Egyptian opposition leader Hisham Kassem has begun a hunger strike while he stands trial on slander and verbal assault charges, his lawyer said on Saturday.
The publisher had been charged last month with slander of a former minister, then later also charged with verbally assaulting officers at a police station after he was brought in, charges his allies say are politically motivated.
The arrest of Kassem, who previously published the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, came after he made sharp criticisms of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and founded a liberal coalition called al-Tayar al-Hurr, or Free Current Movement, which has said it could field a candidate in upcoming elections.
While economic troubles have stirred some discontent among many Egyptians, the coalition is not seen as posing a major threat to Sisi, who is expected to run for his third term in elections early next year.
Kassem appeared in court behind bars on Saturday when his trial, including requests by his defense team to be granted bail and to view case files, was postponed until Sept. 9, state news agency MENA reported.
Kassem appeared “very tired”, lawyer Nasser Amin said.
Earlier this week, Free Current politicians said the case against Kassem was politically driven and called for Sisi to be replaced.
Egypt has cracked down on political dissent under Sisi, who took power after leading the 2013 ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Under his leadership Egypt has arrested tens of thousands of people including prominent challengers in past elections.
The government says the arrests were on national security grounds.
The government has sought to address freedom and human rights issues in recent years, including opening what it called a “national dialogue” with civil society leaders and granting amnesty for some prominent prisoners.
Critics have dismissed the measures as cosmetic and say arrests have continued.
Leading democracy advocate and publisher Hisham Kassem’s arrest in Cairo has raised concerns about the stifling of political opposition in Egypt.
Yesterday, twelve rights groups called for the release of Mr. Kassem.
The 12 rights organizations, including Committee for Justice, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and the Andalus Center for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, demanded the Egyptian authorities to immediately release, unconditionally, the Egyptian publisher and dissident Hisham Qassem.
They confirmed that his detention has been imposed for exercising his inherent right to freedom of expression.
“While his trial is scheduled for tomorrow, September 2, his lawyers have not been able to obtain his case file yet, which undermines his rights in due process. While the circumstances of his detention and his trial indicate the political motives behind his detention, in retaliation for his opposition to the government.”
Hisham Kassem – one of the most intense opponents of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and a prominent defender of freedom of the media and the press – continues to be detained on defamation charges; for sharing a press post on social media about the likely corruption of a former official, he is scheduled to be brought to trial tomorrow.
This detention of Kassem comes in the wake of his participation in the establishment of the Free Current Alliance, a coalition of liberal political parties and opposition figures, seeking to provide alternative economic policies.
“While the signatory organizations confirm that the targeting of Kassem by the Egyptian authorities came because of his peaceful opposition and his pro-democracy work, it expressed her fear that Qasim would join tens of thousands of political prisoners who faced harsh sentences following fictitious trials, or were they under pretrial detention for many years.”
The statement said that despite its appalling human rights record over the past decade, Egypt continues to receive significant financial and economic support from Western governments and international financial institutions.
“While the Egyptian authorities claim recently that they have begun to address the human rights situation, Kassem’s detention, and the recent arbitrary measures that have accompanied it, is another indication that she has no intention of changing course.”
The statement called on the international community to demand the release of Kassem, and other detained political prisoners.
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.
“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 said.
“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 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.