In an outrageous move, Egyptian security forces stormed the headquarters of the Journalists Syndicate late Sunday night. But what was even more unexpected, perhaps, was the impressive emergency general assembly meeting that was held at the syndicate on Wednesday, with over 3,000 members present. There is a need, however, to understand how the unfolding events have led to a victory for the press amid an unprecedented crackdown by the current administration on press freedoms in Egypt.
The emergency meeting was called in response to the raid on the syndicate by the Interior Ministry, which seiged the building purportedly to arrest journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud al-Sakka. Following the raid, journalists began arriving at the syndicate to stage a two-day sit in. The sit-in succeeded in escalating the protest movement against the decision to storm the syndicate, forcing everyone to take the violation seriously.
The government responded by cordoning off the syndicate, harassing protesters, and blocking roads leading to the building to prevent more people from joining the striking journalists. The official reaction ranged from Interior Ministry statements justifying the raid, by claiming that the two arrested journalists are not syndicate members, to a gag order issued by Public Prosecutor Nabil Sadek prohibiting coverage of the events. The gag order reflected an inability or unwillingness on the part of the authorities to partake in any real negotiations, enraging journalists even further and encouraging mobilization.
The emergency general assembly meeting was unparalleled. Despite the road blockage by police, as well as verbal and physical assaults on syndicate members attempting to enter the building by supporters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the halls of the syndicate were packed.
Many had expected that the state would mobilize journalists loyal to it to raise a motion to impeach the head of the syndicate, Yehia Qallash, and the current board, in order to create a rift in the general assembly — neither of which happened. The assembly was surprisingly united and issued a reasonable list of demands that exceeded expectations. The final decisions included a call for the removal of the interior minister, and instructions to media outlets to refrain from using the minister’s name, and only use his inverted image — a decision that even state-affiliated Ahram Gate news portal abided by.
The assembly also saved the syndicate’s board members and its head, Qallash, who were under threat of facing criminal charges for “harboring fugitives” (regarding journalists Badr and Sakka). The authorities’ non-conciliatory approach — reflected in the orders by the public prosecutor — has resulted in journalists raising the bar, going from calling for an apology from the prime minister to demanding a presidential apology. Syndicate members have also compiled a blacklist of journalists who have fought against their striking colleagues during the crisis.
The sit-in and the journalists’ rally to the Public Prosecutor office on Saturday have given the mobilization efforts a good push, but it was the quick response by a wide range of media outlets in support of the assembly’s decisions that really boosted this battle. That so many newspapers were quick to post an inverted image of the interior minister on their websites is indicative of how the press is inaugurating a new chapter in their struggle for press freedom.
What took place in the syndicate on Wednesday indicates a possible shift in the balance of power. After three years, the current administration is only capable of deploying dozens of supporters to harass and beat up those entering and exiting the syndicate’s headquarters in downtown Cairo. This stands in stark contrast to what took place on 26 July, 2013, when millions responded to Sisi’s call and took to the street to support the military in its fight against what Sisi labeled as “violence and potential terrorism.” This was three weeks before security personnel forcefully dispersed protests held by supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, killing hundreds of people.
The journalists’ demands might not eventually be met, given how incapable the administration is at reconciliation. What is evident, however, by the latest protest movements by professional syndicates, namely doctors, lawyers and now journalists, is that more and more people are distancing themselves from the current administration. The popularity of the current administration is on a downward spiral, as reflected by the chant at the journalists syndicate on Wednesday: “Sisi is responsible.”
This article has been translated and edited for clarity.