Hundreds march against new press law

I arrived in Tahrir Sq 10:50am. Today, as 25 newspapers went on strike, the Press Syndicate and other political groups had called for a demo in front of the People’s Assembly (Egyptian parliament) to protest the government’s press law which, if passed today as expected, is to imprison journalists who “slander� government officials and their financial corruption, as well as “presidents of friendly countries� (for example Bush, Olmert, Blair et al)!

As always before each demo, I didn’t know what to expect, and my stomach refused anything but cigarettes and coffee. I met Sally Sami--a long time friend from university who is currently a journalist and rights activist--as soon as I arrived in downtown. Things did not look good. There were nine Central Security Forces trucks, full of conscripts, parked in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in front of the AUC entrance. Three more CSF trucks were in the middle of Tahrir Sq., but full of Baltaggiya (plainclothes thugs). In front of 3omar Makram mosque, at least four CSF trucks stood close to the US embassy in Garden City. Tahrir once more was under occupation by the security forces. That looked bad, I thought. As I approached Qasr el-3eini St., where the demo was supposed to happen, I received a phone call from a journalist friend asking if there was anything happening now at the Press Syndicate. None that I know off, I answered. “Well, the syndicate is under siege by tons of security,� he said. My impression was then that the government wouldn’t allow the parliament demo, and instead the security would intimidate the demonstrators to push them away to the syndicate, where they could demonstrate under the siege and watchful eyes of CSF, but away from the streets the activists are keen to link with--like what happened with numerous demos in the past. But I turned out to be wrong, or that's not how things developed later.
As I got into al-Qasr al-3eini Street, loads of CSF, Special Operations, and plainclothes security officers were everywhere. All I could see was only 50 demonstrators, carrying banners, surrounded by CSF conscripts, on the opposite side of the parliament, long way from the entrance. The officers were allowing few numbers of journalists and activists into the ring, but were shooing other people away.
When I got into the ring, there was a fat man, with a moustache, wearing sunglasses and a sweaty striped shirt, taking pix of the demonstrators with a small digital camera. I thought initially he was a journalist, but then I found activists from Youth for Change pushing him away and shouting “Yalla ya Amn el-Dawla, ghoour!� (Come on State Security, piss off!).
I met a journalist friend who was present earlier. He told me Mohamed 3abdel Quddoos--head of the Press Syndicate’s Liberties’ Committee--together with roughly five other demonstrators showed up in front of the Parliament’s entrance on the other side of the street, but were pushed by plainclothes and uniformed police officers all the way to the place where we were crammed up now.
My friend told me the parliament’s entrance was now guarded by the plainclothes thugs. I told myself this was really interesting… our parliament, that’s supposed to be the supreme symbol of lawmaking, was under the “protection� of criminal thugs! Wow!
By 11:30am, though, it became clear something was happening on the other side of the street, where the parliament’s entrance was. A group of demonstrators managed to assemble there, and were circled by CSF troops, State Security agents, and uniformed officers from Qasr el-Nil Police Station. Mohamed 3abdel Quddoos tried to get out of the cordon and join the demonstration on the other side, which was clearly larger, but was barred by security. He went mad. He kept on shouting, “You either let us join them, or we’ll bring them here.� After few pushing rounds, the officers started letting demonstrators two by two, and everybody ran to the other side to join the demo.
There were around 300 demonstrators, led by Gamal Fahmy, a Karama journalist and member of the Press Syndicate’s council. I saw also Gala 3aref the head of the syndicate, and other council members like Yehya el-Qallash, and a bunch of suits. The only reason, I thought, the security allowed this crowd to assemble was the fact that 3aref and the syndicate board was there. It would be a bit too much if they give such high-profile figures the usual police-treat, especially when there were loads of media cameras around.
Gradually, the crowd swelled to 500 demonstrators, mostly left-wing journalists and their supporters, from the Socialist and the Nasserist tendencies. Demonstrators were carrying banners in Arabic and English saying “Viva Corruption… Down with the Freedom of Press,� mocking the new law.
The demonstrators chanted against the press law, government, police, and virtually everything they deemed wrong in the country, but I thought it was interesting that Mubarak’s name was not mentioned at all.
I asked a Socialist journalist present in the demo about the reason. He said 3aref and top union bureaucrats at the Press Syndicate Council, insisted on not portraying the demo as a confrontation with Mubarak, when the protest preparation was underway. They did not want to challenge the president in person. The result was that all the Kefaya’s anti-president slogans were changed so that the word “Mubarak� was replaced with “tyranny.�
Few minutes after 11:30am, a handful of MPs in suits and one wearing a galabiya and turbine, from MB, Wafd, and independents came out from the parliament’s gate and joined the demonstrators. “We are here to show our solidarity with the journalists against a corrupt government,� shouted one bearded MP in a suit, whom I did not know his name.
Demonstrators kept on chanting against the government, new press law, calling for the release of Sharqawi and the rest of the detainees. They also chanted against the rising prices of basic commodities, police brutality, and other issues of civil liberties. The Press Syndicate Council suits, with the exception of Gamal Fahmy, tried hard to temp down the militant mood of the demonstrators, eager to sway the demonstrators from chanting about anything but the press law. Still, it was clear the activists wanted to generalize their struggle, and link it with others. Palestine and Iraq were not mentioned, but as always the US was denounced for sponsoring Mubarak and other Arab rulers. “Our rulers are America’s dogs,� chanted a leftist activist, followed by others.
