Weeks of tension between Egypt’s journalists and the state have left the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists divided, while the Egyptian Interior Ministry came out unscathed. This marks another success in the state’s longstanding strategy of deflecting confrontation and creating internal rifts in its opponents. While the regime typically relies on the media to control the narrative and mold crisis in its favor, it is ironic that the entity involved this time around is the media itself.
The freedom of expression crisis is not limited to direct gagging, but is also related to the state’s ability to infiltrate the profession, within both private and government newspapers, through supporters of the regime.
In the charged atmosphere leading up to protests scheduled for April 25 against the transfer of sovereign control of two islands to Saudi Arabia, an apprehensive security apparatus conducted raids and arbitrary arrests across the country, issued warning statements and barricaded meeting points announced by protesters. While these security measures partly discouraged protesters from taking to the streets, they did not deter journalists who set out to cover the planned demonstrations and were in turn subjected to a series of violations ranging from harassment, confiscation of equipment, and brief detention. In a departure from their usual practice, security forces did not discriminate between journalists working for state-owned newspapers and those working for privately owned outlets.
On April 28, journalists, including those working for pro-state newspapers, held a press conference at the syndicate, describing the violations they were subjected to. Following the press conference, they organized a silent march to the prosecutor-general’s office. Two journalists, Amr Badr and Mahmoud al-Sakka, felt April 25’s ripple effect days later, when security forces raided their homes. When Sakka went to the police to inquire about the raid, he was told that they had no information. This raised questions over which security body conducted the raids, with Sakka, Badr, and their sympathizers pointing fingers at Egyptian Homeland Security. Both Badr and Sakka resorted to the press syndicate for protection, commencing a sit-in inside the union’s offices on April 30.
“They weren’t hiding in the syndicate,” syndicate board member Khaled al-Balshy said in an interview. “We announced their presence there and said they can stay until legal procedures were followed if there is an arrest warrant against them.”
On May 1, security forces raided the Journalists Syndicate for the first time in its history, under the pretext of arresting Badr and Sakka, instigating more outrage among journalists across the political spectrum. State-owned newspaper al-Ahram—usually the government’s mouthpiece—condemned the raid in its print edition, publishing an editorial titled “Raiding the Journalists’ House,” which described the raid as a violation against press freedom.
May 4 saw a general assembly which brought together journalists from both state and privately-owned news outlets as a united front against the Interior Ministry. Following the assembly, Egyptian newspaper Youm7, notorious for its allegiance to the regime, splashed a picture of the large numbers who mobilized for the assembly on its front page, under a headline reading, “No defeat, no retreat.”
The general assembly issued a list of final decisions and demands, including the removal of Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar and an apology from President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi. The assembly also approved a resolution not to use the interior minister’s name in media outlets, instead limiting his mention to the use of a negative image of his face.
The state continued to publicly ignore the crisis. On May 5, Sisi gave a speech to celebrate the wheat harvest in Farafra, but failed to directly address the syndicate. He did, however, assert several times during the speech that he “doesn’t get scared.”
Despite its momentum, the syndicate’s united position was short-lived. State newspapers started to shift their narrative, pointing accusatory fingers at the syndicate board, claiming it was hijacked by political currents such as the Revolutionary Socialists and April 6. An almost contradictory position to its front page only two days earlier, Youm7 listed “10 Don’ts” in the journalists’ crisis on its front page, including the politicization of the crisis, the disregard of arrest warrants, and allowing threats on Egypt’s stability. This was a build up to a press conference held at al-Ahram headquarters on May 8, announcing the “Correcting the Path Front” which included officials from al-Ahram, along with five members of the Journalists Syndicate Council, including Muhammad Shabana, Alaa Thabet, Hatem Abu Keela and Khaled Meeri.
The front issued a statement condemning the syndicate board’s stance, saying it must not have a monopoly over the Syndicate, calling for the formation of an “impartial committee” of journalists to investigate the crisis, and demanding an apology from the syndicate board. In an interview, syndicate member Mostafa Mohie called the strategy a “Trojan horse approach” by the state, which set out to shift the crisis, from a rift between the syndicate and the interior ministry to a rift within the syndicate itself. Mohie explained that journalists from across the spectrum had participated in chants against the ministry and Sisi himself during the general assembly, including the five board members who are not part of the “Correcting the Path Front.”
Gradually, more and more newspapers started to shift their narratives, with the exception of privately owned al-Masry al-Youm. Writers at that paper continued their critical coverage of the interior ministry, until Salah Diab, al-Masry al-Youm’s owner, took to the front page with an editorial. Diab criticized his employees’ stance on the crisis and proclaimed that the newspaper had deviated from its founding values. Even the head of the Journalists Syndicate, Yehia Qallash, is suppressing anti-government coverage from his members, ripping negative images of Magdy Abdel Ghaffar off the office’s walls.
Despite recent media support, there have been indicators that the state will not be able to keep up its strategy. Failures in other areas sporadically prompt voices to challenge the media and the regime’s narrative. In its coverage of the fire that engulfed an area in downtown Cairo, al-Nahar—a pro-regime but privately owned television channel—showed crowds expressing anger against the losses, as they erupted in an impromptu chant against Sisi. The camera then immediately ended transmission.
This kind of spontaneous reaction was also palpable in the Journalists Syndicate’s general assembly, which reflected the true position of journalists on freedom of expression. The unexpected large turnout at the assembly and the newspapers’ outrage, albeit brief, were a seldom and true reflection of declining popularity and a growing frustration with the regime.