s crimes, he died a celebrated, larger-than-life intellectual. Ghali, on the other hand, was left to the role of the dhimmi, defending the state’s repression. In his final interview given to Al Monitor, a week before his death, he defended the regime’s use of exceptional laws and growing repression of freedoms. He went so far as to declare that “the situation of Christians in Egypt is very good, but the Egyptian regime ought to contain both sides to prevent any sectarian crises, especially since there are some external and internal players trying to take advantage of the situation to destabilize the country.”

The owl of Minerva is said to take wing at dusk, implying perhaps that wisdom descends on mortals just before their passing. Minerva seems to be a fickle bird when she overflies Egypt.