Yehia Qalash, the head of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, has called for the resignation of Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar following the arrest by security forces of two journalists at the syndicate's headquarters building in Cairo on Sunday.
At a press conference held outside the syndicate offices on Monday morning, Qalash said the body's council will hold a General Assembly meeting on Wednesday to investigate the arrests, in what some members have described as a "raid".
“The aggression that violated our headquarters goes directly against our national constitution, and the shame of this action can only be erased by the immediate removal of the minister of interior,” said Qalash.
Qalash said that the dignity of any journalist depends upon the dignity of the syndicate to which they belong.
In an unprecedented move, a group of armed security officers entered the syndicate headquarters on Sunday and arrested Amr Badr, editor-in-chief of yanair.net, and a journalist working for the same news website named Mahmoud al-Sakka.
The arrests came as a part of a broader police crackdown on journalists since April 25, on which dozens of Central Security Forces vehicles surrounded the syndicate building to prevent anti-government protests taking place outside. According to Khaled al-Balshy, the syndicate's undersecretary, 46 journalists were arrested.
The protests on April 25 were called in response to the transfer for two Red Sea islands from Egyptian to Saudi Arabian control in a deal signed between the two nations on April 8. Political activists and opposition figures had been calling for large-scale anti-government protests since the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir islands was announced, including one vocal demonstration outside the syndicate headquarters on April 15.
Since then, the protests had taken on a broader anti-government character, with some calling for the "fall of the regime", and activists had hoped for even larger protests on April 25, which was Sinai Liberation Day. However, security forces were out in force on April 25 and blocked access to the syndicate headquarters in downtown Cairo.
During Monday's press conference, Qalash said that Wednesday's General Assembly meeting will "take the necessary decisions and discuss the reaction to this aggression as they see fit.”
Invited to the General Assembly meeting on Wednesday are the editors-in-chief of all news publications in Egypt, former heads of the syndicate and journalists who are also members of parliament.
Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry issued a statement on Sunday downplaying claims of a large-scale police raid, saying that the arrests on Sunday were calm and low-key and involved just a few police officers.
“Security forces sent out units to arrest both the defendants, but they they were not found at their homes in Shubra al-Khayma. Police intelligence then revealed that they were hiding out at the syndicate, choosing to evade arrest and to involve the syndicate in resisting arrest by security forces, creating a conflict that involves further elements that use sensationalism to incite chaos in the country,” said the statement.
Regarding the exact nature of the "raid" on the syndicate building, the statement continued: “On the 1st of May, the security personnel at the syndicate confirmed that the defendants were indeed hiding out there. A team of 8 police officers showed up at the syndicate, and questioned the security personnel regarding the current location of the defendants. They were led to where the defendants were, at which point the defendants were informed of the prosecution’s call for their arrest. They surrendered willingly and were brought before the prosecution.”
The ministry’s statement denies a full-scale raid on the syndicate building or that any force was used to make the arrest, saying, “Both journalists surrendered themselves as soon as they were informed of the arrest warrant. All the procedures regarding the arrest did not break any laws and were only enforcing the will of the public prosecution.”
However, on Sunday night, Qalaash said via phone interview on the TV program “Honna al-Assema” that “around 50 armed security officers entered the syndicate, terrified my colleagues, and arrested Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al Sakka.”
He said that the two journalists, Badr and Sakka, had been issued with warrants by the State Security Prosectution on charges of "inciting protest". They had decided to conduct a "general strike" inside the syndicate building in order to “denounce the security forces’ raids of their homes,” said Qalaash.
Qalaash denounced the incident, saying, “The Interior Ministry should have notified us if they indeed had arrest warrants.”
He said that security personnel are not legally permitted to enter the syndicate without orders from the Attorney General. "And if the Attorney General decreed this action, we should have been notified before any action was taken,” said Qalaash.
He said that the use of security forces to resolve problems has failed before, asking, “How can this happen after two revolutions?”