Egypt police raid Al Jazeera office as sense of crisis grows

CAIRO — Security police raided the Egyptian offices of the Al Jazeera news channel Sunday and detained a member of its technical staff in the first move of its kind against a foreign news organization since the ruling military council declared a state of emergency in the wake of the storming of the Israeli embassy here.

Egypt's ruling military council later announced that the emergency decree would be expanded to allow prosecution for the "spreading or broadcasting of any false news, information or rumors."

The move against Al Jazeera was denounced by a variety of Egyptian political organizations and fed a growing sense of crisis that has gripped the capital since hundreds of people rushed into the Israeli embassy on Friday. Israel's ambassador and its diplomatic staff and dependents were evacuated to Israel.

"The government is using the attacks on the Israeli Embassy on Friday night to justify its use of repressive measures," said Amer al Wakil, a leader of the Egyptian Revolutionary Alliance, one of the political coalitions that emerged from the popular movement that led to Mubarak's ouster.

Mahmoud Afifi, a spokesman for the April 6 Movement, which spearheaded the protests against Mubarak, accused the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled Egypt since Mubarak stepped down Feb. 11, of "constraining public freedoms that the revolution has long demanded."

Government security and media officials said that Al Jazeera, which broadcasts live 24 hours a day in Egypt, had been working without sufficient press permits and that some of the equipment it used had not been authorized.

But Ahmed Zein, head of Al Jazeera Live Egypt, said that the channel had applied for the permits four months ago and had been told by the Information Ministry to continue work until they were granted. He said the ministry had blamed the delay on "the state of chaos the country is living."

Zein said police detained a broadcasting engineer and had confiscated some equipment.

The move against Al Jazeera came on the day the head of the military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, was scheduled to testify at Mubarak's trial on charges he ordered security forces to shoot to kill protesters in the days before his resignation.

Ahmed Refaat, the lead judge in the trial, had banned news coverage of his testimony and that of Egyptian Army Chief of Staff General Sami Anan, which was scheduled for Monday.

But Tantawi did not appear in court and Anan's appearance was postponed because, government officials said, of the current political crisis prompted by the Israeli embassy attack.

Egypt's Justice Ministry said Tantawi's and Anan's appearances had been rescheduled for Sept. 24 and 25.

There was no other word about what took place at Sunday's session, from which reporters were barred.

The government's move against Al Jazeera, which is widely viewed in Cairo, was likely to stoke popular dissatisfaction with the military council, however. Since Mubarak stepped down, the council has come under pressure for continuing many of the former president's policies, including friendly relations with Israel and restrictions on freedom of expression.

"The contradiction of government policies put us in a complicated situation," said Safwat el Alem, a professor of political media at Cairo University. "Am I supposed to believe the media minister when he confirms the protection of freedoms, or should I fear him when he announces laws banning the press from tackling vital issues and denying permits for media workers?"

Alem predicted that the military's efforts to control the news media are doomed to failure. "It is impossible to control the technology, Internet and modern communications," he said.

A journalist who's been charged with spreading false rumors for publishing a lengthy article on torture by Egyptian police and soldiers, said she was uncowed by the military's hostility.

"I will publish on the Internet, on the walls of Tahrir Square; I will write my stories on my shirts and stand in public for people to read it," said Rasha Azab. "You will never be able to suppress us, not anymore."

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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