CAIRO — Egyptian officials raided two prominent cultural venues — a popular art gallery and a publishing house — questioning workers about their activities, taking equipment and closing the gallery, in what activists on Wednesday warned was part of a campaign to intimidate opposition voices ahead of the fifth anniversary of the country's uprising.
Authorities have been showing wariness over the possibility of protests to mark the Jan. 25 anniversary of the 2011 uprising that removed longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Last week, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi warned against any such protests, saying they could result in chaos. The arts venues in downtown Cairo are popular among activists.
Officials on Monday night raided the Townhouse Gallery, searching the venue for about three hours, two workers in the gallery told The Associated Press on Wednesday. The officials prevented employees from leaving, forced them to show photos on a camera and movies found on their computers, the workers said, speaking on condition of anonymity for their security.
The officials confiscated books, notebooks, CDs, flash drives, the gallery's main desktop computer and a worker's personal laptop, the employees said. They initially gave no indication what the raid was about, "they were just getting information from us" and asking about the gallery's activities, one employee said. "They'd open things on the laptop and they would find, for example, a concert. So they'd ask, Who organized this party? Where's the contract?"
After the search, the officials closed the gallery, telling its administrators it was because of administrative issues such a lack of adequate fire exits and some needed paperwork, the workers said.
he seven officials who initially conducted the raid introduced themselves as from a police branch in charge of enforcing censorship and arts rules, known as the "Musannafat" police. But other plainclothes officials also arrived and questioned employees without identifying themselves. Two rights lawyers who were at the scene at the time told the AP at least one of the other officials told them he was from the National Security Agency.
Yasser Gerab, the Townhouse's outreach director, told the AP that none of the officials were from the security agency and that all the issues they raised were administrative in nature. He didn't provide details, but said he has reached out to several agencies, and so far none of them would acknowledge they were the one which sealed the gallery and therefore has the authority to reopen it.
On Tuesday night, police raided the publishing house, Dar Merit, and detained a volunteer, Mohammed Zain, for about 12 hours, Dar Merit's manager and owner Mohammed Hashem told the AP. Zain was questioned about the political orientation of books and seminars at Dar Merit and about Hashem's political views, Hashem said Wednesday.
"There is severe restriction on all cultural centers in downtown which are trying to have youth gatherings," said Fatma Serag, a lawyer with the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, who was present during both raids. "I think they are very scared of Jan. 25 and the possibility that these gatherings and centers could be nuclei for something, and that there would be protests downtown or in Tahrir Square."
Hashem is a leftist credited with publishing young novelists and poets whose works have become literary landmarks in Egypt. The publishing house is a gathering place for left-leaning intellectuals.
Maj. Gen. Medhat Hashad, a director at the Musannafat police, said they had information that Dar Merit was in violation of publishing rules didn't have a license for sound equipment found at the office.
The spokesman for the Interior Ministry, in charge of police, could not be reached for comment.
Egypt has been in turmoil since the 2011 uprising. In 2013, the military — led at the time by el-Sissi — ousted President Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood figure elected in the country's first free vote, following massive protests against Morsi's rule and the Brotherhood's power. El-Sissi was elected the following year and has led a crackdown on Islamists, while security agencies have clamped down on a wide array of opposition groups, effectively banning any street protests.
On Monday, prosecutors ordered a 15-day detention for four activists from the April 6 movement, which helped engineer the 2011 uprising and was outlawed last year. The four were put under investigation on suspicion of protesting without a license and belonging to a banned organization.
The government on Tuesday banned a prominent TV personality, Tawfiq Okasha, from appearing on his channel Al-Faraeen for three months after he claimed on air that el-Sissi's office manager, Abbas Kamel, was the one calling the shots in the country.
The head of the Media Free Zone Administration, which controls broadcasting permits, Effat Abdel-Azim, said Wednesday that Okasha's attacks "broke the media's honor code."
Okasha, who won a parliament seat in elections last month, helped whip up support for the ouster of Morsi and has been a diehard pro-state voice on TV. But he and other pro-state TV personalities have recently accused the government on air of backing a rival parliamentary bloc to dominate the legislature like Mubarak's ruling party did for years until it was disbanded after his fall.
The Townhouse raid follows at least one other against art institutions in recent months.
In the first week of November, officials who identified themselves as from the Musannafat police raided the Contemporary Image Collective, another art organization in downtown Cairo. They accused workers at CIC of using illegal computer software, confiscated several computers, and detained a junior employee for questioning for a day, said a board member who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The board member said the whole arts community is witnessing a heightened crackdown.
"We are advised just to stay low until after Jan. 25. The lawyers basically think that they (state institutions) are very nervous, they don't know what's going to happen,," said the board member.
Associated Press writer Nour Youssef contributed to this report.