Egyptian Opposition Figure Hisham Kassem: Anyone Who Approaches the Presidential File Gets Imprisoned (Interview)

Hisham Kassem discusses the challenges of political opposition in Egypt, including his views on the liberal movement, national dialogue, and the implications of the recent presidential elections.
Haidar Kandil

Hisham Kassem: In an open interview with Zawia3 on various topics including the role of the Free Liberal Movement, he criticizes the ruling regime and gives us his opinions on the national dialogue and the current scene.

Hisham Kassem is an Egyptian publisher and opposition politician. A few months before his imprisonment, in October last year, he was chosen to be the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Liberal Movement in Egypt, which includes four parties: The Conservatives, Reform and Development, Al-Dostour, and Free Egypt, along with several political figures, public figures, and businessmen.

Kassem was arrested on charges of defamation and contempt of police officers based on a complaint filed by the former Minister of Manpower, Kamal Abu Eita, which sparked sharp criticism from human rights organizations in Egypt, classifying the incident as political persecution.

Kassem served his prison sentence and emerged to declare that he would not retract his positions but would continue advocating for the end of military rule in Egypt and its control over the national economy.

The Interview Text…

Tell us about the Free Liberal Movement

The liberal movement is based on the idea that the Egyptian revolution before 1952, and we still live under its shadow, was achieved under a free economy.

We entered the period of military rule since 1952, and shortly after, the military regime realized that controlling power through political repression alone was not enough. They had to extend their dominance to the economy, hence the beginning of nationalization, marking the start of the ruin of the Egyptian economy.

There has been a deliberate effort to restrict free enterprise through a bureaucratic force of about four million employees now, even though 80% of jobs are provided by the private sector, which is the backbone of the economy. A large part of the jobs is marginalized, although they represent the free economy.

This is the direction of the liberal movement; whether in the Free Movement that was founded before I was implicated in a fabricated case and imprisoned, or the Free Call that will be the basis of a party I intend to announce in September, which calls for limiting the government as an economic player and expanding the workforce in the free economy and the role of civil society as well. We advocate for the government to be a guardian and organizer of the economy, not the main player.

The liberal movement is an old idea in Egypt. There have been attempts to revive it by Dr. Said El-Naggar (who called for liberalism in the 1980s and 1990s through the founding of the New Call Association), then there were attempts by the Wafd Party, and there was the experience of the Liberal Ghad Party.

The authorities in Egypt have always stood in the way of the Ghad Party’s attempts, facing it with unjustified hostility and systematic destruction as soon as it obtained a license and started operating publicly, especially after it presented a presidential candidate at the time (referring to the candidacy of Egyptian politician Ayman Nour in the 2005 presidential elections against former President Hosni Mubarak). So, the idea of the liberal movement is old, and it renews periodically, and there are partners with me who contribute to the preparation of the new party.

Read also: Ahmed Altantawy: Egypt Needs an Alternative to the Government and the Opposition (Interview)

Did your imprisonment affect the movement?

Of course, it had a negative impact as we seek to include several successful administrative cadres who believe in the free economy, especially since one of the main reasons for the faltering path after 2011 and the return to military rule was the economic stumbles and the state’s management of the file.

Many cadres have successful administrative abilities but avoid clashing with the regime and repressive systems, whether inside Egypt or any other country. Despite that, we continue to seek more members because we believe the military regime is in its final stages, having reached a level of economic mismanagement and failure that will not allow them to continue for long.

Therefore, we must be ready to emerge from the predicament that military rule has trapped us in, especially since I believe it will worsen in the coming period.

How do you see the national dialogue?

It lacks credibility; they want to start a second part of the national dialogue, but let’s ask what were the results of the first dialogue? Participating in the national dialogue supports the continuation of the military regime, which is incompetent, and we can link it to the widespread poverty. I believe supporting the military regime is unethical.

Read also: Gamal Eid: Challenging Oppression in Egypt (Interview)

Regarding the conflict between you and former Labor Minister Kamal Abu Eita that led to your imprisonment, what is your comment?

“Abu Eita” accused me of being an American Zionist agent, so I responded to him, and I brought up an issue that had been raised about him, suspecting his involvement in financial corruption during his tenure as minister. Many TV channels and platforms had already written about him returning a large amount of money to avoid criminal charges, but he did not file a complaint against them. Only I was taken to court.

