Egypt: Detained government critic Hisham Kassem begins hunger strike

The 64-year-old publisher and prominent activist is a founding member of the Free Current, a political alliance seeking to propose liberal alternatives to the military-controlled economic policies of the Sisi government.

Egyptian opposition activist Hisham Kassem has begun a hunger strike in custody, his supporters said on Saturday, in protest against what he considers as politically motivated detention.

Hesham Ouf, an activist, announced on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that Kassem had appeared in court and that the court adjourned his case until 9 September. Kassem was remanded in pre-trial detention until then.

Kassem was initially detained on 20 August, in connection with “libel and slander” accusations filed against him by former labour minister Kamal Abu Eita, who sued Kassem over purportedly defamatory Facebook posts.

Ouf added that the 64-year-old publisher and government critic “is on hunger strike” but made no mention about the state of Kassem’s health. 

In a statement on Friday, 12 human rights groups called for the “immediate and unconditional” release of Kassem.

“The circumstances of his detention and trial clearly indicate that the charges against him are political and aimed at punishing him for opposing the government,” they said.

“Kassem, one of the sharpest critics of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and a veteran advocate of a free press, is detained on trumped up defamation charges for sharing on social media newspaper articles on potential corruption,” the statement added.

“Kassem’s detention comes less than two months after he co-founded the Free Current, a coalition of liberal political parties and figures opposing the Sisi government and seeking to present alternative economic policies.”

In August, Egypt’s public prosecution charged the opposition activist with insulting police shortly after a decision to release him on bail in a defamation case.

The detention came a day after Kassem posted a tweet commenting on the arrest of a journalist in relation to the Egyptian private plane carrying millions in cash, fake gold and weapons seized in Zambia earlier this month.

“By God, even if we have to detain half of the country, we’ll get to the bottom of all of the theft, smuggling and peoples’ money that was on the plane seized in Zambia, as well as the other planes and thefts,” Kassem wrote on 19 August.

The public prosecution decided to release Kassem on bail for 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($165) in the libel and slander case. However, when Kassem refused to pay, the prosecution detained him for a second time on 21 August, on charges of insulting officers.

A number of human rights defenders and political activists have called for Kassem’s release, claiming it is politically motivated due to his public anti-government positions.

In an email statement sent out to various media outlets, Samar Elhussieni, an Egyptian human rights defender, warned that Kassem’s detention on defamation charges appears to be “a tool to target and intimidate political opponents”.

“Hisham Kassem has become the target of a widespread defamation campaign by state-affiliated channels since his appointment as Chairman of the Free Liberal Current,” Elhussieni, who is a programme officer at the Egyptian Human Rights Forum, said.

“He is a vocal political dissident who speaks out against corruption, repression and failed economic policies that have led to a severe economic crisis in the country,” she added.

Kassem joins tens of thousands of Egyptian political prisoners held in custody since Sisi came to power in a coup in 2013.