[Cairo] Last week's detention of Hisham Kassem, a well-known publisher and democracy advocate, raised the alarm that authorities are moving early to block any attempts by the opposition to field candidates for the parliament or the presidency.
Kassem is chairman of the Free Current, a movement organizing opposition to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is expected to run for his third term in February 2024.
Kassem was detained by police last Sunday after refusing to pay bail of 5,000 Egyptian pounds in a defamation case brought by former labor minister Kamal Abu Eita, whom Kassem accused of corruption.
In a local press interview on July 24, Abu Eita said that he "smelled the smell of foreign agendas in the Free Current because of Hisham Kassem's involvement."
Four days later, Kassem responded with a Facebook post doubling down on his accusations. He maintained that Abu Eita was included in a wide investigation of embezzlement of public funds, charged along with others of embezzling 40 million pounds over 7 years. According to Kassem, Abu Eita was forced to return 75,000 pounds.
"Here I blame everyone who allows the likes of Mr. Abu Eita to participate in the activities of public work, which should be limited to people of good behavior and biography so that these courtesies or this laxity do not cause public opinion to lose respect for political work,” he wrote.
Kassem has previously served as the publisher of the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, known in English as Egypt Independent, and as a steering committee member for the World Movement for Democracy.
The Free Current is a liberal group
The Free Current is a liberal group established on July 25 that believes in the free market and democracy. It consists of political parties and public figures, including Conservative Party head Akmal Kortam, Reform and Development Party head Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, and al-Dostour Party head Gameela Ismail.
"I am neither a criminal nor a thief until I am bailed out. Imprisonment does not break me, but submission to this play breaks me,” Kassem told The Media Line.
“The South Cairo Prosecution also referred [Kassem] to a prompt trial on September 2 at an economic circuit of the misdemeanors court,” according to a statement issued by the Hisham Kassem legal team at the Justice Support Foundation. This was confirmed by attorney Makarios Lahzy, who told The Media Line that Kassem will remain in detention in the meantime.
Alongside his work in journalism, Kassem has spoken out against censorship, government repression, and the targeting of fellow reporters. Kassem has faced legal challenges and harassment due to his activism, including defamation and smear campaigns labeling him as “American” and a “Zionist.”
Kassem opposes President el-Sisi’s projected bid for a third term, saying that he “should seriously consider not running again” in a July 20 interview with the BBC.
"For the Free Current, the presidential elections are an unresolved issue, but we do not currently believe that there are sufficient guarantees for free and fair elections,” Kassem explained. “In my estimation, the president will not run for a third term due to the rapid deterioration in the economic situation, and his announcement may lead to unrest in the country.”
A week before his trial, more than 400 public figures including human rights groups, politicians, and businessmen, have joined a petition condemning Kassem’s treatment and demanding his release, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.
Emad Gad, spokesperson for the Free Current and a member of the political office of the Conservative Party, told The Media Line, “We have frequently cautioned against the dominance of the security apparatus over the political structures in managing the nation's affairs.”
“It is crucial to address political and social matters and issues of free speech and opinion with wisdom and political cunning,” he continued. “This involves opening up the public sphere, upholding the rule of law, ensuring a balance and separation of powers, and preserving the autonomy of oversight institutions.”
Gad explained that security has been given more weight than citizens’ rights and freedoms, “leading to a significant setback in Egyptian life,” and Kassem’s arrest is a natural outcome of this climate.
“Egypt will only bear this for a short time, no matter how successful the authority is in drawing personalities and forces from the opposition, specifically from some of those affiliated with the Nasserist movement,” Gad said.
“What's needed now is to remove the security agencies’ influence from the political arena,” he added. “Further tightening the security forces' grip on political life politicians, and public figures will intensify the crisis and speed up its eruption. Simultaneously, this will seriously harm the economic and social conditions and tarnish Egypt's image abroad.”
According to a statement from the World Movement for Democracy, Kassem is not the only independent journalist who has recently experienced repression in Egypt after questioning Egyptian authorities. On August 19, 2023, Karim Asaad, a member of the editorial team of the fact-checking platform Matsda2sh, was arrested for being part of an investigation that implicated senior Egyptian officials in corruption.
Security forces dressed in civilian clothes stormed Asaad's home and threatened his family. With support from the Syndicate of Journalists and human rights activists, Asaad was released on August 20.
The arrests of Hisham Kassem and Karim Asaad exemplify Egypt's policy of repression of freedom of expression. According to Reporters Without Borders, Egypt continues to be one of the world's biggest jailers of journalists, with at least 19 journalists in prison as of August 21.
"Egyptian authorities continue to use criminal defamation laws to muzzle critics like Hisham Kassem. It's one of the myriad tools they use to ensure that critical speech equals prison in Egypt,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.
“It's a new Jamal Khashoggi for el-Sisi,” said Mohamed Gohar, television broadcaster and founder of 25TV, an independent channel founded after the Arab Spring. "Hisham is a recognized name in the West because of his independent journalistic work and his efforts in human rights fields. His arrest now will bring el-Sisi the same kind of criticism as the Prince of Saudi Arabia received after killing Khashoggi.”