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Journalists union demands dismissal of Egypt's interior minister

The union is protesting the detention of two journalists on its premises on Sunday night.

An Egyptian protester shouts slogans during a demonstration against a controversial deal to hand two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia on 15 April 2016 outside the Journalists' Syndicate in central Cairo. Picture: AFP.

PRETORIA - Egypt's journalists' union has called for the dismissal of the interior minister and launched a sit-in at its headquarters in downtown Cairo.

The union is protesting the detention of two journalists on its premises on Sunday night.

On World Press Freedom Day, Egypt's Journalists' Syndicate announced a general assembly to be held tomorrow, with the message that journalists are not terrorists, and branding the interior ministry as thugs.

Side streets were blocked off by police who restricted entry to the area around the union headquarters.

The union called the police raid on their offices heavy-handed blatant barbarism and aggression on the dignity of the press.

Police countered that only eight officers were involved, acting on an arrest warrant for the two journalists accused of organising protests to destabilise the country.

The interior ministry denied officers had stormed the press labour union building, but confirmed it had arrested journalists Mahmoud El Sakka and Amr Badr who work for the opposition website Bawabet Yanayer inside the syndicate.

"The ministry affirms that it did not raid the syndicate or use any kind of force in arresting the two journalists who handed themselves in as soon as they were told there was an arrest warrant," the interior ministry said in a statement.

Hundreds of officers have been deployed in central Cairo since protests erupted on 15 April against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's decision to hand over two islands to Saudi Arabia, with thousands calling for the government to fall, a slogan from the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Police dispersed smaller protests two weeks later.

The protests signal that the former general, who is also under fire because of the struggling economy, no longer enjoys the broad public support that allowed him to round up thousands of opponents after he seized power in 2013.

"The press syndicate calls for the resignation of the interior minister and an open sit-in," the union said in a statement.

Mahmoud Kamel, a member of the syndicate board, said over 40 policemen raided the building, but the interior ministry said its force consisted of only eight officers.

CRITICISM

The state prosecutor said it had ordered the arrest of the two reporters as they were being investigated for "spreading news based on lies" and possessing fire arms and Molotov cocktails, state news agency MENA said.

"This is unprecedented, no president or prime minister or interior minister has ever dared to do something like this," Kamel said. Under the law only a prosecutor is allowed to search the union in the presence of its chairman or deputy, he added.

Sisi faces criticism for putting the uninhabited Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir in Saudi waters though there are no signs that his rule is under threat.

However, even local media, which once suggested he could do no wrong, have been saying the government has mishandled a series of crises, from a probe into the killing of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, 28, in Cairo, to a bomb that brought down a Russian airliner in the Sinai Peninsula last October.

Torture marks on Regeni's body prompted rights groups to conclude he died at the hands of security forces, which Egypt denies. That revived complaints of police brutality, one of the issues that led Egyptians to challenge the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak toppled in 2011.

Additional reporting by Reuters.

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