The demonstration was still swelling in size, but we were all getting choked inside. The CSF ring was tight, and you could hardly breathe or find somewhere to stand among the crowd. I saw Mahmoud Amin el-3alem, the 78-year-old veteran Marxist writer, who despite his fragile health insisted on coming.
“I want to tell the youth, we the sheikhs are here with you today and everyday,� he said with his well-known ear-to-ear smile. “I’m optimistic when I see them chanting with so much liveliness. There is so much resistance here more than we had in the 1950s and 60s. There is a lack of fear from the government among many young ones I see today.�
Wael al-Ibrashi was also present, and sounded defiant: “The government’s guys in the parliament are experts when it comes to cooking laws. This new law means we will not be able to open our mouths anymore about the government or corruption. This law is designed to put virtually all journalists in jail, except those who are government lackeys. But we will fight corruption and will not be silent over this government’s crimes.�
Some of the released detainees were also present like Wael Khalil, Ibrahim el-Sahary, Malek, Mohamed 3adel, Akram al-Irani. Some of them told me they have to attend every demo to show State Security that prison has not deter them from activism. “If we disappear, they’ll think what they did to us and Sharqawi worked and do it to everybody else. I try my best to show up for any event I can.� said one.
Few minutes to 1pm, the journalists and activists decided to move to the syndicate. The security agents were in a dilemma. They were not keen on beating the demonstrators coz it would have been embarrassing, but at the same time they did not want the activists to reassemble anywhere and re-start a demo after they were “released� from the CSF control.
The police started allowing passage for protestors out of the demo ring, one by one or two by two. Gamal Fahmy stood by watching, to make sure no one was nabbed. In few minutes, though, red flags and black banners were out, and activists reassembled quickly and started marching. The security was panicking. I saw police generals running to 3abdel Quddoos and other senior syndicate figures saying this was unacceptable, but Quddoos insisted they were marching.
It was an unusual scene for Cairenes in a while. Last year there were plenty of street demos and marches that security forces were willing (reluctantly of course) to allow. But there had been nothing of that sort since the start of the crackdown on pro-judges demonstrators in April.
Around 400 activists, with socialist organizers in the front, started marching into Tahrir, passing by the AUC main campus, into Tal3aat Harb Street. I was like woooo.. Where are the CSF and the thugs? And indeed I could see panicking moves by senior officers on the scene, on their walkie-talkies. CSF conscripts were being moved left and right, but nowhere near the demonstrators. Uniformed officers and plainclothes State Security were walking behind and sometimes to the sides of the demonstrators. Some of them were taking pix of the march, focusing on the organizers. The march was attracting the attention of everybody, since basically traffic stopped in Tahrir, and later Tal3at Harb Street, as the march got underway. As the march reached Tal3at Harb Square, the police was expecting the demonstrators to move left down the street that leads to the syndicate… but radical journalists from the Revolutionary Socialists and Karama, steered the march right, and went down Qasr el-Nil Street.
The demonstrators continued marching, chanting slogans against the press law, corruption, tyranny. On pavement, and out on the balconies, people were watching. You got your usual mixed feedback: support, cynicism, mocking, cheering, disgust, or curiousity…
The march reached Mustafa Kamel Square, when demonstrators turned left, going down Mohamed Fareed Street, then to 26th of July Road where the High Court is located. The chants soon turned to support the judiciary, and denounce the new judicial law. I could see some syndicate suits freaking out, and trying without success to hush the demonstrators, and limit the chants to press issues only.
500 meters away from the syndicate, the CSF troops could be seen once more. Plainclothes State Security had accompanied the crowd all the way from Tahrir to the syndicate in 3abdel Khaleq Tharwat Street. One of the usual faces was the green-eyed officer Sherif el-Damatti, from State Security’s CounterCommunism Bureau, who brought a case against the Revolutionary Socialists’ in court following the war on Iraq. (The court acquitted the defendants in March 2004.) He could be seen wearing a stripped chemise, talking on his mobile phone, and every now and then taking a picture of an organizer by his Cellular digital camera.
The march reached the Syndicate building by 2pm. The building was under siege by CSF. On the two corners there were battalions of baltaggiya on guard. All throughout the march there were no security hassles, but scuffles broke out in front of the syndicate, as initially CSF cordons wouldn’t move to allow the protestors in. I saw 3abdel Quddoos being shoved by CSF officers and conscripts, together with Tarek Darwish from Al-Ahrar paper. Darwish lost it and started shouting hysterically, “This is a country of pimps,� addressing the CSF officers. “Down with Mubarak.�
The scuffles went on for five minutes, before CSF extra troops were swiftly brought in, and pushed all demonstrators to the syndicate’s front steps.
The demonstrators kept on chanting against the government, security, and then anti-Mubarak slogans were soon heard and repeated.
It was 2:30pm by then, and I felt my brain was melting from Cairo’s July heat. I went inside the syndicate, drank some water, interviewed a bunch of activists, and chatted a bit with few friends before deciding not to wait for the press conference that was to be held, and just go home.

