Photo by Tarek Wajeh/EPA
Thousands of Egyptian journalists pushed through a police cordon at the press syndicate's downtown Cairo headquarters to reach an emergency general assembly on Wednesday. Angered by the detention of two colleagues, they went on to brave arrest and violence by massing outside the building and chanting against state repression, a rare act of defiance against the current government.Police surrounded the group, while supporters of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi threw bottles, rocks, and insults, and physically assaulted some of the journalists, eyewitnesses say.
Demonstrations have taken place outside the syndicate for decades, particularly in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising that deposed longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. But they've been rare since Sisi's government passed a draconian anti-protest law making it illegal for more than 10 people to gather without Interior Ministry permission.But when scores of plain-clothed police stormed the building on Sunday and arrested reporters Amr Badr and Mahmoud al-Sakka, even newspapers and journalists usually loyal to the government abruptly lost their patience and turned fierce critics. What followed is perhaps the most striking in a number of recent challenges to Sisi's hold on power.Immediately after the emergency meeting, the syndicate issued a series of demands to the government, including an official apology from the presidency, the dismissal of Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar, protection from attacks against the press, and the release of detained journalists.They also requested that news outlets stop publishing Ghaffar's name and use negative photographs of him, as well as put a "no to media gag orders" banner on websites and paper editions. Unusually, many typically pro-government outlets complied. The state-owned Al-Ahram even ran a rare critical editorial.
Egypt's track record on press freedom is woeful. Local journalists face regular detention, intimidation, and violence. At least 16 members of the press are now behind bars in relation to their work, making Egypt among the five worst jailers of journalists worldwide, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Many outlets have backed the government regardless, and in October 2014, a group of Egyptian newspaper editors even released a declaration in which they promised to limit reports that showed state institutions in a bad light. The syndicate raid, however, appears to have been an overstep."I'm truly amazed to see the media — which has mostly aligned itself with the regime since the overthrow of the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, [and] lionizing Sisi and the military — now being increasingly critical of Sisi's heavy handed policies," broadcast journalist Shahira Amin told VICE News."Some of the staunchest regime supporters have made a complete turnabout, and are now among the president's fiercest critics." Amin a senior anchor and deputy head of state-owned Nile TV during the Mubarak era, resigned in early 2011 to protest what she saw as her channel's biased coverage of the January 25 revolution that year.For journalist and syndicate member Ayman Hafaz, the issue has gone beyond repression of journalistic activity. "Press freedom has been bad for a long time, but this issue is not only about freedom, it's related to illegal measures taken against journalists and police thugs," he told VICE News.Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, one of the trio of Al Jazeera reporters arrested by Egyptian authorities in December 2013, added that the heavy handed treatment helped turn the entire syndicate against the government. "The police dealt with the peaceful protests using techniques from the handbook of the Mubarak era and hired thugs to do their dirty work," he told VICE News. "They beat up protesters and foolishly ignited the scene by storming into the syndicate for the first time in history to arrest journalists who spoke against the government. This brutal reaction has sparked an unprecedented unified campaign of critique by pro-government star TV anchors, journalists, and chief editors of state-run papers."
Authorities have made various attempts to quash or ignore this sharp turn in opinion. Police first claimed that the syndicate raid hadn't in fact happened, and the prosecutor general then issued a gag order on reporting the case, which was roundly ignored by local press.In a colossal blunder, the Interior Ministry then accidentally sent journalists a memo on Tuesday detailing how to deal with media after the raid, including denying any wrongdoing and accusing a syndicate leader of harboring fugitives. "The ministry cannot retreat from this position now, because to retreat would mean a mistake had been made," the memo said.Sisi has thus far ignored the syndicate's demands, instead opting to repeatedly tell an audience at a wheat harvest celebration on Thursday that he "doesn't get scared" and allege that "there are people working on creating divisions between us", according to the Mada Masr website.The journalist's syndicate have threatened to call a strike if its demands are not met. It does not look like there will be a compromise solution anytime soon.CPJ's Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said Thursday that this week could be a "turning point" in the country's media landscape. Others expect even more than that."For all who've been (mournfully or gleefully) consigning Egypt's revolution to the dust; a lot of fight in us yet," former Ahram Online editor Hani Shukrallah tweeted with a picture of Wednesday's syndicate gathering.
The protests also come after a number of other acts of defiance against Sisi. Egyptians also reacted angrily after the president ceded control of the disputed islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, seemingly in return for numerous aid and investment projects. A mass social media campaign quickly sprung up in the days following and a number of protesters even gathered in central Cairo, before police dispersed the crowd and arrested several. It was critical press coverage of this incident that led to Badr and Sakka's arrest.In February, Egyptian doctors staged a protest in front of their own syndicate to demand that Health Minister Ahmed Emad be fired, after a general assembly to discuss abuses by police officers against medical staff.Meanwhile state-sponsored brutality is at a high. Security forces have "disappeared" more than 1,800 people in just 12 months and been involved in the extrajudicial killing of dozens more, rights groups say. Police are also widely suspected to have been involved in the torture and murder of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni. The economy is struggling too, with the Egyptian pound hitting new lows against the dollar and revenues from the newly developed Suez canal lower than expected.This combination likely has Sisi concerned, says Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies and Chatham House Associate Fellow."I think they're quite worried because there are too many sensitive issues, the security crackdowns, the limited freedoms for the press, the issue of the islands, the issue of Regeni. There are too many problems and they're in the middle of an economic downturn," said Ashour.He warns, however, that this will likely result in greater rather than less crackdown. "The main lesson that Egypt's security apparatus learnt from the fall of Mubarak is that they have to crackdown harder, not to compromise, which is what they thought made the removal feasible. I think we'll see more of that."Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck