‘I was free, even though I was in prison’
Hesham Gaafar: A journalist’s story of detention

On March 26, after over 42 months in remand detention, journalist and researcher Hesham Gaafar was finally released from prison.

He spent nearly three and a half years behind bars without ever being convicted of a crime. His story is just one among many in Egypt, which has become the third worst jailer of journalists in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Yet, even by Egyptian standards, the conditions of his imprisonment were particularly grueling.

For the duration of his detention, he was held in solitary confinement and not allowed visitors. Prison authorities long refused him medical care for dysplasia in his optic nerve and he nearly lost his eyesight; he also developed a malignant tumor in his prostate. His health continued to deteriorate as he remained in prison well beyond the two-year limit for remand detention under Egypt’s Penal Code.

The harsh circumstances of Gaafar’s case prompted the Arab Network for Human Rights to file a complaint accusing the State Security Prosecution’s attorney general of unlawful detention and attempted murder.

Yet, Gaafar says his spirit was never broken. “Freedom is subjective, something independent of your actual circumstances,” Gaafar tells Mada Masr. “If you feel free, even while you are confined in prison, then you are free. The chains that bind you are not just physical. In fact, physical chains are easier to break than self-imposed ones. As long as you feel free, then you are free.”

Courtesy: Mohamed El Raai - Photograph: محمد الراعي

A life of probing

Gaafar graduated from the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University in 1985 and went on to obtain a master’s degree in politics. He then embarked on a career in journalism and research, and spent much of his career exploring themes of religious discourse and social cohesion.

A religious man with Sufi leanings, Gaafar grew up in a rural environment under the teachings of Al-Azhar, according to Hana Grace, the former vice president of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, who has known Gaafar for over 25 years. Through his work, Gaafar worked to reconcile this conservative background with ongoing cultural transformations, Grace says, and looked to foment a new discourse for religion, diversity, citizenship and acceptance of the other through a continuous dialogue between various segments of society.

“He has a rich intellectual background that encourages a culture of dialogue and non-violence,” says Ahmed Abd Rabbo, a professor of political science familiar with Gaafar’s work.

Gaafar became the first editor-in-chief of the Arabic section of Islam Online, a website founded in 1998 with funding from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, under the guidance of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars. It was closed by the institution that oversaw its funding in 2010 and subsequently reinstated after the administration fired most of the old staff.

Gaafar summarized his vision for the website as “media based on Islamic principles.”

The site proved to be controversial as it strayed away from traditional Islamist media discourse. Writer Amr al-Shobaki described Islam Online as an experiment in creating an Islamic website that is non-partisan, non-fundamentalist and professional.  The site explored sensitive topics and included discussions of cinema, sex, music and current events. The content was jarring for some.

“Once in a while, a group related to the Muslim Brotherhood would go to Qaradawy — who oversaw the site’s administration — and tell him to stop those spreading discord,” says Hossam al-Sayed, a longtime friend of Gaafar’s and member of the Islam Online editorial board. The site also faced attacks from Salafi Muslims when it published research that refuted the notion that Islamic Sharia legitimized violence.  

Aside from his journalism, Gaafar also focused on research and community initiatives. He sometimes worked alongside government entities, such as “Noon al-Hadara,” a project conducted in coordination with the National Council for Housing.

In 2010, he founded the Mada Foundation for Media Development (not to be confused with this publication), an NGO licensed under the Ministry of Social Solidarity.

The foundation’s work focused on training and awareness campaigns in the fields of women’s issues and sectarianism. Several of the Mada Foundation’s projects were implemented in cooperation with state institutions, such as Al-Azhar, as well as national councils, like the National Population Council.

In the months before his arrest, Gaafar was working on a project titled “Early warning signs of sectarian strife,” which explored alternative methods to tackling sectarianism other than customary reconciliation sessions, by creating groups on the ground that would try to identify potential problems before they escalated. He attempted to involve the state in implementing the idea, but never received a response.

Two days before his arrest in October 2015, Gaafar was planning to announce a project to “strengthen democratic political space,” according to his wife, Manar Tantawy. On the advice of one of his partners in the project, he planned to delay its announcement until after the 2015 parliamentary elections, Tantawy says. The document has still not been published, according to Grace, also a partner in the project.

Courtesy: Mohamed El Raai - Photograph: محمد الراعي

A statement issued by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) in May 2016 concludes that the project was the reason for Gaafar’s arrest. He had consulted 10 political parties while working on it, as well as the Swiss Institute for Humanitarian Dialogue, which cooperated with a number of Tunisian institutions that worked to “manage democratic political discussion and avoid conflict and rivalry,” and eventually helped create a national consensus in Tunisia that included all political factions. ANHRI director Gamal Eid tells Mada Masr that certain Egyptian authorities were fearful of this type of inclusive political climate that might lead to calls for accountability for past corrupt practices. For this reason, Eid says, these bodies called on the National Security Agency to arrest Gaafar.

