Hisham Kassem : Confessions of a Mediaman

Posted: September 28, 2008 in Journalism, Literature, Politics, Society

 

 

Hisham Kassem

 

“Confessions of A Mediaman”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Age: 48

Marital/parental status: single, no children

Address: Downtown, Cairo

 

 

Hisham Kassem is a leading publisher in Arabic mainstream media, with pet projects like Cairo Times, El Masry El Yom, and a new digital publication that is expected to take news to a new frontier; Kassem has always carried a message. Editor Islam Mohamed gives us an exclusive opportunity to see inside a man shaped by time and many historical events.

 

 

 

Coming from Alexandria, father practicing law, the mother a retired French teacher, Kassem went to school and grew up in the Mediterranean city. In 1966 his family came under Nasser’s ‘Acts’ in the second part of what they called ‘liquidating feudalism’; father put on a pension at age 37, grandfather put under house arrest at his home in Beheira. Kassem has memories of Mokhabarat officers showing up at his house. “In his desperation, my father had written to Nasser: “What should I tell my children? I can no longer sustain my family on my pension.” The officers were decent enough to intercept this letter, my father was lucky; the only outcome of such a letter was that he would be taken to the mo’taqal [state security detention camp].”

 

The family moved to Lybia, “We were there when the coup took place; we thought there was a wedding outside, turns out: it was the revolution.” When Qaddaffi implemented Al Ligan Al Shaabiyya [The Peoples’ Councils] my father had rising concerns that Libya was becoming what he had fled initially. My family returned to Egypt in ’74, followed three years later by my father.”

 

Kassem’s first experience with publishing came when he opened a press service, translation, and desktop publishing office with Roland Trafford Roberts in Cairo, at the age of 32. “With the press service I started fixing, research, writing, translating, editing and doing stuff for foreign press agencies. I realized ‘this is a nice profession’; so by ’97 I launched Cairo Times with Michael Howards, Steve Negus, Andrew Hammond, Dianna Digges, and Richard Woffenden.”

 

Many publications have been linked with Kassem, often just by unfounded conjecture. “I had nothing to do with Cairo Magazine, and I am associated with six or seven publications, like El Badeel [The Alternative] because all I need do is go visit someone in his office, and the next day rumors are out that I’m the actual publisher. I am the virtual Murdoch of the country!”

 

 

 

– Q & A

 

 

When you started publishing, what were the standards at the time?

I read quite a lot of foreign publications and I worked with people from The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, Washington Post etc. I was comparing the quality of journalism there to what was happening here, so I moved in to publishing with very high standards. In my next paper I have fully digitized the platform. People were telling me such a concept would never take off. The important thing is to be able to enforce a discipline, because there will always be resistance.

 

What do you consider an important piece you wrote?

For Al Masry El Yom I wrote about [Late] Congressman Tom Lantos. He was calling for cutting off [military] aid and the press here responded very aggressively. My piece was an analysis of what he had to say. I’m a strong believer that cutting off aid would destroy the transparent arms regime and could spark an arms’ race in the region. As long as Israel knows what Egypt is getting, the arms levels will stay the same—cut it and Egypt will have to diversify its resources. Given Israel’s military doctrine pretty soon they’ll be tripling their arsenal. And an increase in arms ends in moral war and bankruptcy.

 

An article you enjoyed writing?

After I received the NED1 Award [Sep. 2007], a smear campaign followed from Mubarak’s press. I wrote probably my longest piece, 4500 words. There was all this interest in ‘this guy’ who stood next to George Bush in the oval office, so I recounted what happened, and I did respond in a line or two to some of the smear campaign. The most I gave Mostafa Bakry was a four line quote; in response to two full pages, including the headline ‘conspiracy to overthrow the Mubarak regime’. Mohamed Ali Ibrahim got maybe a line and a half, no more. And he ended up writing a series about me. Ros al Youssef got ¾ of a line… keda.

 

Frontpage headlines that brought a smile to your face?

Boutrous Ghali becoming the UN Secretary General & Naguib Mahfouz winning the Nobel Prize.

 

Writers/columnists whose thoughts you enjoy following?

