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Egypt's Press Syndicate calls for general assembly, sit-in at HQ after police 'attack'

10s of journalists start a 2-day sit-in at the union's HQ after security stormed building to arrest 2 wanted colleagues; union board calls for sacking of interior minister; police deny breaking law in raid

Ahram Online , Monday 2 May 2016
Press syndicate Monday
Journalists' sit in at Press syndicate on Monday morning in response to police "stormed" its HQ to arrest two of their colleagues in Cairo, Egypt on May 2, 2015. (Photo Courtesy of Facebook)
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Egypt's Press Syndicate has called for the immediate sacking of the interior minister and a general assembly on Wednesday in protest of the storming of its headquarters Sunday evening, in what it said was a first since its founding 75 years ago.

The union condemned what it described as a "barbaric attack" and a "flagrant assault" on  journalists and the press after security forces stormed the downtown Cairo building and arrested two journalists.

In the early hours of Monday morning, shortly after the incident, tens of journalists, lawyers and human rights activists started a sit-at at the syndicate to protest the storming and  the arrest of journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud El-Sakka.  

In an urgent meeting convened by the syndicate's board and attended by hundreds of journalists, the union called for the "immediate dismissal" of the interior minister.

"The syndicate's board affirms that the 'calamity' of the aggression against the syndicate's headquarters--in violation of the law,  the constitution and all political, national and international norms--can't be erased without the dismissal of the interior minister."

The syndicate has called on members to continue a round-the-clock sit-in at the HQ until Wednesday's general assembly which was set for 1pm Wednesday.

The board also invited all editors-in-chief of all major public and private newspapers and all former members of the board to a meeting on 12pm that day.

On Monday afternoon, tens of journalists and supporters sat inside the lobby of the union's HQ to escape blistering sun on the building's steps.

The members of the board convened a round-the-clock session on the premises, and popped out of their meeting room every now and then to update members and answer queries.

Later in the afternoon, as the heat subsided, tens of journalists came out of the lobby carrying their cameras and pens to chant against what they described as police thuggery.

A tent for families of journalists in jail at the HQ lobby (Photo: Ahram Online)

Amr Badr, editor-in-chief and founder of Yanair (January) news portal, and journalist Mahmoud El-Sakka, who works for the same website, were staging a sit-in in the syndicate to protest against their arrest warrants as well as the storming of their homes by security forces last month.

Badr and El-Sakka are veterans of both the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak and the Tamarod movement that spearheaded the movement to oust Mubarak's successor, Islamist Mohamed Morsi, in 2013.

Ministry and union differ on story

The interior ministry said in a statement Monday morning that it followed all legal procedures while carrying out the arrests and had secured the approval of the prosecution prior to entering the union. 

The ministry said it had sent a force comprised of eight officers who apprehended the two journalists "without any use of force."

The two journalists are accused of "inciting violation of the protest law, disrupting security and attempting to destabilise the country," the ministry added, saying both journalists sought to use the syndicate building to avoid arrest.

Egyptian press law mandates that the police must obtain the approval of the general prosecution before entering the premises of the union, and can only do so in the presence of the head of the union.

The ministry stressed in its the statement that it "appreciates journalists and the patriotic role they play," while stressing its "respect for freedom of opinion and expression."

The ministry added that the two journalists have been referred to prosecutors for questioning.

Syndicate head Yehia Qallash and other journalists said the ministry's move was a clear violation of Egyptian press law. 

"Security forces should have informed the syndicate beforehand ... what happened is unprecedented in the history of the syndicate [which was founded in 1941]," Qallash said in TV comments Sunday

Qallash told CBC TV that around  50 security personnel broke into the syndicate to execute the arrest warrants against Badr and El-Sakka. 

Professional unions support

Sameh Ashour, head of the Lawyers' Syndicate, denounced the ministry's storming of the "sister" journalists' union and declared solidarity with journalists, stressing that lawyers have a stake in defending freedom of expression and the press.

A dozen members of the lawyers syndicate are currently facing charges of breaking the protest law.

Several other professional syndicates have condemned Sunday's storming of the Press Syndicate.

The engineering syndicate denounced on Monday morning the interior ministry's actions as a "disgraceful aggression," and called  for an immediate probe into the circumstances surrounding the journalists' arrests. 
The syndicate added that it will provide "full support" to the press syndicate during any legal proceedings against the interior ministry.
The Doctor's Syndicate also issued a statement on declaring solidarity with the journalists, and stressed its readiness to back any legal actions the Press Syndicate plans to take against this unprecedented attack on professional unions.
A small coalition of independent MPs known as 25-30 block also condemned the police attack and the arrests, calling it an "unjustifiable escalation against opinion makers."
The MPs called on Prime Minister Sherif Ismail to issue an official apology to the union and demanded the release of all those arrested since the first anti-island protest of 15 April.
In the last three weeks, scores of demonstrators were arrested and tens were referred to court for a number of charges, including taking part in unauthorised protests, as they objected to Egypt's decision to acknowledge Saudi Arabia's sovereignty over two Red Sea islands.

Police arrested scores of journalists during the events but later released them after syndicate intervention with the ministry of interior.

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