Even though the Muslim Brotherhood did not field any candidates in the Journalists Syndicate elections last week, the results have still been perceived as a blow to the ruling group.
Candidates seen as the strongest Brotherhood opponents won the board's top spot and six board seats up for renewal, demonstrating once again that the Journalists Syndicate sits outside the control of the Brotherhood.
But while much of the attention has been drawn to the anti-Brotherhood victory, and while a journalists’ syndicate is often at loggerheads with the ruling authority, questions are looming about the syndicate's more general imperative of improving working conditions of journalists.
Friday’s elections results revealed victory for Diaa Rashwan, head of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic studies, who won more than 50 percent of the vote — surpassing his closest competitor, Abdel Mohsen Salama, the managing editor of state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper. Rashwan, like many of the six candidates elected to the board, is referred to as an opposition journalist.
The results were seen as a Brotherhood failure not only to field their own candidates, but also to garner enough votes for candidates more neutral toward the group.
Even though he has no affiliation to the Brotherhood, Salama was seen as potentially more willing to comply with President Mohamed Morsy’s regime.
“Although there were no candidates for the regime explicitly, journalists consider the result a loss for the Brotherhood because of Rashwan’s victory. There is no doubt that he was not their preferred choice,” says Salah Eissa, a journalist and member of the Supreme Press Council.
Khaled al-Balshy of the leftist-leaning Al-Bedaya news website, who won one of the board seats, says although the two front-runners in the syndicate chief race were from the same state institution, the competition still symbolized tensions between the opposition and the administration.
“The competition is still between the government and the opposition, but not with the same intensity as before. Despite appearances, one candidate is at the edge of the opposition and the other is at the edge of the administration,” says Balshy.
This is not the Brotherhood’s first failed elections in the Journalists Syndicate. In the first elections after the 25 January revolution, four candidates whom the Brotherhood supported did not win a board seat.
Additionally, Mamdouh al-Wali, the outgoing syndicate head affiliated with the Brotherhood, proved unable to lead the board. Frequent arguments between him and his opponents created a political deadlock on the board, which necessitated early elections.
Eissa says that, because of the nature of the job, journalists tend to be more open-minded and critical, which is why it is a more difficult sector for Islamists to infiltrate or control.
Many journalists celebrated the results as a triumph in their battle against the government's attempts to limit press freedoms, especially in the wake of increased censorship during the Brotherhood’s rule.
Karem Mahmoud, who won a seat on the board last week, wrote in his column in Al-Tahrir newspaper that the results sent a strong message to the ruling party.
“Don’t come near journalism, journalists or their syndicate,” he wrote. “This is the strong, clear, bright, decisive and maybe even angry message that journalists sent to the ruling elites in Egypt through the general assembly held on Friday.”
Mahmoud says active journalists trusted by the syndicate will defend the group against “the vicious attack on media.”
In his inaugural speech, Rashwan said the results showed the syndicate’s resilience and determination to survive, despite tough conditions surrounding the elections.
Now the syndicate must engage in a battle for the industry's survival.
“We are not only fighting for our work. Not only are our dignity, livelihoods and freedom threatened, but also precious souls were taken from among us,” he said in a televised interview shortly before the elections, referring to incidents where journalists were beaten or killed reporting a protests and clashes.
Others on the board and within the journalist community agree that there are tough challenges ahead. They are hopeful that the newly elected board will be able to tackle them.
“This is the most critical period in the history of the syndicate,” says Undersecretary Gamal Fahmy. “It is fighting a ruling group that has now proven beyond doubt that it opposes freedoms.”
He adds that he is confident the new board will be able to win the battle.
Rashwan’s plan is based on a two-pronged approach: Push for legislative reforms that protect the freedom of the media and protect journalists from persecution as well as create additional resources for the syndicate to provide journalists with better wages and services.
He also wants to banish laws in the penal code that allow for jail terms for publishing crimes. He says the only crimes journalists can be charged over involve inciting sectarian strife and slander.
Additionally, he says, the biggest fight the syndicate will face is against the Constitution, which does not protect journalists and includes vague articles that could be used to restrain freedoms. After long debates, the assembly tasked with drafting the Constitution decided not to include an article banning jail terms for publishing crimes, leaving this for the law to regulate.
But Eissa says attempts to change the Constitution may not be realistic, arguing that the syndicate should focus instead on making sure the laws drafted don’t use loopholes to oppress journalists.
With his platform mainly dependent on legislative changes, the mostly opposition board will have to engage in negotiations with the government, which is currently controlling the legislative authority. This is possible, Eissa says.
“Even though they haven’t supported him, Rashwan has credit with the Brotherhood because of his past with them,” says Eissa.
During the Hosni Mubarak era, the leftist bloc — to which Rashwan belongs — and the Islamic bloc collaborated in previous syndicate elections, forming an opposition coalition that transcended ideologies. Rashwan sided with Islamic figures in many of their fights against oppression by the old regime.
Despite the Brotherhood and Rashwan having drifted into opposing sides, Eissa says this history of collaboration will provide the groundwork necessary for negotiations between the two sides.
Additionally, Eissa says, experienced figures will also recognize that they need to use all the cards available to them to improve working conditions for journalists in Egypt.
“There is harmony on the board that will allow for the distribution of roles between those who negotiate and those who pressure. Some will take a strict stance and others will start dialogue,” says Eissa, who adds that such harmony was missing from the previous board because of Wali’s bias toward the Brotherhood.
But beside the struggle with the ruling regime, Rashwan foresees other important functions for the syndicate.
Financial independence is one of them. Rashwan says he will pursue legislation to allow for different streams of funding solely dependent on the state budget. He suggests allocating 5 percent of advertising revenues from state publications to the syndicate, in addition to adding 2 percent to the cover price of state-run papers, also to be allocated for the syndicate.
Rashwan foresees the legalization of these revenue streams as a means to lower state control over the syndicate.
Meanwhile, the new head of the syndicate and other members of the board assert that their success depends on the involvement of the general assembly.
“The problem is that the general assembly elects the board as if it has elected an armed militia and puts it in the front line of the battle — then does nothing but criticize its performance,” says Eissa.
He adds that throughout the history of the syndicate, major gains were only made when the general assembly got involved and provided the board with a unified front that strengthened its position.
However, early signs are not favorable regarding the level of engagement of the general assembly. Although the board used to complain that the general assembly showed up on elections day and then disappeared, this time the lack of interest was apparent even on elections day.
Failing to reach a quorum of 50 percent of eligible voters, the elections were postponed for two weeks and held with a revised quorum of 25 percent of eligible voters.
Some say the low turnout indicates a diminished interest in syndicate politics in the absence of a fierce battle between two clearly identified blocs.
Others say the trend mirrors a larger political apathy in society.
However, with a new board largely celebrated in the journalists’ sphere and tough challenges ahead, journalists hope that this time the syndicate will focus on serving them and cease to be another stage for political quarrels.
“I hope that the press syndicate becomes more inclined toward serving journalists,” said Doreya al-Malatawy, journalist at state magazine Sabah al-Kheir, as she waited with her colleagues to cast her vote. “For years, each camp used it for its own interests — and it was never for journalists.”
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.