Article 3 of the document’s summary states that “guaranteeing a political field where everyone can participate requires that no political or ideological group is isolated and kept out of the public sphere and democratic competition.” It also sets out certain conditions, including “the separation between religious advocacy and partisan work.”

Certain political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wafd Party and the Free Egyptians Party, refused to take part in the drafting of the document, according to Grace. Several other groups did participate, including the Nour Party, Conference Party, Conservative Party and National Party.

Grace attempted to find out exactly why Gaafar was arrested. He contacted several connected sources, who told him there were swirling reports from powerful government bodies that Gaafar was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and acted as a political advisor for the group’s leading figure, Khairat al-Shater. Grace says he contacted a senior official to explain that the reports on Gaafar were unfounded. “I was told, ‘Gaafar tricked you into thinking that he does not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood. He tried to use you.’”

Grace believes it was Gaafar’s continued contact with the Muslim Brotherhood over the years, combined with his prominence as a widely respected and influential figure, that may have instigated his arrest and prolonged detention.

Grace also believes Gaafar’s arrest may have been sparked by a dispute between security agencies. A colleague of Gaafar’s, who worked on the document project and spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, also backs this theory. “I learned that Gaafar contacted the Swiss Institute for Humanitarian Dialogue about the document under the auspices and agreement of one of the intelligence agencies other than the National Security Agency,” he says, prompting a retaliation.

Years in remand detention

Gaafar was arrested on October 21, 2015 after security forces raided the headquarters of the Mada Foundation for Media Development. He was taken to his house and some of his belongings were confiscated.

Three days later, Gaafar appeared in front of the State Security Prosecution, which charged him with belonging to an outlawed organization and taking bribes from foreign entities as part of Case 720/2015.

Gaafar’s friend and his fellow member of the Islam Online editorial board, Sayed, was also arrested on the same charges. Sayed was released four months later.

In November 2018, three years into his imprisonment, a North Cairo Criminal Court judge recused himself from presiding over Gaafar’s detention renewal, saying he “sensed discomfort.” Cited in previous cases, this phrasing is often presumed to imply there was an issue of impartiality affecting a judge’s capacity to preside over a case.

“We never received a response in any of the detention renewal sessions to justify his continued imprisonment in remand detention even though he exceeded the legal limit,” Gaafar’s lawyer, Karim Abdel Rady, says.

Gaafar’s mother says she cried every day during her son’s imprisonment. “Hesham is my eldest son. I was so afraid for him. I am constantly worried about his deteriorating eyesight,” she says. “Because of his poor vision, he would sometimes come home with an injury from tripping over something and falling in the street. Imagine what it was like for him in prison.”

Tantawy, Gaafar’s wife, launched a vigorous online campaign, setting up a page for him on Facebook, where she published hundreds of posts. She also spoke about his case whenever she could on various media outlets.

She says the most difficult moment for her was when he was taken to hospital after suffering severe urinary retention and she saw that his face had turned black. She remembers how he used to suffer from urinary retention at home and wonders how he could have possibly coped in prison.

Gaafar was scheduled to undergo surgery in September 2017 to have a malignant tumor removed from his prostate but prison authorities did not allow him to have the operation until February 2019, a full seventeen months later. During this period, Tantawy submitted numerous requests for Gaafar to be transferred to the hospital, the last of which came in January 2019, and was addressed to the National Human Rights Council. None of the requests  garnered a response. George Ishaq, a member of the council previously told Mada Masr, “We did all we could until all we could do was say, ‘please, God.’”

In February, Tantawy submitted candidacy documents for him to become a member of  the Journalists Syndicate, a move that was welcomed by some members of the union but was rejected by the supervisory commission for the syndicate’s elections for failure to meet candidacy requirements. “Applying to the syndicate was a move meant to remind people of his case and serve as a form of protest against his continued detention,” Tantawy tells Mada Masr. She added that the conditions of his detention improved somewhat during the elections, which was reflected in the increase in time he was allowed out of his cell to exercise.

Finally, on March 26, Gaafar was released.

He says he plans to read vociferously to catch up on the current political landscape and figure out his future plans. He also hopes to look into the legal status of the Mada Foundation for Media Development, which is currently shuttered.

“Prison helps one rethink many things from a new perspective,” Gaafar tells Mada Masr. “Living life at a fast pace and under all these pressures can cause you to lose meaning, to lose a sense of reflection and self-restraint. But when you are in seclusion, you have the opportunity to consider things from a new perspective. This liberates you from traditional perspectives and routines and makes you reconsider things a certain way; it helps you become liberated. So I was free, even though I was in prison.”

Mohamed Ashraf Abu Emaira 

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