Boyd Tonkin: A literary hero, and a cause we must fight

Mohamed Hashem belongs in the same company as Havel and Hitchens

Boyd Tonkin
Monday 02 January 2012 01:00 GMT

I first met Mohamed Hashem as, wreathed in smoke from his endless cigarettes, and holding a glass of red wine, he talked and joked among Cairo's writers and publishers at a party at the Nile Hilton – not much more than a stone's throw from Tahrir Square. Although only a few years back, it felt then as if Hashem – journalist and author turned fearless, pioneering publisher – still had a mountain to climb in his campaigns for freedom of thought and expression against Egypt's entwined establishments, religious and political alike.

Then came the revolution. The books and writers he championed through his independent house Dar Merit – the boldest in Egypt, committed to quality as much as liberty, and the imprint that launched the career of global bestseller Alaa Al-Aswany – did much more to prepare the ground for rapid change than any Facebook page or Twitter feed. But with this spring's triumph came new dangers. General Adel Emara of the ruling military council recently denounced Hashem as a "saboteur". According to the general, he has used the Merit offices near Tahrir Square to "incite violence" – by distributing free food, head protection and gas masks to protesters! According to Hashem, an arrest warrant against him has been drawn up, though as I write the authorities have made no attempt to seize him.

Egypt's embattled liberals instantly sprang to Hashem's defence. In a unanimous statement, the publishers' union has called for solidarity; a march of supporters set off from the Merit headquarters; and the man himself has struck back, threatening to sue General Emara for slander. Such are the gifts of freedom, however thin its soil in Egypt sometimes feels.

The world's most vocal advocates of intellectual liberty have been mourning the deaths, and celebrating the lives, of Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens. Mohamed Hashem absolutely belongs in that company. Should he need outside backing, those same elegists should be ready to stand up for this successor to their heroes.

The year after that Cairo party, I saw Hashem again – rumpled as ever, amid the antiseptic halls of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair. As usual, he was being sued in Egypt on all sides. Did Mubarak's bullying state or its tame clerics in the mosques cause Merit more trouble, I asked? He replied with an eloquent "50:50" shrug. And he outlined with enthusiasm his plans for a children's book list devoted to the values of tolerance, reason and pluralism.

This March, I met him in Abu Dhabi again. He hadn't booked a stall, had no bed for the night, but was swiftly surrounded by admirers: a merrily shambolic figure, in jeans and donkey jacket, incongruously planted amid the spotless white robes of the Emiratis. Hashem has earned innumerable friends across the Arab world. He needs them in the West as well.

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