May 3, 9:29 AM EDT

Memos from Egypt's Interior Ministry leaked to journalists


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AP Photo/Brian Rohan

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CAIRO (AP) -- Memos containing internal instructions from Egypt's Interior Ministry were leaked to the media on Tuesday, outlining strategies on how to deflect public outrage over arrests it made inside the journalists' union, handle the media in general, and deal with the case of an Italian student found tortured to death.

The documents were sent to reporters by the ministry's official email account, headlined as a normal news roundup. But inside the documents were memos written apparently for internal consumption, recommending the ministry not back down in its conflict with the union and underlining ways to improve its image. Another memo suggested the prosecutor general impose a gag order on the investigation of the case of doctoral student Giulio Regeni.

Egypt's journalists' union has called for the dismissal of the interior minister and launched an open-ended sit-in at its headquarters in downtown Cairo over the two journalists' arrests, describing them as "illegal" and "unprecedented."

Many newspapers splashed the sit-in at the Journalists' Syndicate building on their front page, with state-run Al-Ahram, close to the presidency and normally a fervent government supporter, running an editorial calling for Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar's resignation and saying it was inevitable.

In the ministry document, one memo described the situation as a "deliberate escalation" by certain union leaders who intended to exploit the move for internal political gain, adding that "a ferocious media campaign should be expected by all the press in solidarity with the union."

It also said that the ministry cannot back down from its position and should instead focus on communicating publicly that the journalists' union was in the wrong because they had harbored men sought under an arrest warrant.

It said the ministry "cannot retreat from this position now; a retreat would mean a mistake was made, and if there was a mistake who is responsible and who is to be held to account?"

Leaks of documents and recorded phone calls are not uncommon in Egypt, even ones that could embarrass President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. In February last year, audio was leaked of el-Sissi allegedly poking fun at the immense oil wealth of Gulf countries that have aided Egypt, saying "money there is like rice." But leaks from the Interior Ministry are rare.

On Tuesday, journalist union leaders held a meeting at the headquarters, which they said would be followed by a larger sit-in later in the day. Syndicate members have been calling for the release of over a dozen journalists arrested in recent weeks, part of a sweep that has seen hundreds detained over demonstrations protesting el-Sissi's decision to hand two Red Sea islands over to Saudi Arabia, Egypt's main foreign backer.

In a final email after the documents were sent out repeatedly, the ministry said it had had a "technical malfunction" and would switch to a Gmail address. A ministry official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, would neither confirm nor deny whether the account had been hacked, verify or deny the accuracy of the memos, or say if they were sent intentionally or by accident.

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