Egypt’s transition may ultimately be good for democracy, but it’s been a major headache for a leading democrat:
A little over a year ago, on the eve of the revolution that ousted Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Hisham Kassem was poised to launch the Arab world’s first independently owned multimedia news company. But the revolution failed to redeem its promise of full democracy, press freedoms deteriorated, the economy tanked, and Kassem’s shareholders abandoned him.
“Investors started missing payments in June,” Kassem says from his half-finished offices in downtown Cairo. “By late August I was cash-strapped.”
As editor of the independent Al Masry Al Youm and chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights during the Mubarak era, Kassem “did as much as anyone to create pockets of oxygen for hard-hitting journalism,” The Washington Post’s Stephen Glain reports.
As one commentator recently observed, “If running an independent newspaper in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt might have been considered a misfortune, doubling as a human rights campaigner began to look like recklessness.”
“This is an authoritarian regime that is crumbling,” Kassem said in 2004. “What’s happening now is irreversible.”
But now post-Mubarak Egypt is witnessing new curbs on freedom of expression, while former regime elements, not least the mukhabarat security services, are conducting a “stealth campaign of harassment” against independent voices:
“The pressure is now worse than ever,” says Ibrahim Eissa, an activist and publisher who last spring launched Tahrir, a newspaper and broadcast company named after the square that served as the locus of the anti-Mubarak movement. “The government passes laws that make it harder to publish. Now, anyone can declare themselves slandered by a story and demand fines. Of course, it’s impossible to say who’s behind these attacks.”
Just like the old days:
Kassem recalls how, when he was running the Cairo Times, he was ordered by the censors to stop reporting on a $60 billion residential and water-irrigation development, which like so many Pharaonic projects conceived under Mubarak was regarded as a corrupt land grab for regime cronies.
“We were told ‘don’t touch it’ and we had to leave it alone.” he said. “No more. There needs to be an end to graft and corruption and a move to good governance and if I’m doing my job here, it can happen.”
Eissa’s dismissal from the editorship of the opposition newspaper Al Dustour was a signal event in the run-up to the 2010 election that highlighted the Mubarak regime’s lack of legitimacy.
Nevertheless, Kassem expects that his new multi-media project – featuring print, television, radio and Web-driven content – will take off:
Today, despite Egypt’s difficult economic environment, Kassem is optimistic. In a few weeks, he says, he’ll be accepting applications for the 60 or so positions that will round out the staff and he expects some 5,000 submissions. “I’m not exaggerating when I say every journalist in town wants to join us,” he says.