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Guardian: 'There isn't a target in Afghanistan worth a $1m missile'
By Mohamed Heikal
14/10/2001 1:20 am Sun
[Kita siarkan rencana menarik dari wartawan yang agak hebat
tetapi penuh kontroversi ini kerana ada banyak perkara yang boleh
dipelajari. Yang penting jangan diserap mana yang memang jauh
menyimpang.... - Editor]
Wednesday October 10, 2001
Mohamed Heikal, the Arab world's foremost political commentator,
talks to Stephen Moss
It feels surreal to be talking to Mohamed Heikal, the Arab world's most
respected political commentator and the former foreign minister of
Egypt, in the lounge of Claridge's, one of London's swishest hotels.
As the missiles rain down on Afghanistan, Heikal unveils his vision of
the possible chaos ahead to the accompaniment of a tinkling piano
and a lilting clarinet. Rarely has the gulf between west and east, first
world and third, seemed so great.
Heikal, an effortlessly urbane 78-year-old, spans those worlds and
unpicks the hypocrisies of each. He has been a journalist for almost
60 years, was editor and chairman of the influential Egyptian daily
Al-Ahram for almost 20, and has written a dozen highly regarded
books on Egypt and Iran. From the first days of the revolution, he was
close to President Nasser, and was briefly - and reluctantly - his
minister of information and foreign affairs in 1970. He enjoyed an
equally close but rather more volatile relationship with President
Sadat, who imprisoned him in 1981 for opposing the Camp David
Heikal can see no logic in the attack on Afghanistan. For a start, he
says, there is nothing there worth attacking. "I have seen
Afghanistan, and there is not one target deserving the $1m that a
cruise missile costs, not even the royal palace. If I took it at face
value, I would think this is madness, so I assume they have a plan
and this is only the first stage."
He also questions whether Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida
network were solely responsible for the September 11 attacks,
arguing that the limited evidence so far presented is far from
convincing. "Bin Laden does not have the capabilities for an
operation of this magnitude. When I hear Bush talking about al-Qaida
as if it was Nazi Germany or the communist party of the Soviet Union,
I laugh because I know what is there. Bin Laden has been under
surveillance for years: every telephone call was monitored and
al-Qaida has been penetrated by American intelligence, Pakistani
intelligence, Saudi intelligence, Egyptian intelligence. They could not
have kept secret an operation that required such a degree of
organisation and sophistication."
Heikal gives little credence to suggestions that a more central
planning role may have been played by Bin Laden's nominal deputy,
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. "He is
dangerous and was involved in the assassination of Sadat, but he is
not a great thinker or a great planner. He played a peripheral role in
the assassination, which itself was marked by superficial planning
and only succeeded because of luck. As their interviews with
al-Jazeera showed, Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri rely on nothing but
their instincts. This is not Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, this is an
isolated minority who reflect neither Islam nor our times. They are the
historic residue of oppression; they don't represent the future."
There may, Heikal believes, be some as yet undiscovered element in
the atrocity of September 11. Whatever the truth, he says that the
explanations so far have been hasty, inconclusive and remarkably
convenient. "I understand that the American administration wanted an
enemy right away to hit, to absorb the anger of the American people,"
he says, "but I wish they had produced some real evidence. I read
what Mr Blair said in the House of Commons carefully: they had
prepared the atmosphere for that statement by saying he is going to
reveal some of the proof, but there is no proof, nothing; it is all
deductions. Colin Powell was more honest than anybody: he said if
not this, it doesn't matter, he has committed so many other crimes that
necessitate taking action against him. But that is like the Chinese
proverb: 'Hit your wife every day; if you don't know the reason, she
does.' You can't do it this way."
It is important, Heikal says, to differentiate between the powerful
anti-American feeling throughout the Middle East and the response to
the attack on the World Trade Centre. "I know there were some
demonstrations by people who expressed happiness," he says, "but
they are not representative. People in the Middle East know what
terrorism means. When tourists were shot at Luxor, there was
indignation in Egypt. On the other hand, there is an unbelievable
degree of anti-American feeling all over the area."
