Mustafa Amin: Founder of modern Arab journalism

Mustafa Amin: Founder of modern Arab journalism

DURING one of his rare visits abroad, Egypt press stalwart Mustafa Amin came to Saudi Arabia on a private visit at the invitation of this newspaper. He was a famous columnist in Egypt and in Asharq Al-Awsat, our sister Arabic daily of international renown. But first a brief bio-data of the man who is credited with being the founder of modern journalism in the Middle East.
Mustafa, one of twins, the other being Ali, was born in Cairo. His mother was the niece of Saad Zaghlool, the most outstanding political leader in Egypt and the Arab world who struggled against British colonialism in the 20th century before the Egyptian Army coup d'état in 1952 which toppled King Farouk and installed a socialist regime under President Gamal Abdul Nasser.
Mustafa Amin was by 1952 a world famous newspaper man and proprietor of Akhbar El-Yom, a weekly broadsheet patterned after the British Sundays, actually it reminded me strongly of the British Sunday Express. It soon became a roaring success as the first Arabic language weekly broadsheet.
One weekly did not quite satisfy the Amin twins and the public which hankered after a daily of the same kind. So the twins brought out Al Akhbar daily which soon crossed the one million copies a day, the first in the Arab world.
Following his brilliant success he launched a huge publishing house, but tragedy struck as President Nasser nationalized the press and everything attached to it.
Mustafa became a mere employee unfree to write whatever he wished. In fact he was treated shabbily and relegated to a minor position in his erstwhile empire. His twin brother Ali was exiled to London as so- called correspondent of no real importance. But the real tragedy was yet to come when the government or the regime charged Mustafa with a major crime — spying for the Americans against the state. Egypt was by then a Russian surrogate. He spent nine years in solitary confinement but he never lost his nerve and waited out his sentence until Nasser and his cohorts died or quit or left the scene of power and Anwar Sadat took over as president and released him. But he had not stopped writing while in prison. He resumed writing his column in Al Akhbar, Akhbar El-Yom and Asharq Al-Awsat, and quickly regained its past glory because he had retained its flavor and a little more by recounting his memories of imprisonment with scathing onslaughts on the previous regime of Nasser and his cohorts and advocacy of democracy for Egypt which had been deprived of it for so long. Thus he became as some commentators called him Egypt’s conscience and also the voice of the Arab world.
By the time he arrived in the Kingdom he had been by far the leading commentator in the Middle East, writing in Arabic, and much bolder than he had been before imprisonment on obviously trumped up charges as so many Arab writers and leaders believed but did not dare say it for fear of censure by those who had believed the official story of the regime at the time. However he was vindicated by President Sadat who told leading colleagues that Mustafa was innocent of the charges.
Sadat at the time of Mustafa’s trial was the number two man in Cairo and became the president of the state immediately after Nasser’s death by a massive heart attack that did not spare him much longer than a day.
In Jeddah he visited our offices and greeted the staff accompanied by one of the publishers, Muhammed, who schooled under him since Mustafa used to lecture in journalism at both Cairo University and the famous American University of Cairo, known as AUC.
One of my elder brothers who was a famous Yemeni poet was also one of his students and when he returned to Aden he edited some of our own newspapers in the style of Mustafa and succeeded.
I spoke to Mustafa requesting an interview which he easily granted and asked me to visit him at the present day Crown Plaza hotel at the Corniche where we spent two hours talking while a colleague took notes as he was equally fascinated by the man. Because of his Urdu background he followed the dialogue rather well. I was there to help him and again to rewrite the story. The result appeared in this paper with a photograph which many readers appreciated since they had not seen him earlier as I had in Cairo.
The dialogue centered around his trial, charges and imprisonment since I had read so much about them as many had done first with disbelief then with amazement.
I wanted to clarify the whole thing in my mind and for the benefit of my readers at home and abroad since the international news agencies based in Bahrain often picked up our news and transmitted it worldwide.
It was, as it appeared to me, a fabricated one and Mustafa was caught in the Cold War since he had clearly antagonized the Soviet Union and all those who were loyalists of the Soviets and inimical to the West which Mustafa liked because of pupil and trainee the then famous Muhammad Heikal, editor in chief of Al Ahram daily and closest friend and confidant of Nasser.
Nobody else could have come close to him until Nasser’s death. He was sacked by President Sadat who succeeded Nasser. Heikal himself probably wanted out since he had lost the enormous power of being Nasser’s spokesman and adviser. He continued abusing Mustafa in his articles as well as in a hard-hitting book called politics and journalism. Mustafa did not have that kind of reach nor did he want to go into slinging matches with his former student and employee and Heikal did not attend Mustafa’s funeral or the condolence meetings that followed.
I asked Mustafa then why did the regime charge him with spying although he was close also to Nasser and used to call him at will. He explained to me that Nasser had used him to communicate with the Americans to give them some tidbits and receive from them others that he passed to Nasser. That was his mistake and when the Americans and Nasser broke up Mustafa was victimized by Nasser apparently because he knew too much and had to be silenced, removed from the public scene in solitary confinement for nine years of agony.
When he was released by Sadat he resumed his column producing some of his best writings especially about Egypt’s need for democracy, free press and individual freedoms. But he never forgave the old order and its leader Nasser and its chief protagonist Heikal.
He kept reiterating to me that the entire episode was a blatant lie right from his arrest while lunching with an American diplomat in Mustafa’s cabin in his attachment to Western style democracy. I pressed him for details since the entire press nationalized by the regime was claiming that the man was spy and the mock trial that was staged in Cairo with glaring headlines was daily insinuating that he was a foreign stooge who should be purged. Especially strident was his erstwhile Alexandria to his detention in extremely sordid conditions.
Despite his suffering he was as usual an optimist, a believer in divine fate and a contented man with whatever the almighty God had ordained for him. He even told me some of his favorite jokes and referred me to some of his books on the time he spent in jail. I had already read them and urged him to write more about it although it was not a pleasant thing to do for a man of his age and stature. At one time he had been also close to King Farouk and many of the stalwarts of the country and could have had practically anything he wanted.
He was married briefly to Egypt and the Arab world’s greatest singer Umm-e- Kulsum. They divorced and he took another wife.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view