CLICK HERE FOR DEMO PIX SLIDESHOW

Here’s a report by my friend Sally Sami on the press conference:
After two hours of standing in front of the PA demonstrating the new draft press law that is currently being discussed, journalists and activists marched down town to reach the press syndicate where a press conference was held. Journalists are in a great spirit for being able to manage collective behaviour. The fact that 25 newspapers went on strike and did not print today was the focus of the press conference that reflected insistence of journalists to stop this law from passing.
The editors in chief of the 25 newspapers issued a statement that was read by Adel Hamouda. The statement confirmed the insistence to continue exerting pressures and peaceful protests, holding on to the president's promise to eliminate all legislations imprisoning journalists in cases of press offences.
The statement confirmed that the editors in chief will continue to work on eliminating all amendments that consolidate restrictions on press freedom and they call upon the Press Syndicate General Assembly to hold a conference and escalate protests and call upon all journalists working in state-owned newspapers to strike.
The 25 editors in chief insisted that there is a pressing necessity to meet with the President of Egypt and express their points of view to him and demand him to not ratify the law.
Galal Aref, Head of the Press Syndicate, confirmed that action will still continue. During the coming weeks, the press syndicate will review all legislations related to press in Egypt and will revise them and present a unified draft law to regulate press in Egypt.

Here’s also a Reuters report by my friend Aziz al-Kaissouni:
Egypt newspapers don't print to protest press law
CAIRO, July 9 (Reuters) - Egypt's independent and opposition newspapers were not published on Sunday to protest against a draft press law which the government bills as a reform but journalists say puts new limits on press freedom.The government-drafted bill, which won preliminary approval in parliament on Saturday, eliminates imprisonment as a penalty for some media offences, but continues to allow judges to impose jail terms for journalists in many others.
The opposition said the bill was another blow for reform in Egypt and showed the insincerity of pledges by President Hosni Mubarak to allow more political freedoms and end custodial sentences for publishing offences.
Chief among the objections of opponents of the law is a provision allowing the jailing of journalists who allege financial corruption by officials or state employees.
"This is an addition which hinders the press from performing its role in criticism and uncovering corruption. It gives a form of protection to corruption," Journalists Syndicate Secretary-General Yahya Kalash told Reuters.
Several hundred journalists and activists, surrounded by riot police, protested against the law outside parliament before marching to the Journalists Syndicate, blocking traffic in central Cairo.
"This is not in keeping with the president's promise," journalist Mohamed Abdel Qudoos said over a loudhailer. "This is a law for killing the press."
RETREATING ON REFORM
Other protesters held sarcastic signs reading: "Viva corruption -- Down with freedom of the press." The protest passed off peacefully, unlike others this year which have been forcibly broken up by security forces.
The law increases the maximum fines that can be imposed on reporters for offences such as libel.
A total of 25 daily and weekly papers observed the boycott. State-owned papers went to print as normal. The government says the law is a step forward for democratic reforms.
Parliament, dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party, could give final approval to the law as early as Sunday evening. The opposition Muslim Brotherhood, which holds nearly a fifth of the seats in the chamber, has objected to the law.
"It's a retreat from the promise of the president for political reform and shows the absence of a real desire for political reform," Brotherhood deputy leader Mohammed Habib said. "The main aim is to silence the opposition."
The government last month pushed a new judiciary law through parliament despite criticism by judges and the opposition who said the bill did not guarantee independence for judges from the executive.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry)