ABDALLA F. HASSAN | The New York Times | January 11, 2012
Mohamed Hashem at the offices of his publishing house
PHOTO BY ABDALLA F. HASSAN
CAIRO — Mohamed Hashem, a democracy activist, writer, publisher and founder of the Merit Publishing House, which first produced works like “The Yacoubian Building,” by Alaa al-Aswany, has recently come under attack from Egypt’s military rulers and its politically powerful Islamists. Still, he says he remains undaunted.
“There is no such thing as a ceiling to freedoms,” Mr. Hashem said in a recent interview at the Merit offices, in a central Cairo building behind a drab entrance daubed with anti-security force slogans. “We won’t be silent and we won’t stop publishing what we want, freely and without being subject to censorship.”
A televised press conference last month, by a general on the ruling military council, placed the bookseller in the cross hairs.
Speaking on Dec. 19, Gen. Adel Emara, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said an anti-government conspiracy had engineered the renewed clashes in Cairo that left 18 protesters dead and hundreds injured. An accompanying video clip showed the interrogation of a teenager, identified only as Mansour, who named Mr. Hashem as the owner of the Merit Publishing building, from which, the youth said, “around 120 people” had distributed free helmets, goggles, gas masks and food to the protesters.
Mr. Hashem does not dispute that he handed out first aid kits, blankets and other supplies. He said he would continue to do so if needed, to help protesters facing bullets, shotgun pellets and tear gas fired by the army and security forces.
“I will do anything that will prevent people from dying,” he said defiantly, in the interview. “I will not hold back on anything that I know to be right, in defense of freedom and the rights of citizens. I will keep doing it until I die.”
Al Hikma, an ultra-conservative Salafi satellite television channel, has joined in the campaign against Mr. Hashem, labeling him an infidel because Merit published a book on the formative years of the Prophet Muhammad a decade ago. Mr. Hashem said that it was these kinds of religiously toned media campaigns that posed the greatest threat to independent publishers.
The decisions to censor often originate from publishers and are based on “calculations,” Mr. Hashem asserted. “When they publish a book that upsets the president or powerful interests, they kill themselves with their own sword. We did not care about the sword or the gold.”
Merit has been recognized for promoting new writers and opening up spaces for expression, so far issuing about 700 works of fiction and nonfiction. In November the German P.E.N. Center honored Mr. Hashem with the Hermann Kesten Prize, a literary award for supporting persecuted writers.
“We are more than a half a million Egyptian pounds in debt,” or $83,000 in the hole, Mr. Hashem said, “and if I die today, either by the Islamists of the soldiers, I have three daughters and their inheritance will be in the form of debt.”
Merit remains in business because of a collective of literati who volunteer their time to produce books and authors who forgo royalties.
To Mr. Aswany, it is no surprise for the military rulers to single out Mr. Hashem. The first edition of “The Yacoubian Building,” a novel, was released by Merit after being passed up by other publishers. The book, which went on to become an international bestseller, referenced an omnipresent “Big Man,” which readers could understand to mean Hosni Mubarak, the former president.
Mr. Aswany said Mr. Hashem had been made a target by the military council “to intimidate and terrorize those who are faithful to the revolution.”
“You are up against a unlawful police state that has everything in its hands — security apparatuses, executive power, everything,” Mr. Aswany added. “It can do anything to you.”
Prosecutors have already called in for questioning prominent revolutionary activists, bloggers and public figures, linking them with the recent violent clashes.
Mr. Hashem was born in the Nile Delta city of Tanta in 1958, six years after a military coup, later rebranded a revolution, brought the army officer and pan-Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser to power.
Freedoms were tightly controlled, Mr. Hashem said.
“The regime was the same — oppressive, steeped in graft, despotism and repression,” he said. “It kept people from speaking and that is more dangerous than killing someone, that he lives without the right to express himself.”
The collapse of a dream was the theme of Mr. Hashem’s own 2004 novel, “Open Playgrounds,” which captured the frustration and despair in his hometown after Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 Six Day War.
When conflict erupted anew in October 1973, Mr. Hashem, then 15, was beginning to form a political consciousness through books and by performing in plays and befriending liberals and leftists. He did not join a political party.
“People like me have a loud voice, like to move around and say what’s on our mind,” he said. “I’m not into the discipline of organization.”
In 1980, members of the Communist Workers’ Party were rounded up and put on trial. The Cairo court proceedings were convened in secret, a decision that angered family members and supporters. In the ensuing melee with security, Mr. Hashem was arrested and jailed for more than three months.
Finding no employment opportunities, Mr. Hashem left for Jordan in 1983. In Amman, he worked as a day laborer — painting, carrying bricks, gluing wallpaper and affixing carpeting. He steered clear of politics, and supplemented his meager income by writing book reviews and the occasional short story published in local magazines.
His next novel, a work in progress, explores this phase of his life, when he felt mired in a seemingly failed endeavor far from home.
Mr. Hashem returned to Cairo in 1986 without any of the savings he had hoped to accumulate, and feeling sorry he had ever left. “It was my right to fight so that I can live,” he said.
He found work at a publishing house called Mahrusa, where he managed an archiving service that culled articles in the Egyptian press, and wrote reports on the state of journalism. After 12 years, he tired of the routine.
“I thought I would have a nightmare if I saw another newspaper,” he said.
In 1998 he and Ibrahim Mansour, a writer and critic, founded the Merit Publishing House with the mandate of creating something different and daring in the world of books.
“There is nothing called censorship, nothing called taboos,” Mr. Hashem said of the project.
Mr. Hashem was among the first members of the Egyptian Movement for Change, known as Kifaya, or Enough, which emerged in 2004 to oppose the uncontested election referendum that would hand Mr. Mubarak another six years in power. Being centrally located, Merit became the venue for literary and political gatherings as well as activism, including the Kifaya-affiliated group Writers and Artists for Change, which Mr. Hashem founded.
The activist coalition sought the right to protest in the streets and took risks in directly criticizing the president — action that would help make revolution possible in 2011.
Outside the Merit offices on a chilly evening late last month, eight speakers and a mixer were set up for a rally combining music, poetry and politics to denounce the military rulers and to support the revolutionary publisher.
“On Jan. 25, we will all go out in the millions and say the revolution continues and no one can steal this revolution,” Mr. Aswany said, referring to demonstrations planned to mark the anniversary of the start of the uprising.
“On the 25th, the revolutionaries are coming back!” the crowd chanted.
For Mr. Hashem, the struggle for freedom is never over. He retains his faith in the power of the people and the power of the word.
“We are not afraid of anyone for the sake of Egypt’s freedom. We will use the same tool of peaceful resistance, the loud voice and the brave chest,” he said, offering a cautionary word to the military rulers. “Any crimes they try to hide will be exposed as a lie.”