Egypt’s Newspapers in Open Revolt Over Police Attack on Press Freedom

Egypt's newspapers unite to demand the removal of the interior minister over the arrest of two journalists during a raid on the press union's headquarters.

CAIRO, EGYPT - MAY 3: Egyptian journalists gathered in front of the Journalists Union stage a demonstration to protest the detention of two journalists by the Egyptian security forces in Cairo, Egypt on May 3, 2016.  (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
CAIRO, EGYPT - MAY 3: Egyptian journalists gathered in front of the Journalists Union stage a demonstration to protest the detention of two journalists by the Egyptian security forces in Cairo, Egypt on May 3, 2016. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Egyptian newspapers, including the state-owned daily Al Ahram, have escalated a showdown with their government by adding the slogan “journalism is not a crime” to their websites and printing photo-negative images of the interior minister to protest the arrest of two journalists in a police raid on the press union headquarters in Cairo earlier this week.

The actions were taken on Wednesday after thousands of reporters and editors broke through police lines to attend an emergency meeting at the journalists’ syndicate and chant against repression on the steps outside.

The crisis began on Sunday, when dozens of police officers raided the syndicate building to arrest two journalists, Amr Badr and Mahmoud al-Sakka, on charges of “plotting to overthrow the regime” and “spreading false news,” for their coverage of anti-government protests last month. The union headquarters was a central location for the protests in April, the first in more than two years, over President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s decision to give King Salman of Saudi Arabia two uninhabited islands, Tiran and Sanafir, as a gift.

The clash between the press union and the authorities took on an Orwellian cast when the police issued a statement denying that the raid had taken place at all, and the main state prosecutor then issued a gag order, banning any reporting on the case.

On Tuesday, the editors of Al Ahram, the flagship of Egypt’s state-run media empire, denounced “the disgraceful act of storming the Journalists Syndicate” as an “unprecedented and unacceptable” act. “The interior ministry,” the editors added, “won’t succeed in its malicious aim of gagging mouths and stifling the freedoms of opinion and expression, rights stated in the constitution which the security leaders are yet to read.”

According to a list of demands published by the newspaper’s English-language site, the union plans to take further action — like blacking-out the front pages of newspapers this weekend and possibly going on strike — unless the president apologizes for the raid on its premises, releases the detained journalists, and fires Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar. Until their demands are met, the newspapers also agreed that they would not print the minister’s name.

Hani Shukrallah, the former editor of Ahram Online, suggested on Twitter that the unrest was a sign that years of repression had dampened but not extinguished the flame of Egypt’s stifled revolution.

While Egypt’s volatility makes it hard to predict what comes next — and the 2011 uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak from office took even close observers of the country’s politics by surprise — the attempt to suppress even reporting on protests does seem to indicate that Sisi’s authoritarian regime is worried about its grip on power.

One of the most perceptive analysts of modern Egypt, Joshua Stacher, an assistant professor of political science at Kent State, suggested as much in an account of a recent trip to Cairo titled “Running on Empty.”

An authoritarian regime may be unpopular, even loathed, but at least it has rules. The rules may bear little resemblance to the law, but relations between state officials and society come to have a predictable rhythm. People understand where the red lines are, and they can choose to stay within them or to step across. Egypt does not work this way under the field marshal who became president, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi.

Nearly three years since the military coup that brought Sisi to power, not only are the red lines blurred, but the unconsolidated regime itself is so fuzzily defined that Egyptians doubt it is one coherent entity. The security forces seem to have slipped the leash of the executive branch. As one journalist told me in Cairo, “You never know which security branch it is any more. The only thing that’s clear is that Sisi does not control them. It’s unpredictable and unsettled. That’s what makes everything dangerous. You can’t see it coming.”

“I don’t think Sisi should sleep well at night,” Stacher told The Intercept. “A lot of Sisi supporters keep saying, ‘Well it was only 1,500 people,'” Stacher added, “but 1,500 people mobilizing under these conditions is like 150,000 under Mubarak.”

The conditions Stacher referred to include a law introduced by Sisi in late 2013 that makes it a crime to protest without the permission of the police. The use of that law was the subject of one of the reports on Ahram’s website on Wednesday — the news that Sanaa Seif, a young activist who was jailed in 2014 for protesting the ban on protests, had been sentenced to another six months in jail for refusing to answer charges that she had incited last month’s demonstrations over the islands.

Speaking by phone from Kent State, Stacher agreed that the repression of dissent in Egypt was now more intense than prior to the 2011 uprising. “Things that were docile — or areas where they allowed unrest, like the syndicates — under Mubarak, are not tolerated,” he said.

Looking at the relatively small number of Sisi supporters the regime bussed in to jeer at the journalists on Wednesday, Stacher observed: “They’re using the old tactics of the Mubarak regime, in more inefficient ways.”

He added that Sisi’s loss of support with the public and business elites over his mismanagement of Egypt’s dysfunctional economy might be more likely to bring about his downfall than his repression of dissent.

“We are watching the state fragment — no one has an answer for what comes next,” he said. “This is a ship that’s out to sea and it doesn’t matter if it is heading north or south or east or west, the only objective is not to sink.”

Top photo: Egyptian journalists protested the arrest of two colleagues this week outside the press union in Cairo on Tuesday.

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