One of Egypt’s prominent publishers and democracy activists, Hisham Kassem was the founder and publisher of the Cairo Times (now defunct), and was the first publisher of Al-Masry Al-Youm, a widely-read independent daily paper. He is currently setting up a new media house.
He is also former vice president of the liberal opposition Al-Ghad Party, and has served as chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. A staunch advocate of independent journalism, Kassem stresses the importance of transparency in newspaper ownership and funding for preventing corruption and covert political influence.
Bitterlemons-international.org interviewed him to gauge his views on the developments taking place in Egypt.
Bitterlemons-international: We last interviewed you in mid-February of this year. Are you still as optimistic as you were then about the building of civil society in Egypt and a successful transfer of power to a democracy?
Kassem: As far as the military is concerned, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, I trust 100 percent that it is their intention to go back once there are elections. There was no other entity that could take over running the country after [president Hosni] Mubarak. They are professional soldiers who want to go back to their barracks.
And the rest of Egyptian civil society and the way politics are developing?
Kassem: In many ways, we’ve been taken by surprise. One thing I find very disturbing is something that’s almost like a political tidal wave. A lot of new faces have appeared on the scene with little political experience. The opposition has what I call “prolonged opposition trauma” — difficulty making the switch from the politics of opposition where you’re always looking for something to oppose instead of initiating a political process. I’m talking about all the opposition, across the board.
We don’t truly understand what’s happening. I find very disturbing the personal demands of demonstrators who weren’t part of the uprising. The poverty line is up to 40 percent. No one can meet all these demands, which are very selfish. So in the short term, the issue is the economy. This is what Egyptians need to focus on.
In February, you stated that the “fear of Islamists [in Egypt] is completely unfounded”. Do you still hold to this view?
Kassem: I still feel that way. The fear is unfounded, and based on three main factors. One is the Salafists, who are obnoxious and harassing women but won’t participate in the process. They basically criticize the Muslim Brother[hood] for wearing western suits instead of Afghani attire and are creating a social backlash against themselves.
Second is the Brotherhood, which is split into five internal factions and is falsely credited with deciding the “yes” vote on the referendum; they didn’t affect the vote, which was about stability. Their electoral influence has been seriously diluted by mass participation in voting. And third are a few thousand returning “Afghanis” and released prisoners who might get one or two people into parliament.
But the Brotherhood is running for parliament and possibly the presidency.
Kassem: The Brothers will get at most 20 percent of the vote in the coming elections —probably closer to 10 percent.
Was the elimination of Osama bin Laden a milestone in terms of the institutionalization of Arab democracy as opposed to militant Islam?
Kassem: There was hardly any reaction in Egypt to the death of bin Laden. Only 150 people demonstrated outside the United States embassy. Former followers of Bin Laden who are now returning to Egypt oppose fighting the system and favor entering politics, where they won’t do well. Here in the cafes of Cairo, people watched football [the night the US operation was announced], not assassination footage.
And in the Arab world outside of Egypt?
Kassem: Other than Egypt and Tunisia, the rest are still in the throes of revolution. Once their regimes collapse, [the Egyptian model] will be influential. Already on May 15, the foreign minister of the uprising [Nabil al-Araby] was chosen the new head of the Arab League. Ultimately, it’s difficult to see the Brothers getting a majority of votes in any Arab country.
This article is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Bitterlemons-international.org.