Later, I filed a complaint against him because I saw his accusations as incitement against me – which is worse than slander and libel. However, my complaint was ignored, while I was summoned by the prosecution to give my testimony and then found myself accused. This was a mockery of the law by the prosecution; it is not permissible to summon someone for testimony and then arrest them.

Then, I was surprised by another fabricated case from the interior ministry accusing me of insulting officers. I see this as an attempt to remove me from the scene during the presidential elections because I had called on President Sisi not to run again and held him responsible for the deterioration of the country and its future over the next ten years. It was necessary to remove me to stop this discourse during the presidential elections.

Did you intend to run in the previous presidential elections?

Some people called for my candidacy, and my name emerged as a presidential candidate. However, I questioned how to run when the elections were predetermined. In the midst of the country’s security deterioration, it was difficult for anyone to compete with Sisi in the elections. The citizens wanted to escape the chaos that had engulfed the country. We saw in the 2018 elections how it was close to a farce, with candidates like Ahmed Shafiq and Sami Anan being oppressed, and no amendments were made to ensure fair elections, so I had no plan to run.

Who would you have supported in the previous presidential elections?

Ahmed Tantawi believed, based on experiences, that he could follow the examples of some Latin American countries that successfully ousted military rule and returned governance to civilians. Although I saw it as unlikely, he genuinely believed it was possible and announced his candidacy based on that belief. I saw that the other candidates in the elections were not serious and only ran to make the elections seem legitimate, but it was a reappointment of Sisi for another six years. I expect that if he completes his term, he will make constitutional amendments to remain in power for life.

Tell us about the role of the Journalists’ Syndicate and what it should currently be doing to support press freedom, wages, and issues related to journalists?

I do not follow the syndicate’s affairs. My relationship with it during my management of Al-Masry Al-Youm was limited to signing off on appointments. I respect Khaled El-Balshy; he tries to do a good job, but I don’t see that some members of the Journalists’ Syndicate council are doing the same. I believe the Journalists’ Syndicate is the weakest syndicate in Egypt, especially since the allowance file significantly impacts election outcomes within the syndicate.

What does Egypt need to have press freedom?

I have no doubt that we will reach a stage where we enjoy full press freedom. I am confident that this stage is coming and that this darkness will end. The press will enjoy its freedom after improving the situation in Egypt and removing the group monopolizing the country’s wealth, leaving the rest of the Egyptians in poverty.

What is your comment on the blocking of some independent news sites?

Technology has allowed citizens to break these barriers through applications that enable them to bypass the blocking issue. The problem is that those who decide to block are ignorant of technology and do not realize that blocking decisions only harm Egypt’s reputation and its regime as an oppressive and repressive system.

What is your opinion on the syndicate not moving beyond the old pattern and recognizing online sites alone for registration as syndicate members?

The problem lies in the single union organization. I believe that sooner or later, there will be union pluralism, and the professional will have the right to decide which of the multiple unions serves their real interests. This is a temporary and abnormal situation, and any real political reform in the state will end this situation.

How do you see Al-Masry Al-Youm after you left it?

In recent years, its professional level has declined significantly, especially after forcing Mohamed El-Sayed Saleh to resign after covering the elections, and the presence of someone like Abdel Moneim Said – the chairman – who has always been under the government’s umbrella, or Abdel Latif El-Menawy, who was linked to Maspero and the news room he headed.

We also saw how Salah Diab was imprisoned twice and terrorized because he owns a larger share in the newspaper. So, even if the administrations change, there will be no change because the authorities will not allow it again.

Your comment on social media users republishing old promises of the president on his official page, and the administrators deleting those posts in response?

The president started deleting some old posts, or the campaign calling for his accountability; all indicate that this regime

is playing for time. I believe that social media has become capable of mobilizing through its platforms, from both sides (the popular campaign to repost old promises or deleting those posts), and that economic and technological developments no longer allow for the existence of a military regime.

Regarding the current roles of Hamdeen Sabahi and ElBaradei, do you see the possibility of their return as active figures in the political field, or has this become impossible?

