May 11, 2016 Special Dispatch No. 6427

In Fallout From Security Forces Raid, Pro-Regime Press Seeks To Wrest Control Of Egyptian Journalists' Union

May 11, 2016
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 6427

On May 1, 2016, Egyptian security sources conducted a raid on the Journalists' Union in Cairo in order to arrest two journalists from the "January Portal" website, Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al-Sakka. The Egyptian press on the whole greeted the raid with indignation, and even the state daily Al-Ahram published a fiery editorial that echoed calls from the Journalists' Union Executive Committee to fire the Interior Minister. The Egyptian Journalists' Union convened an emergency meeting of its General Assembly on May 4, which approved demands for an apology from Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi and the dismissal of the Interior Minister Magdy 'Abd Al-Ghaffar, among other resolutions.[1]

This show of unity did not last long. A faction of pro-regime journalists led by Al-Ahram sensed that the protest actions were taking on the character of political opposition, and they launched a counter-initiative to wrest control of the Journalists' Union from its current leadership. As usual in Egypt, what started as a localized issue - in this case, the dignity and the freedom of the press - quickly stirred up the perennial topics of the June 30, 2013 movement and the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood and regime change.

The following is a brief update on the latest developments in the crisis between the Journalists' Union and the Interior Ministry: 

The editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, 'Abd Al-Hadi 'Allam, takes the microphone at the inaugural meeting of the "Course Correction Front" faction of journalists (image: Al-Ahram, May 9, 2016)

The Demand For An Apology From President Sisi

Given that most of the demands set forth by the Journalists' Union General Assembly on May 4 were floated on previous days and endorsed by journalists of all stripes, it might appear surprising that a split in the ranks developed so quickly. The primary reason appears to be the General Assembly's demand for an apology from President Sisi. The demand for the Interior Minister's resignation did not necessarily signal a confrontation with the regime per se, whereas the imputation of responsibility to President Sisi seemed to many to cross that line - and may have touched on preexisting concerns about the political leanings of the Journalists' Union's Executive Committee.

For example, the Al-Ahram columnist Ahmad 'Abd Al-Tawwab, who on the morning of the General Assembly meeting had trained his fire on the Interior Ministry,[2] expressed outrage after the meeting over the apology demand. He claimed that it was not even discussed at the Assembly, and called for sanctions against whoever it was in the Executive Committee who had inserted it into the final document. 'Abd Al-Tawwab argued further that the demand for a presidential apology had greatly harmed the journalists' cause and the union.[3]     

The editorial policy at Al-Ahram took a sharp about-face after the General Assembly meeting. In contrast with the paper's May 3 editorial, which had basically endorsed the Executive Committee's demands, its reporting on the General Assembly was negative, claiming in a headline that the meeting was a "failure."[4] A subsequent article reproduced accusations from unnamed MPs against the Journalists' Union, including the charge that dragging President Sisi's name into the issue was unacceptable.[5]

On the other hand, columnists at other major newspapers have been highly critical of Sisi and have held him responsible for the raid on the union offices. For example, columnist 'Ammar 'Ali Hasan wrote in the Al-Masry Al-Yawm daily that Sisi bore responsibility, and that the raid on the Journalists' Union offices were a bad sign for the regime:

"In both cases, whether the president didn't know [of the raid] or whether he knew, the President is responsible. In the first case, he is responsible for letting matters get so out of control that a minister in the government [i.e. the Interior Minister] undertook an action that brought a severe crisis on the government that it could really have done without, and which might lose it some more of its high-quality supporters among the journalists and authors, in a continued bleeding of its popularity and legitimacy. In the second case, the President gave a precipitous order, or made a bad decision [to raid the union offices], and did not correctly assess the sensitivity of this action... [and did not correctly assess] that its consequences would be grievous, as it fixes the image of the government overseas as repressive and hostile to freedom of expression..."[6]  

Editor-In-Chief Of Al-Ahram: Journalists' Union Swayed By "Small Minority Who Seek A Platform In The Heart Of Cairo To Foment Discord In The Homeland"

Directly after the May 4 General Assembly meeting, pro-regime journalists began to accuse the Executive Committee of politicizing the Journalists' Union for its own ends. The editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, Muhammad 'Abd Al-Hadi 'Allam, wrote: "The Executive Committee of the [Journalists'] Union called an urgent meeting that was [then] used for political purposes, over an issue that does not merit being taken to such extremes. Political forces and people who are not union members - people who have become accustomed to standing on the steps of the [Journalists'] Union - have involved themselves in union activity. We find them in the reception hall and chambers of the union building, driving events and concocting crises and conflict with the state, and painting the union in a political tone that does not [faithfully] express the task of the Executive Committee or the views of the majority of [the union's] members..."

