Egypt’s media authority warned journalists Sunday that it was monitoring coverage to ensure they abide by “professional codes” amid a rare burst of protests against President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. The warning came hours after the latest small protest was dispersed by police in clouds of tear gas.
Dozens of people, including children, marched Saturday evening in the port city of Suez, calling for el-Sisi to step down, three witnesses told The Associated Press. Police “pursued the people in the streets … there was lots of gas,” one resident said. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.
The protest came after rare anti-government demonstrations in several Egyptian cities late Friday. Those too were quickly broken up by police. But they marked a startling eruption of street unrest, which has been almost completely silenced the past years by draconian measures imposed under el-Sisi.
The government effectively banned all public protests in 2013 shortly after el-Sisi led the military’s overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president. Since then, anyone who dared take to the streets was quickly arrested and received years long prison sentences.
In its statement issued Sunday, the State Information Service, which accredits foreign media representatives, said it has “carefully monitored” the coverage of the protest.
It called for reporters to “strictly abide by professional codes of conduct” and for media to provide a space for “viewpoints to be presented in an equal manner and that includes the viewpoint of the State or who represents it.” The SIS has issued similar statements in the past surrounding sensitive events.
It also warned that “social media outlets should not be considered as sources of news,” because of the numerous “fake accounts and fabrications.”
False information about protests has appeared on social media, including videos of protests from years past presented as if they were happening live.
But social media have also been vital for getting out authentic videos of protests, since they are the only venue not dominated by the government. Nearly all newspapers and television channels in Egypt are under the sway of the government or military and have given almost no coverage to the protests. In recent years, Egypt has imprisoned dozens of reporters and occasionally expelled some foreign journalists.
In the wake of Friday’s protests, security forces have reportedly arrested dozens of people in Cairo and other parts of the country, according to the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, a non-governmental organization.
Protests follow viral campaign against president
The new protests emerge from an online campaign, led by an Egyptian businessman living in self-imposed exile who has presented himself as a whistleblower against corruption. His calls for demonstrations come at a time when Egypt’s lower and middle classes have been badly squeezed by years of economic reforms and austerity measures.
The businessman, Mohamed Ali, has put out a series of viral videos claiming corruption by the military and government. His videos inspired others — often wearing masks to hide their identity — to post their own videos relating experiences with alleged corruption or mismanagement.
Ali has alleged his contracting business witnessed the large scale misuse of public funds in military-run projects building luxury hotels, presidential palaces and a tomb for el-Sisi’s mother, who died in 2014.
El-Sisi has dismissed the corruption allegations as “sheer lies.” However, he said he would continue building new presidential residences for the good of Egypt. “I am building a new country,” he said.
El-Sisi and government officials have argued that the military is the only institution that can efficiently lead mega-projects aimed at stoking the economy. The president has repeatedly warned that protests and demonstrations risk causing chaos that would disrupt efforts at repairing the country.
Also Sunday, Egyptian prosecutors ordered the brother of a prominent Egyptian activist to remain in custody for 15 days, a rights lawyer told AP.
Wael Ghonim is in self-exile in the U.S. and led a Facebook page that helped ignite the 2011 pro-democracy uprising. He has recently been criticizing el-Sisi on social media, and says his brother’s arrest from their parents’ home in Cairo was retaliation for that criticism.
Mahinour el-Masry, a rights lawyer and notable activist from the 2011 uprising, was arrested Sunday as well.
Egyptian authorities have imposed heavy security in the capital, Cairo, particularly around near Tahrir Square. That was the epicentre of the so-called Arab Spring uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
El-Sisi is a former army general who has overseen an unprecedented political crackdown, silencing critics and jailing thousands. Shortly after the military took power in 2013, a sit-in by Islamists was broken up by security forces in an operation that left hundreds dead.
Egypt remains among the world’s worst jailers of journalists, along with Turkey and China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S. based non-profit.