The reasons for that loathing of the US are, he says, easy to pinpoint
- the Americans' "blind" support for Israel and their backing for
illegitimate, discredited regimes across the Middle East. He castigates
every government in the region, including his own, and blames the
US for propping them up. "The people did not choose these
governments and in any free election none of them would succeed.
They are not legitimate governments; they do not represent anything
other than power."
This is bad enough, but the fact that the US - the shining city on the
hill - colludes with them is even worse. "The US supports the status
quo whatever it is. They talk about democracy and then ignore it; they
talk about the UN and ignore it; in every way you can accuse them of
double standards. It is revolting to see them talking about democracy
and then supporting undemocratic regimes. They talk about
international legitimacy and then support what the Israelis are doing."
All this is said with an analyst's precision, rather than an orator's
So will Islam now rally to the cause of Afghanistan? Heikal says there
is little direct sympathy for the Taliban, who he describes as being
"out of this world". He relates the story of Mullah Omar Mohammed,
the Taliban leader, attending a meeting of Islamic leaders in Pakistan
and refusing to sit down until a picture was removed from the room.
"But that is Jinnah," [Mohammed Ali Jinnah led Pakistan to
independence in 1947] protested his Pakistani hosts. "Who is
Jinnah?" he replied. He also failed to recognise Yasser Arafat. Heikal
tells the story to demonstrate that just as the problems of the Middle
East fail to register on Mullah Omar's radar, so the Taliban is not the
key issue for the rest of the region.
Nevertheless, as a symbol of American imperialism, the attack on
Afghanistan is potent, and there are likely to be far-reaching
repercussions, especially if Iraq and other countries in the region are
added to the target list. Inevitably, says Heikal, when there is a
vacuum, Islam - a ready-made cultural unifier and the answer to the
region's multiple identity crises - is there to fill it. He identifies
Pakistan as the country most likely to be destabilised. "There is a
danger that the action will bring down the Pakistani regime," he says.
"It could create a split in the army, where many of the officers are
pro-Islamic. The worst-case scenario is chaos with no one strong
enough to take over, and that chaos could easily spread into the
Middle East." He also says that Turkey is vulnerable, despite the
army's self-proclaimed role as the bastion of secularism.
Standing behind everything is the issue of Palestine - unresolved
and apparently unresolvable. "The current crisis in Afghanistan can
spill over into other countries," says Heikal, "but the chronic crisis is
the Palestinian issue." He is pessimistic about any compromise,
recalling the telegram sent to the Zionist leader, Theodor Herzl, by
the two rabbis he dispatched to Palestine to look at the land that might
form the state of Israel: "The bride is beautiful but she is married."
His solution is a Palestinian state and "an Israel for all its citizens",
where the million Arabs are not second-class citizens. "The most
important thing is to get religion out," he says. "You are talking to me
about a Muslim state, yet you are not discussing a Jewish state - a
state built on religion. That cannot be. Religion can be no basis for a
He has no faith in the current softening of the American line towards
the Palestinians, which he says is a replica of their approach during
the Gulf war. "Whenever the US needs the Arabs, they are ready to
offer a carrot," he says. "In 1991 the Arab world was lured into the
Gulf war against Iraq because they were promised that they would be
compensated by a just solution of the Palestinian problem. The
Americans sent letters of reassurance to all the parties and the Arab
states went to Madrid to negotiate on the basis of those assurances. It
is 10 years since Madrid and nothing has happened. Now the same
scenario is being repeated. Strangely enough, it is even the same
people - Cheney, Powell, a Bush. It is as if nothing has changed.
People in the Arab world will see that our leaders are deceived
again. Those who repeat their lessons are very bad pupils, and we
are very bad pupils. We don't learn from our mistakes, so we are
doomed to repeat them."