Diehl on Kassem

Jackson Diehl uses his latest WaPo column on Egypt, his favorite topic, to do a mini-profile of Hisham Kassem, the publisher of Al Masri Al Youm:

How did this space for press freedom open? Kassem doesn't hedge: "U.S. pressure on the Mubarak regime has been the catalyst for most of the change we have seen," he said. He traces the turning point to an April 2004 summit between Mubarak and President Bush in Crawford, Tex., at which the aging Egyptian strongman heard for the first time from an American president that political liberalization would be necessary to maintain good relations. After stalling a few months in the hope that Bush would lose the 2004 election, Mubarak reluctantly concluded that he must take some visible steps, Kassem says. One was the allowance of greater press freedom; another was the conversion of his reelection from a referendum into a multi-candidate competition.

The problem, Kassem says, is that once his reelection was secured and accepted by Washington, Mubarak froze the reforms. Though he promised a long list of political and economic liberalizations before the election, not one has been implemented in the six months since. Instead, Mubarak has imprisoned his chief liberal opponent, Ayman Nour, on bogus criminal charges; postponed scheduled municipal elections; and refused to legalize the centrist political parties that might provide an alternative to his regime and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Kassem says he fears the 77-year-old president plans to die in office without leaving either a successor or a democratic mechanism for choosing one.

Ask him for a remedy, and once again he doesn't hedge. "The United States has to continue pressuring," he says. "We're all willing to accept a controlled process of reform under Mubarak. But leave him alone and he won't do it."
Kassem was rather savagely attacked by a local paper last week (can't remember which one, Rose Al Youssef I think). He's a vice-president of Al Ghad, the president of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights and a favorite source of punditry for foreign journalists, researchers and diplomats -- he has a newsman's talent for the soundbite. But his neocon-ish views on the need for a shake-up in the region, his support for the war on Iraq and his urging for more pressure on the Mubarak regime have made him unpopular with both pro-regime and opposition figures in Cairo. In many ways, Kassem is the archetype of the Arab liberal who is isolated by his generally pro-American orientation. Even if you don't agree with his views, he deserves recognition for the real change in the media scene he brought with Al Masri Al Youm.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.