We cannot lump Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabahi together; each has a different political nature and role. Dr. ElBaradei was an international civil servant, a Nobel laureate; he made an attempt that did not succeed but left hopes for a better future. He is currently residing abroad but remains a reference for public figures and citizens, much like Gandhi. As for Sabahi, the situation is entirely different; he lives inside the country and is engaged with the reality.

How do you see the Civil Movement’s performance?

We are working towards achieving a republic, not a military regime under the name of a republic. We do not necessarily work in coordination with other movements, nor do we agree politically with many members of the Civil Movement. I see that some of them give a façade of improving the military regime without making any real contribution to genuine political work. But I do not believe there will be any coordination with them. I see their role in decline because they no longer engage with real issues, providing an image that there is political pluralism in the state, nothing more.

Did the Civil Movement support Ahmed Tantawi in his cause?

There were only a few statements that I found surprising.

How do you see the crisis of Tantawi’s powers of attorney?

They made a legal error by arranging popular powers of attorney, but their goal was to show how the notary offices were being obstructive in accepting their powers of attorney. They wanted to demonstrate the number of supporters for their candidate through these powers of attorney. Also, this was a political message from Tantawi; he was not trying to cheat to get the nomination but was trying to prove the state’s obstruction against him and his supporters.

Anyone who approaches the presidential file must be imprisoned if they are a serious candidate. Look at what happened to Ahmed Shafik and his disappearance from the public scene, what happened to Sami Anan and his arrest in a humiliating manner just for announcing his candidacy. We do not even know if Ahmed Konsowa is still alive. I called on the president not to run again and found myself in prison, and the same happened to Tantawi. It is strange that anyone who goes to prison cannot run again even if they get a rehabilitation ruling.

Can you tell us about your prison experience?

The treatment was terrible in the first three days of detention. I was placed in a special cell for government employees and non-habitual criminals, but the place was filthy, and the bathrooms were extremely dirty, which led me to refuse to eat so I wouldn’t have to use the bathroom. On the third day, when they told me I would go to court, I announced a hunger strike.

In the Tenth of Ramadan prison, the situation was entirely different; this prison is one of the newest ones. Initially, I underwent a medical examination due to my hunger strike to ensure I did not have any chronic diseases, and the result was that I could be held in a cell. I did not go through the intake process; I went straight to a private cell with two other inmates, and there was no logistical or living difficulty during my prison time, but in the end, I had a fabricated case and was imprisoned.

What is your comment on the recent tree-cutting campaign and the rumors about exporting charcoal to Israel?

Aside from the question of where the wood is going, from a legal standpoint, are these people capable of destroying public property in this way without a clear government decision?

The trees are being sold, and the proceeds should go into the state treasury, but they have not been, which means we are facing a case of corruption and abuse of public funds that has reached incomprehensible levels. We need the government to justify on what basis public properties are being destroyed in this manner and where the money from the sale of these trees is going.

How do you see Ibrahim Organi?

I believe that Organi is merely a front for others, given the inflated size of his business. There should be an investigation into the entry of Palestinians into Sinai through his company Hala via the Rafah land crossing, in exchange for large sums ranging from five to ten thousand dollars. This cannot happen anywhere else and has not happened in any other country. I do not see them being trained as militias. As for their spokesman, Mostafa Bakry, he is known for changing his statements every couple of days, so we do not take his words seriously.

I believe what is happening is a social front for Ibrahim Organi, a way of exploiting and corruption. It makes us remember the inheritance file; it is a waste of time.

What is your comment on Cairo’s role in the Gaza war crisis?

My comment is that the Gaza crisis has extended the regime’s lifespan because the liquidity that entered Egypt was to avoid a critical situation after the tensions in Libya, Gaza, and Sudan. Any turmoil in Egypt would have severe consequences for all the region’s countries and Europe. Therefore, after the IMF wanted to annul the three-billion-dollar loan agreement, the amount was raised to nine billion.

What is your comment on the anti-refugee discourse?

Due to the presence of authoritarian rulers and increasing conflicts in the region, the number of refugees coming to Egypt has increased. It is indeed a problem, and it is worrying that voices have started calling for the deportation of refugees and the tone against them. The crisis should be dealt with as temporary, and the refugee file should not turn into a begging file to get more money to support the refugees. Many of them came to Egypt with capital and manage their affairs.

Haidar Kandil
Egyptian journalist