The Coffee Incident

Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s death 40 years ago still sparks debate in Egypt. Last week, in his weekly TV show on Al-Jazeera, political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal marked the 40th anniversary of the late president’s death by talking about his final days. Almost inevitably, he mentioned what he called “the incident of the Nile Hilton coffee”, which occurred when Nasser was meeting the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as part of his mediation attempts between the Palestinians and Jordanians during the Black September crisis in 1970.

Heikal said Nasser looked “so angry” during an argument with Arafat that Anwar El-Sadat, who was vice-president at the time, offered to prepare a cup of coffee himself. According to Heikal Sadat “ordered the president’s chef out of the kitchen and made the coffee himself, which Nasser drank three days before he died”.

While Heikal was careful to add that “talk about Sadat’s involvement is unacceptable, nobody can believe Sadat would do that, for humane and emotional reasons”, the damage had been done. A viewing public always ready to swallow conspiracy theories had been offered one on a plate — that Sadat murdered his predecessor.

Nasser died on 28 September 1970, at the end of the Arab summit. Hours after seeing off Emir Sabah Salem El-Sabah of Kuwait in the airport, Nasser suffered a heart attack. He was immediately taken to his house and pronounced dead soon after.

Sadat’s oldest daughter, Ruqqaya, has filed a complaint to the prosecutor-general against Heikal, accusing him of slander against her father.

“What Heikal said has damaged me and my family and hurt our feelings deeply,” Ruqqaya said in her submission to the prosecutor-general.

Samir Sabry, Ruqqaya’s lawyer, said that Heikal must now explain why he mentioned the incident of the coffee in relation to Abdel-Nasser’s death.

Ruqqaya has already won a case against Hoda Abdel-Nasser, the daughter of president Nasser, after she mentioned the coffee incident and accused Sadat of murdering her father. Nasser’s daughter was ordered to pay damages of LE150,000.

Abdel-Hakim Abdel-Nasser, Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s son, told the independent daily Al-Dostour on Monday that while he was aware of the coffee incident there was no evidence that Sadat was involved in murdering his father.

“My father was a target of the American CIA and of Mossad. There were a lot of people at the talks at the Nile Hilton. Even if you assume my father was poisoned it is impossible to say who was involved.”

He added that in his final days Nasser was under tremendous pressures which could have affected his heart.

Nasser’s doctor, Al-Sawy Habib, ended 40 years of silence to deny that Nasser was killed.

In an article in Al-Ahram he wrote that Nasser was suffering from myocardial infraction (the interruption of blood supply to the heart), hypercholesterolemia (high levels of cholesterol) and high blood pressure.

Al-Sawy also stressed that many members of Nasser’s family, including his mother, brothers, sisters and uncles, had died in their 50s.