Hisham Kassem, prominent Egyptian activist and government critic, jailed for six months

CAIRO (Reuters) – A court in Cairo on Saturday sentenced prominent publisher and activist Hisham Kassem, who had recently stepped up his criticism of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule, to six months in prison, his lawyer said.

Kassem is a leader of al-Tayar al-Hurr, or Free Current, a newly formed liberal group. The movement has appealed for political change to address an economic crisis and said it could field a candidate in presidential elections due to be held by early 2024.

No serious challenge is expected against Sisi, a former army chief who has continued backing from the security forces.

Kassem was convicted of libel and slander against a former cabinet minister and verbally assaulting officers at a police station after he was detained, said his lawyer, Nasser Amin. The economic court that issued the verdict also fined him 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($645).

An appeal hearing had been set for Oct. 7, Amin said.

Kassem’s detention last month came after he had strongly criticised Sisi and the way he has led Egypt since 2014 in social media posts. Kassem, a former publisher of Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, had started then suspended a hunger strike while in detention.

Sisi has presided over a far-reaching crackdown on political dissent that has swept up critics from across the political spectrum.

Authorities have taken several steps since late 2021 that they say are aimed at addressing rights, including launching a human rights strategy and ending a state of emergency, but critics have dismissed the measures as largely cosmetic.

Some high-profile detainees have been pardoned or freed, but activists say new detentions have outnumbered releases and thousands of political prisoners remain in jail, with restrictions on free speech as tight as ever.

This week, the United States allowed much of its annual foreign military aid to Egypt to go ahead, saying the country was vital for U.S. national security interests.

(Reporting by Aidan Lewis and Omar Abdel-Razek; Editing by Nick Macfie)