Egypt. Breaking the back of the Journalists Syndicate

journa-350On Sunday, May 29, syndicate head Yehia Qallash and two prominent board members, Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel Rehim, refused to post bail for their release because one of the charges they face relates to publishing, which according to the Constitution is not punishable by detention, according to a statement released by Qallash.

Prosecutors had taken the three men into custody on Sunday and interrogated them on charges of "harboring fugitives and propagating false news," in relation to the recent arrest of journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud al-Sakka from the Journalists Syndicate, where they were holding a sit-in earlier this month. The arrests have triggered a protest movement within the organization.

Badr and Sakka face charges of instigating illegal protests, attempting to overthrow the government, membership in an organization that aims to challenge the Constitution and disseminating false information that disturbs public peace.

The protests Badr and Sakka have been implicating in organizing took place on April 15 and April 25, when demonstrators took to the streets to object to the sovereign transfer of two islands off of Egypt’s Red Sea coast, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia.

Police detained the three syndicate leaders at the Qasr al-Nil Police Station overnight, after which bail was eventually posted. The defendants were released on Monday, May 30.

The syndicate issued a statement on Sunday describing their detention as "unprecedented in Egypt's modern history," adding that this is the first time that a syndicate head and key members are detained in a case based on investigations conducted by the Ministry of Interior. The prosecution has ignored all complaints filed by the syndicate against the ministry, the statement added, both before and after the police raid on its headquarters.

The statement accused the prosecution of basing the charges on "legally weak argument, which depend on false testimonials and illegitimate investigations."

With unusual haste, the prosecution referred the three syndicate leaders to court on Saturday, June 4.

A member of the syndicate's board, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, explained that the syndicate is being punished for demanding an apology from the president following the security raid on its headquarters, a demand made during an emergency General Assembly meeting held on May 4, in which over 3,500 journalists participated. Syndicate members also demanded the resignation of the interior minister, and the release of all journalists currently detained.

The syndicate has since softened its position, however, in an attempt to contain the crisis.

For example, it issued a statement on May 17 in response to the Cabinet approval of the unified media law, calling it "a step in the right direction," and a safeguard for a mutual respect between the government and the media.

The syndicate also issued a statement on May 12 following a speech by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, saying the syndicate's board is not keen on confronting state institutions "given that the syndicate has always been a key component of these institutions."

This less militant approach has not placated the state, however. Upon his release, Balshy spoke to Mada Masr about the state’s “desire to humiliate the syndicate.”

Balshy added that the authorities’ course of action “is not a response to the syndicate's reaction to the police raid, but to the role [the syndicate] played in the [April] protests."

"This is why the state insisted on besieging the syndicate and preventing journalists from entering or exiting, while allowing supporters of the president to try and raid the syndicate during the April 25 protests,” he says.

During the April 15 protests, demonstrators protested on the syndicate staircase, historically a site for the expression of dissent, long before the January 25 revolution in 2011.

Agreeing, MP Haitham al-Hariri, who was part of a parliamentary delegation attempting to mediate between the Ministry of Interior and the syndicate, said "the developments point to an intention on the part of state officials to escalate action against the syndicate in retaliation for the role it played in the protests against the island transfers."

Hariri had previously told Mada Masr that he does not believe that Parliament will support the Journalists Syndicate, pointing out how difficult it is to get MPs aligned on a position that is not partial to the Interior Ministry.

Karem Yehia, a journalist for state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, reiterates this position, and highlights that that the syndicate has been playing its "natural role, as opposed to the one expected by authorities."

"The authorities expected the syndicate to support to its achievements, and to be the party that responds to international human rights reports [criticizing the state]," he says. "But since the beginning of the year, and after a long silence, the syndicate has been pointing out violations against journalists, stating there are some 29 journalists in jail in Egypt, and highlighting cases of forced disappearances witnessed by journalists."

Ultimately, Yehia believes that the state intends to break the back of the syndicate.

Columnist Abdallah al-Sinnawy, a consistent attendant of meetings held by Sisi with intellectuals, describes the current situation as the "suicide of logic."

"We were surprised to see that although the syndicate was moving to de-escalate, the state continues to escalate," he tells Mada Masr. "This, of course, sends a message to other political players and is also quite harmful to Egypt's image domestically and internationally."

He cites international reports condemning Egypt's police state, and says that the current positions of authorities represent "political suicide, where no one will win."

In a collective statement by a number of civil society organizations issued on Monday, the latest developments were said to "point to a new phase in the stand-off between authorities and journalists … A phase featuring a general policy directed toward co-opting all forms of independent and professional journalism." The statement added that recent moves have pushed the prosecution and the whole justice system to become a part of the dispute with the syndicate.

Amnesty International also issued a statement on Monday referring to recent developments as "a dangerous escalation in the Egyptian authorities' campaign against freedom of expression," adding that these developments show "the level of readiness to take extreme measures to impose an iron fist."


Omar Said