- Associated Press - Sunday, November 24, 2019

CAIRO (AP) - Security forces on Sunday raided the offices of one of Egypt’s last remaining independent media outlets, briefly detaining its top editor and two other journalists and later releasing them, the outlet and officials said. The raid is the latest in a widening government crackdown on dissent and media.

The outlet, Mada Masr, has produced investigative pieces looking into some of Egypt’s government institutions, including the intelligence agencies, military and presidency. Such stories are not produced by other local media in the country, where nearly all newspapers and television channels are closely aligned with the government or military.

A group of plainclothes security agents stormed the outlet’s offices Sunday afternoon and locked staff inside for hours, Mada reported on Twitter.

During that time, the agents searched through staffers’ laptops and mobile phones and questioned the top editor, Lina Atallah, and other journalists, it said.

Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, said lawyers from his organization were not allowed to enter Mada Masr’s office.

After several hours, police left the offices, taking Atallah and two other journalists, Mohamed Hamama and Rana Mamdouh, to the local public prosecutor’s office, Mada said in a tweet. They were later released, according to Sharif Abdel-Koudous, a journalist at the outlet.

“They were aggressive from the beginning,” he said of security forces who were questioning the group.

Eid later said the journalists were released without being charged.

The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a local media advocate, condemned the raid and demanded the government “immediately withdraw the security forces” from Mada Masr’s offices.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based watchdog, also condemned the raid.

“Mada has shown nothing but courage in reporting the news against all odds and in the face of brutal repression,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator. Mansour called for Egyptian authorities to “end their retaliation campaign” against the outlet.

Two police officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the raid was due to lack of an operating license. Media are required to have permission to work in Egypt, but that requirement is often used as a pretext to silence reporting the state sees as critical. The outlet has said in previous statements that it has applied for a license but not received a response.

Despite being blocked, Mada Masr continued to publish through mirror sites. Most recently, it ran a story reporting that el-Sissi’s son had been sidelined from his senior post in the main intelligence agency. Any reporting on intelligence agencies or the president’s family is seen as off-limits by the government.

The raid came a day after Mada Masr said security forces arrested one of its editors, Shady Zalat, from his home in Cairo early Saturday. He was also released, the outlet said in a tweet.

Security forces have carried out a widening crackdown in recent weeks following small but rare anti-government protests in September.

In recent years, Egypt has imprisoned dozens of reporters and occasionally expelled some foreign journalists. It remains among the world’s worst jailers of journalists, along with Turkey and China, according to CPJ.

El-Sissi, a general-turned-president, has overseen an unprecedented political crackdown, silencing critics and jailing thousands. He, as a defense minister, led the military’s removal of the country’s first democratically elected president in 2013 after his one-year rule proved divisive, sparking massive nationwide protests.

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