Cairo — Looking thinner and worn after almost three months in prison, Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, the Egyptian journalist who was once one of the most powerful men in Egypt, sat back in an armchair in a room full of flowers and fruit sent by friends after his release.
''I only met Hosni Mubarak once, when he was commander in chief of the Air Force, in 1972,'' says Mr. Heikal. ''By the time he became vice-president (in 1975) I was out of grace, so to speak.''
The most famous journalist in the Middle East and perhaps the Arab world, Muhammad Heikal once had the ear of the late Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the power to make or break men. Under Sadat, his position became more precarious, and he was finally removed from his position as editor in chief of the al-Ahram newspaper, when he differed with Mr. Sadat's overtures to the Americans in 1974.
His opposition grew with the unfolding of the Camp David accords and the peace treaty with Israel, which he wrote of critically but eloquently in the Western press but not in Egypt, where his articles were banned.
Now the colorful, controversial Mr. Heikal is living through his third Egyptian president. Mr. Heikal met Mr. Mubarak as president for the first time last week after being released from prison and driven to the Uruba Palace where Mr. Mubarak keeps his office.
In a clever political move that surprised the country, Mr. Mubarak last week released 31 of the most prominent opposition figures Mr. Sadat had imprisoned in September. He stretched a hand of friendship to them, saying, ''Let us forget the unhappy past.''
''The man is weighing his options,'' says Mr. Heikal of Hosni Mubarak. ''You can see he is a man who is coming to a situation which is a surprise to him. . . . He was courageous enough to say, 'Give me time to rethink, to reevaluate, to reconsider.' ''
Mr. Mubarak has received a considerable inheritance of long-term policies from Sadat, including the Camp David peace accords, a special relationship with the US, almost no relationship with the Soviet Union, and an open-door economic policy that depends heavily on foreign investment in Egypt.
Mr. Heikal has been critical of all of these policies, but seems now to be willing to support Mr. Mubarak's determination to continue them. ''I think the new President should pursue those bets to the end. . . . The worst thing which we do normally in third-world countries is abrupt changes. We never complete an option.''
But the long-term challenge now for Mr. Mubarak, says Mr. Heikal, is Egypt's ''social-economic problem.''
''The problem with Sadat,'' reflected Mr. Heikal somewhat bitterly, ''was that he lost his touch with realities. . . . Even after the show was over, he had got the role and he went on playing. It was catastrophic.''