Egypt police cordon off journalists’ union in escalating standoff

Sunday 01/05/2016
Mounting tension

CAIRO - Egyptian riot police cordoned off the headquarters of the journalists' union and limited access to the building on Wednesday in an escalating standoff following a raid on the premises and the arrest of two journalists.

Hundreds of journalists rallied outside the union headquarters on Wednesday, chanting “Journalism is not a crime!” and demanding the dismissal of the country’s Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar.

The union was to hold a general assembly later Wednesday.

As the rest of the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day, Egyptian journalists raised black flags above the historic press union headquarters in downtown Cairo.

Even the largest state owned newspaper, Al Ahram, considered the mouthpiece of the government, condemned the raid. It warned that the “interior ministry would not succeed in its malicious aim of gagging mouths.”

“Have we as journalists, along with our youth, become the enemies of the state?” the newspaper asked.

The flags were a solemn protest to “mourn the terrible conditions facing Egyptian journalists” said Khaled el Balshy, head of the union’s freedom committee.

The developments are the latest in a crisis facing Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Sisi who is being accused by critics of orchestrating the clampdown on the media.

Police severely restricted access, banning non-union members from entry, as well as some residents and people who came on work errands to the surrounding area.

Foreign journalists were allowed entry only after approval by several levels of officers, up to the rank of general.

At one point, several dozen journalists pushed through a barrier and entered the area, causing a brief moment of chaos.

Several held up their union cards, saying that the police would not let them enter despite the membership. The union is now holding a general assembly.

"There are thugs here threatening us, and the police don't want us to enter for the meeting because they know we'll condemn the Interior Ministry," said journalist Ahmed Bakr, who was allowed into the building's street eventually.

Several dozen counterdemonstrators and Sisi supporters showed up at either end of the blocked-off street, blasting patriotic songs, chanting "long live Egypt" and insulting union members, who responded by calling the police "thugs."

Former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, whose own party offices were surrounded by police last month, called for the dismissal of the interior minister and an apology from the state.

"Those who made this mistake should be held accountable," he said from the syndicate's steps. "We are here to keep the dignity of our union, and show support and unity against what happened."

Since the ouster of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, the government of army chief-turned-president Sisi has clamped down on political demonstrations, mainly by Islamist opponents demanding Morsi's return.

Hundreds of protesters have been killed and thousands detained over the past three years, and a draconian anti-protest law has virtually banned all street demonstrations without prior police permission.

On Wednesday, the privately owned al-Maqaal daily carried a cartoon depicting riot police beating up a young man holding up a newspaper as a shield.

The two journalists were arrested on Sunday over allegations they called for anti-government protests over Sisi's recent decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Egypt's prosecutor general has since defended the raid and imposed a media gag order on the investigation.

Similar blockades at the union headquarters have been imposed intermittently since April 25, when security forces largely quashed demonstrations against the transfer of the two islands. That decision brought protesters into the streets on two occasions last month, in the largest show of public defiance of Sisi since he was elected in 2014.

"We are here today to defend journalism," said Yahia Kalash, the head of journalists' union, who was at the rally on Wednesday. "We are defending the rights and the dignity of journalists."