Salah Eissa, and Mahmud ‘Awwad when he ran El Ahrar [newspaper].

 

What is your take on Nasser’s rise to power?

There is this amazing film called Nasser ‘56 that is supposed to glorify Nasser. There is a scene however, where as the head of the state he takes a decision that is basically the prerogative of the legislator and media; he takes the constitution in his own hands and creates an imperial state. There were people sitting with him on that stand2 that did not know that he was going to take that decision, Nasser nationalized Egypt, not the Suez Canal!

It was the rise of a dictator, and what was the result? Occupied Sinai. Had the US, for its own interests, not warned England, France and Israel to evacuate, we would have lost Sinai.

 

 

And on El Naksa [relapse]?

It is easy to speak of war when you’re not the one losing a limb, or mother losing her child.

Society figures would write op-ed’s praising those on the frontlines, while at the same time finding ways to dodge their sons’ conscriptions. They thought of war as revenge. Conditions were similar to post WWI conditions that led to the rise of Hitler to power. Nasser nationalized the press, the judiciary, and lost a chunk of the homeland in a stupid unnecessary war—Beta’ moghamarat [adventuring type]. Can you imagine, from Alexandria to Aswan, people appearing at the same time, hoisting the same slogans when he came out with his famous resignation declaration?

 

Heikal

If there’s a hell up there, then Heikal will definitely burn in it. A military defeat is not necessarily a bad thing; Japan was flattened by the bomb and is now the world’s 2nd most powerful economy. Here, Heikal said the object of the military defeat was to remove Nasser from power; since that didn’t happen, there was no defeat but El Naksa.

The military regime remained because of the role Heikal played; ‘He who has sown Nasser, reaped Mubarak’. What naksa? It’s real terminology is military defeat.

I once wrote to Heikal but he did not respond, he hasn’t responded to anyone since Tawfiq El Hakim’s critique of his book by writing Autumn of Fury [Khareef el Ghadhab].

Salah Montasser in an interview recently said that during El Naksa Heikal closed the wire room so reporters wouldn’t know what the rest of the world was saying. The Tawgeeh el Ma’aanawi [Morale directing office] informed them that they had shot down 80 planes and Heikal said ‘make it a hundred and something’. When the number of planes [allegedly hit] hadn’t risen, Heikal asked him to bring the number back down. This is a very serious accusation; closing the wire room, instructing them to falsify information and numbers, and then eventually coming out with the concept of El Naksa or whatever.

A self-promoter and very intelligent in positioning himself, on the 3rd anniversary of El Masry, Heikal [claimed] the front page. I had already left by then and I was furious. The true makers of El Masry, where were they? Why did Magdi Mehana not write that? Had I been there, it would’ve been over my dead body.

 

In retrospect, what is the worst covered/ falsely communicated event of your time?

Mubarak, in every sense. There has been very little, good writing done on the subject of Mubarak. When he first came to power there was either hypocrisy or very vicious criticism directed at him, which was in no way professional journalism.

 

Sadat?

It was a game of musical chairs; Nasser didn’t allow anyone to keep a chair for too long, so there was never a powerful 2nd man, especially after he murdered Abd El Hakim ‘Amer. Sadat showed he was a hardcore politician and was quite clear on what he needed to do. I don’t believe he thought there was any possibility for a military victory [in ‘73].

There are no books other than those glorifying the ‘victory’. The only professional attempt to write a book was by Saad el Shazli, and he had to do time in jail for it. When you read other [outside] sources, you get a totally different story. One book I found very valuable was Anatomy of a Crisis; basically the phone conversations between Kissinger and the parties involved—it shows you what was really going on:

          Sadat really surprised the Israelis. The Israeli military doctrine is, if they lose one war then they’re finished, so they really wanted revenge [for Sadat’s maneuver militarily embarrassing them], and were intent on destroying the 2nd army. This was downplayed to the 2nd army leaving its weapons and walking out of Sinai on foot.

          The decider was the American ultimatum, that if the Israelis did not withdraw, the air bridge would be diverted to Egypt instead. No one has contested these phone transcripts.