'Allam's mention of those who have become accustomed to standing on the steps of the Journalists' Union is an allusion to the fact that the building was the flashpoint of protests in April 2016 against a bilateral accord in which Egypt recognized Saudi Arabia's sovereignty over the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir which many Egyptians view as Egyptian territory. While not especially large, these were the first significant protests since 2013 at which revolutionary anti-regime slogans were chanted openly. They were also the indirect cause of the current crisis: The two journalists arrested at the Journalists' Union building, 'Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al-Sakka, were wanted for their role in promoting the protests. 'Allam continued: "[Our] colleagues, the members of the Egyptian Journalists' Union, have a responsibility to protect the profession against being defamed by the actions of a small minority who seek a platform in the heart of Cairo to foment discord in the homeland."[7]

Editor-In-Chief Of Al-Watan: The Crisis "Brought About A Rapprochement Between The Muslim Brotherhood, Who Hate The Country, And Those Who Love The Country... The June 30 [2013] Movement Is In Danger Of Collapse"

On the same day - that is, directly after the General Assembly meeting - the editor-in-chief of another major daily likewise warned against politicization of the union. Mahmoud Musallam of Al-Watan wrote: "Because of the protests, the crisis over the islands turned into a crisis between the union and the Interior Ministry, and brought about a rapprochement between the Muslim Brotherhood, who hate the country, and those who love the country. This is not in the interest of the Interior Ministry or of the [Journalists'] Union... The June 30 [2013] movement is in danger of collapse, and the consensus that Egypt has enjoyed is falling apart."[8]

It is not entirely clear to what extent the Executive Committee is composed of journalists with opposition leanings, and to what extent 'Abd Al-Hadi 'Allam and others have simply been playing up this angle in order to tamp down a crisis that is bad for the regime. At least one prominent member of the Executive Committee, Khaled Al-Balashi, could be characterized as an opposition figure. In early April 2016 the Interior Ministry announced that he was wanted on suspicion of slandering the Ministry, contempt for the police, and posting calls for regime change on social media. The ministry backed down a few days later after the Journalists' Union rallied behind him.[9] Al-Balashi, who is also the head of the Journalists' Union's Committee on Freedoms and the editor of the Al-Bidaya website, spoke to the issue of politicization in an interview with a Lebanese daily. He denied that there was politicization in the partisan sense, but acknowledged that there was a political aspect to the current crisis, since it touched on democracy and freedoms. He likewise noted that the political opposition in Egypt is weak, and called for a united front of professional unions as the way forward. He slammed the Al-Ahram article on the "failure" of the General Assembly meeting as "false reporting," and predicted that the regime would not back down in the current crisis, since, according to Al-Balashi, it thinks solely in security terms, and responds to demands with repression and terror.[10]

The Executive Committee on the whole was more guarded. In response to the accusations of politicization, it clarified that the journalists' protests were directed against those who raided the union, and not the state itself or its institutions. The statement further declared, in an allusion to the Muslim Brotherhood, that the Journalists' Union, which had taken part in the revolutions of January 25, 2011 and June 30, 2013, would not allow any organization or group to exploit it for its own purposes.[11]

Al-Ahram Launches "Course Correction Movement" To Depose The Executive Committee

On May 8 the editors of Al-Ahram launched a bid to convene the General Assembly of the Journalists' Union in order to vote no-confidence in the current Executive Committee and to hold new elections. Other pro-regime journalists joined Al-Ahram in this movement, called the "Course Correction Front," including five current members of the Executive Committee who decided to tender their resignations. At the inaugural meeting, held at Al-Ahram's offices, those present blamed the Executive Committee for violating the law in sheltering the two journalists 'Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al-Sakka, called on the Executive Committee to apologize, and declared the resolutions of the General Assembly illegitimate, in addition to repeating the accusation of politicization.[12]

In other words, the Journalists' Union itself has now become a battleground between the pro-regime press and critical and opposition voices. It is not clear yet whether the "Course Correction Front" will succeed, but if it does the Egyptian regime will have neutralized yet another site of potential opposition. The columnist Hamdi Rizq, writing in the Al-Masry Al-Yawm daily, said of Al-Ahram that it had "transferred the crisis between the Interior Ministry and the Journalists' Union to within the community of journalists, and divided the community into two: the community of the [Journalists'] Union, and the community of Al-Ahram." He added that he feared "a [journalistic] civil war that could lead to the imposition of guardianship on the union" and a loss of its independence. "The call to convene an emergency General Assembly in this perilous atmosphere of doubt is akin to declaring civil war... Unfortunately, Al-Ahram has succeeded in doing what successive Egypt governments could not do: splitting [our] ranks..."[13]


[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 4, 2016.

[3] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 9, 2016.

[4] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 5, 2016.

[5] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 9, 2016.

[6] Al-Masry Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 5, 2016.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 5, 2016.

[8] Al-Watan (Egypt), May 5, 2016/

[9] Al-Shuruq (Egypt), April 5, 6; Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 7, 2016.

[10] Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 6, 2016.

[11] Al-Watan (Egypt), May 7, 2016.

[12] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 9. 2016.

[13] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 10, 2016.

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