Journalists vote to reclaim their syndicate

Journalist and activist Radwan Adam looks proudly at the steps of the Journalists Syndicate as his fellow journalists prepare to head to the polls for the syndicate elections on Wednesday.

For nearly a decade, the steps leading up to the Journalists Syndicate building were a hub for protests against the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, a refuge for political activists of all currents during a time when public space was staunchly policed. The Journalists Syndicate was dubbed the “syndicate of opinions.”

On 26 October, nearly 6000 journalists will vote for a new board after the Supreme Administrative Court revoked a prior lower court ruling canceling the elections.

With Wednesday’s elections, the struggle is re-centered around reclaiming the syndicate as a champion of freedom of expression, as opposed to being a mere service-centered entity for its practitioners.

In the last elections in 2007, pro-Mubarak Makram Mohammed Ahmad was elected chair of the syndicate's board. Most of the board members were pro-Mubarak as well. Ahmad resigned in February following journalists' protests demanding his removal, just days after his patron, Mubarak, was removed from the presidency by a popular nation-wide revolt.

Ahmad, a veteran journalist and one of the old guard of the Egyptian press, vowed in his 2007 electoral bid to prevent activists from protesting on the syndicate's steps.

“Makram Mohammed Ahmed failed because no one can strip the syndicate of its main character, which is it being a platform that supports freedom of expression,” said Adam, who is running for the syndicate’s board membership.

This year’s chairmanship contest has a different flavor to the more conventional competition between a regime-backed figure and an independent.

“This is the first time that the chances of all candidates are the same. We don’t have a candidate now who would bribe journalists by saying that he is close to the regime and hence can provide more services,” said Khaled al-Balshy, editor in chief of the independent Al-Badeel newsite, who is running in the board elections.

While five candidates are running for the post of board chairman, the electoral battle is centered on Yehya Qalash, a nationalist journalist who works at the state-run Al-Gomhurriya daily, and Muslim Brotherhood-backed journalist Mamdouh al-Wali, who works at the state-run Al-Ahram.

Qalash, an outspoken critic of Mubarak, is supported by young and secular journalists. He was formerly a member of the 2007 syndicate board but resigned after accusing some of his fellow board members and the chair of turning a blind eye on corruption cases within the syndicate. “I have been here [at the Journalists Syndicate] all the time to protect the profession from Mubarak’s despotic regime,” he said at a campaigning conference at the syndicate earlier this month.  

Wali is not well known among the younger generation of journalists, but has an influential position with Egypt’s flagship paper Al-Ahram. Older journalists praise him for his achievements in providing services to journalists when he was a member of the syndicate’s board. Wali has repeatedly denied being a member of the Brotherhood, who nonetheless announced that they would back him.  

The influential Islamist political group is repeating a strategy it deployed during the Doctors Syndicate election earlier this month, whereby it backed a candidate for the chairmanship rather than fielding one of its members for the position. Khairy Abdel Dayem, who won the Doctors Syndicate chairmanship earlier this month, is also backed by the Brotherhood.

Banned under Mubarak’s regime, the Brotherhood chose to be present in the country's professional syndicates. After the revolution and with the removal of their longtime opponent, many fear that the group will dominate all the professional syndicates.

But the Brotherhood has limited influence in the Journalists Syndicate, in contrast to other professional syndicates.

“The maximum they could get is a seat or two in the syndicate’s board while backing a candidate for the chairmanship of the syndicate,” said Adam.

But observers feel that the Brotherhood is anxious to make some gains at the Journalists Syndicate elections.

“We have seen some board candidates visiting the headquarters of the Brotherhood’s guidance bureau. Also, figures within the group have announced its support for specific candidates,” said Balshy.

For Ahmed Mahmoud, an Al-Ahram journalist who is competing for board membership, the Brotherhood are forward-looking. “I think that one of the Brotherhood’s aims in this election is to have a chair and a board that is friendly to them. The Brotherhood is thinking of the crucial process that follows these elections, which is drafting the constitution,” said Mahmoud.

According to the timetable set by Egypt’s military rulers, the parliament that will be elected in the upcoming parliamentary elections will be responsible for drafting the country's constitution through nominating a committee that will include representatives of the professional syndicates.

The constitution aside, for Balshy, the Brotherhood is also performing a tour de force.

“They want to show their strength to society. They are saying: 'We are here and we are affecting the whole electoral process',” said Balshy.

Apart from this political divide, many describe Wednesday’s electoral experience as both diverse and competitive.

Journalists will choose 12 out of 101 candidates running for board membership. The number of candidates is considered unprecedented according to syndicate members.

“This is extraordinary. The large number of candidates reflects two conflicting phenomena. One is that some people run for no specific reasons. But others want to fight to reclaim the syndicate and its role as a syndicate of opinions,” Balshy said.

Candidates' programs are dominated by language that shows an insistence on reforming the whole journalistic environment, said Adam.

Some candidates demand internal democracy within the state-owned press and the reform of the legal environment in a way that enables journalists to obtain information freely and not be jailed for the opinions they write.

“Those are the demands that the syndicate board should fight for. Achieving these demands means simply that the revolution has finally reached the Journalists Syndicate,” said Adam.

Related Articles

Back to top button