I truly believe that Sadat was a genius in that he realized that this would not be a military victory, so he started negotiations. He used it very well internally, and place it as a victory.

I think very highly of Sadat’s initiative, especially in comparison with today’s silly initiatives; like the Asad family having to undergo the humiliation of attending peace talks, while Israeli fighters break through the Syrian border regularly and bomb the hell out of them, without any retaliation on their part whatsoever. Instead, Sadat said he ‘would go to the ends of the earth to stop the bloodshed’ and the following week he was in the Knesset.

He was up against tough negotiators in Camp David. A young diplomat voiced his concerns to Sadat during those negotiations. Sadat said: ‘Olli yabni, ana farratt fil hadida? Ana gibtehalku lhadd elhadida. [Have I given up the border markings? I’ve gotten back every inch of occupied land up till the iron bar holding the border sign]. He explained that the diplomat’s concerns were for his own generation to attempt to pursue.

 

Sadat’s last days?

Umm.. His actions in his final days, in comparison with the accounts of those close to him, did not make sense. I really think it was a nervous breakdown that got him. Handing over the country to Mubarak was a bad decision. There were three viable options to Sadat’s succession, if they had not chosen to go down the way of military seniority; Kamal Hassan Ali was definitely an option, so were Abd el Halim Abu Ghazzallah and Saad Maamoun. I think Sadat chose Mubarak because he had no presidential aspirations; he could secure the loyalty of the army without having a 2nd man who was interested in the presidency.

 

Sadat’s assassination?

I remember feeling very sad. Not that I fully appreciated Sadat at the time; that came with the years—but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.

I read extensively on the matter and I have no doubt; four amateurs and Mohamed Abdel Salam Farag killed Sadat. Had they been hardcore Gamaa’a Islamiyya [Moslim Group] the whole thing would’ve been preempted.

The smooth sailing of the operation was a fluke—nothing I’ve come to know can convince me otherwise. Sadat had ordered his bodyguards to scat, reasoning that he can’t be sitting midst his army, with his bodyguards sat in front of him. Atta Ta’el, the marksman, thought that Sadat was wearing a vest, fired at his neck and got him with the first shot. Had any of this delayed the operation a few seconds, it might have been enough…  The story that his shelf-life date had expired and America decided to get rid of him is unlikely; they needed him here at least until 26th of April of 1982, the date of the handover of Sinai. It could’ve jeopardized the whole process.

 

Zawahiri?

You know what number [as an accused] Zawahiri had in the trial after Sadat’s assassination? He was number 138! What happened to him during this trial is what created Zawahiri. Mohamed Gohar, a cameraman at the time, met the young doctor Ayman El Zawahiri when he walked up to him, swearing to get revenge for what was done to him, his mother, and his sister. I don’t know exactly what happened to Zawahiri, but he confessed to [the identities of] ‘Imari and Msallam, who were very close to him. They must’ve really broken him. He left Egypt swearing that he would come back a conqueror.

 

Mubarak

Mubarak is the first real soldier to run this country. Nasser and Sadat left the army young, but Mubarak became the commander of the Air Force on merit. He was never part of El Tanzeem El Talee’ei [A Political Organization], he was not interested. A very disciplined man; you give him a destroyed air force and he’ll fix it, but according to plans and targets and commands.

Mubarak came from the countryside to go to university, just like my father. Schools were scattered between villages, kids used to walk 5 or 6 kilometers in the dark every morning—they were lucky if they had a donkey. Mubarak was like that, and these are very special people. Most of the great figures who contributed a lot over the past 50 years have come from the countryside. One kid out of every thousand will go the distance.

Mubarak is a very tough and disciplined military commander. Pilots would say that they would run into him as they were leaving and he would ask “Have you done your work? OK, let’s inspect.” By the time he finished inspection, it would be the time for the next shift.

He is a high achiever, who, when reaching the highest position, almost had Egypt declared bankrupt before financial monitoring institutions, when Egypt stopped paying interest on its debts. He was saved when the Paris Club scratched half the debt, due to his role during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

From then on he developed an obsession not to let his life end in disgrace. He remilitarized the regime, destroyed the legal executives and concentrated power within the presidency. When you get all this talk about cabinet shuffles or whatever, I say I’ll believe it when Mubarak declares it.

