Cairo: “You are reading this message because Egypt Independent objects to continued restrictions on media liberties, especially after hundreds of Egyptians gave their lives for freedom and dignity.”

That was the statement on one Egyptian newspaper’s website on Tuesday as it participated with about a dozen other outlets in a news blackout to protest a new draft constitution championed by Islamist President Mohammad Mursi. A few hours later, Egypt’s constitutional showdown reached an unprecedented peak, with tens of thousands of protesters marching on the presidential palace in Cairo, forcing President Mursi to flee in a motorcade that slipped out of a back entrance.

“We haven’t seen anything like it before,” says Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation, a think tank in New York.

The dramatic turn of events in Cairo is ultimately about freedom — or the lack of it — in the new Egypt. Under Hosni Mubarak, media censorship was the rule, and critics of his regime frequently faced jail time and abuse. That was supposed to be over when Mubarak fell in February 2011. But the crowds are back out on the streets now in fear that Mursi will simply end up putting an Islamist beard on the old Mubarak governing style. Now, much of the media is joining them in fighting to preserve the gains of the Egyptian uprising, alarmed by a constitutional draft that doesn’t protect freedom of the press.

TV news stations prepared to go off-air on Wednesday, even as probably the biggest crisis, and news story, of post-Mubarak Egypt engulfed the capital.

Repressive measures

“There are places within the constitution that give traction to potentially repressive measures, whether it comes to freedom of expression, the ways sharia is interpreted and implemented,” Hanna said. “And clearly, you also have a monopolisation of power… and if you give those tools to a somewhat paranoid president and his coterie, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them used repressively.”

Opposition is well represented in the media, Hanna said, which means it could become an obvious target for a crackdown.

Perhaps a broadcast from Sunday is evidence of how this could play out: Transmission was reportedly cut off by government censors when Egyptian state television presenter Hala Fahmi held — on-air — a burial shroud to protest the Brotherhood.

The attorney general has also opened an investigation of opposition figures, including Amr Mousa, Hamdeen Sabahi and Mohammad Al Baradei for inciting the overthrow of the government, Al Masry Al Youm reported.

In light of a widening political divide, “this starts to become really potentially quite dangerous,” says Hanna. “If we’re seeing political opposition being repressed through trumped-up legal charges and measures, we’re entering a very different stage of conflict...There are a lot of warning signs right now that indicate, one, that society is dangerously polarised, and that the Muslim Brotherhood in power might try shockingly so to fully repress its opposition,” Hanna said.

“If you give the state the right to interfere with private independent media on the basis of whether or not they comply with public morals or are contributing to enriching or reflecting public opinion,” says Heba Morayef, the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch, adding, “you are opening the door to censorship, arbitrary interference with freedom of the media.” “And that’s very serious,” she adds.