CAIRO (AP) — Hundreds of Egyptian journalists rallied in Cairo on Wednesday in an escalating standoff with police, threatening a possible strike by media workers if demands including the dismissal of the interior minister are not met.
On the steps outside their union headquarters, they chanted "Journalism is not a crime" while demanding Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar's departure following a police raid on the premises and the arrest of two journalists.
The protests are the latest in a series of demonstrations against the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, which has banned virtually all protests and carried out a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent.
The government's decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia last month brought protesters into the streets on two occasions, marking the largest show of public defiance of el-Sissi since he was elected in 2014.
Police severely restricted access to the site, banning non-union members from entry, as well as some residents and people who came on work errands to the surrounding area. Foreign journalists were allowed entry only after approval by several levels of officers, up to the rank of general.
At one point, several dozen journalists pushed through a barrier and entered the area, causing a brief moment of chaos. Several held up their union cards, saying that the police would not let them enter despite their membership.
"There are thugs here threatening us, and the police don't want us to enter for the meeting because they know we'll condemn the Interior Ministry," said journalist Ahmed Bakr, who was allowed into the building's street eventually.
The union, which held a general assembly, demanded the release of all detained journalists as well as a presidential apology by Tuesday, saying in a statement that reporters were considering a strike if the demands were not met. Earlier statements read out at the building suggested a strike would be automatic.
In the meantime, it decided to print a logo reading "no to media gag order" on newspapers. If its demands are not met, the union plans to boycott all statements coming from the ministry.
Several dozen counterdemonstrators and el-Sissi supporters showed up at either end of the blocked-off street, blasting patriotic songs, chanting "Long live Egypt" and insulting union members, who responded by calling the police "thugs."
Former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, whose own party offices were surrounded by police last month, called for the dismissal of the interior minister and an apology from the state.
"Those who made this mistake should be held accountable," he said from the syndicate's steps. "We are here to keep the dignity of our union, and show support and unity against what happened."
Since the ouster of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, the government of army chief-turned-president el-Sissi has clamped down on political demonstrations, mainly by Islamist opponents demanding Morsi's return.
Hundreds of protesters have been killed and thousands detained over the past three years, and a draconian anti-protest law has virtually banned all street demonstrations without prior police permission. On Wednesday, the privately owned al-Maqaal daily carried a cartoon depicting riot police beating up a young man holding up a newspaper as a shield while blaming el-Sissi for unleashing police violence.
The two journalists were arrested on Sunday over allegations they called for anti-government protests in response to the decision to transfer the Red Sea islands. Egypt's prosecutor general has since defended the raid and imposed a media gag order on the investigation.
Similar blockades at the union headquarters have been imposed intermittently since April 25, when security forces largely quashed demonstrations against the transfer of the two islands.
"We are here today to defend journalism," said Yahia Kalash, the head of journalists' union, who was at the rally on Wednesday. "We are defending the rights and the dignity of journalists."
Associated Press writers Maggie Michael and Brian Rohan contributed to this report.