The biggest threat to Mubarak was Abu Ghazzallah, who was popular with the military and very progressive. He had a politician’s mind, excellent relations with the States, and he had vision. He was eliminated from contention with the story of this espionage case, where an Egyptian officer was arrested in the US. A systematic severing of bonds to those around him eventually did it. Mubarak managed to consolidate his position in power; rheumatism finished Kamal Hassan Ali and Saad Ma’amoun wasn’t that big of a problem. Mubarak became ruler supreme and is Egypt’s most unpopular head of state.

 

On the NDP

At some point I considered the [National] Democratic Party; I had this weird idea about reform from within. Fortunately I never joined; by the time I had checked it out I was convinced there was no way for internal reform because of infrastructure, the setup, strategies, and leadership. I had voted yes for Mubarak in ’87, by ’93 I was dissatisfied.

 

Book you hope to write?

Mubarak’s life.

 

War & Peace

I am pro-peace and that has won me my fair share of attacks. People go to war when the political track is blocked, but as a tool for revenge war is utterly absurd. Sadat understood this, that kids were in the trenches losing limbs, dying, being orphaned. It’s a horrible reality. It’s amazing though that the Arab world is the only place where students demonstrate for war—everywhere else people demonstrate to end it.

Sadat did a lot, but people don’t realize it—they don’t understand the cost of war. When Sadat asked Arafat to join him at the Mena House, there were only 6,000 settlers in the West Bank, now there are 250,000. Had Arafat attended, they would have had 10 times what’s on the table now.

Borders and lines change, maps change. States appear, states disappear—you can lose the land forever. Refer to any map and you’ll see that Israel has quadrupled in size between ’48 and ’67. And they’re still calling out for war, and I don’t know what is to happen in the end? Will they lay down newspapers on the ground for Palestinians to claim a homeland, or what?

 

Wasn’t the military supposed to denounce the monarchy and hand over the reigns to civilian rule?

The military goes off the line of duty and occupies its own country. The same applies to all the Arab military regimes in the region. I often say that at present we cannot do with a civilian head of state; due to the systematic destruction of the four estates that need to be rebuilt and heal. This takes a long time, a long and tedious road to achieve what is called the ‘transition’. After a meeting with Secretary Rice, Mubarak said he agreed that it takes a generation to build a democracy. I agree, I am not a believer of overnight democracy, so when do we start? I’ve given up on the notion that I will live to witness a democracy, the best I can hope for is to witness part of the transition. Egypt has become this big building, supported by scaffolding, but [with things staying the same way] it will come tumbling down.

I do not condone anything that will push the country towards chaos, things can always deteriorate further. People have this false notion that we have hit rock bottom.

 

The state of publications in Egypt?

These are bad times. There is no clear vision, lots of backstabbing, and no clear roadmap to standards for professional journalism. In many publications I have helped set up the initial structure, and with my coming project I intend to preserve that sense of professionalism. I’ve been preparing for some time [almost a decade!]…but I’m lazy. Like El Masry El Yom was a landmark, this shall be an even greater shift in journalism; trying to examine all angles [simultaneously] and possessing a unique human resources department where all rules will be laid out before the reporters on how to make more money. When you create a structure where there is a clear and fair way to advance, that’s when you get very good work from people.

 

Finally. Do you have a journalistic role model?

I don’t attribute my love for journalism to any role model. If journalism is going to undergo an awakening here in Egypt, then the profession of being a publisher must be given due respect.

 

 

 

 

1. NED Award: National Endowment for Democracy Award, given in recognition of courageous and creative work of individuals and organizations, that has advanced the cause of human rights and democracy around the world.

 

2. On July 26th, in a speech in Alexandria, Nasser deliberately pronounced the name of Ferdinand de Lesseps, constructor of the Canal. It was a code-word for Egyptian forces to seize control of the Canal and implement the nationalization of it.

 

 

Published in AlterEgo magazine Issue 06 Aug 08

 

 

 

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