Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

Battle of the paper vote

A court ruling allows the Press Syndicate elections to proceed amid expectations of heated competition over the top post, reports Khaled Dawoud

Al-Ahram Weekly

After the Supreme Administrative Court ruled on Saturday to reject a last-minute appeal to suspend the elections at the Press Syndicate for its president and half of its board members, due on 1 March, campaigns by the two main candidates for the top post, and nearly 50 candidates competing for six seats, came back to life at full speed.
There are many aspects that have made this round of elections at the Press Syndicate, known for decades as a bastion for defending freedom of expression despite authoritarian rule, particularly interesting. Mamdouh Al-Wali, the current Press Syndicate chairman, was elected in October 2011, and is supposed to finish his term after two years, according to the law. However, after only 18 months, deep differences between Al-Wali and the majority board members, who are mainly leftists and nationalists, have brought the syndicate’s affairs to a standstill. Both agreed on the need for early elections for the president and half of the board members.
Although he has consistently denied being a member of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Wali has had a reputation of being close to the largest political Islamic group in Egypt and the region. His success in the first major professional syndicate elections after the 25 January Revolution was seen as an introduction to the series of victories the Muslim Brotherhood achieved later in parliament and presidential elections.
While the majority of the elected 12-member Press Syndicate’s board decided to boycott the meetings of the now dissolved Constituent Assembly, and asked Al-Wali, who was an elected member among a few others, to pull out, he vehemently refused to do so, and insisted on keeping his membership. The constitution that was approved following a highly contested referendum in late December, did not include many long-standing demands that Egyptian journalists were hoping to obtain for decades, and particularly after a popular revolt that had freedom as one of its key demands, together with “bread and social justice”. Journalists were hoping to help remove any laws that allowed the imprisonment of journalists over libel and slander charges, or the closure of newspapers and television stations by court order. Al-Wali’s demands to include such articles in the constitution were ignored, and he was subject to sharp attacks by many journalists who called for his ouster.
The surprise was not only that Al-Wali decided not to finish his full two-year term, but that the Muslim Brotherhood did not decide to name its own candidate in the upcoming 1 March elections. The two key candidates for the syndicate’s top position are Diaa Rashwan and Abdel-Mohsen Salama who both work for Al-Ahram, the country’s largest national newspaper, exactly like Al-Wali, who was appointed Al-Ahram board chairman last summer. Rashwan has been known as a fierce critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially after the election of President Mohamed Morsi on 30 June. Rashwan, director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, also has his own television talk show which sharply attacks the president.
Salama, on the other hand, is known mainly for his ties to the now dissolved former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). It will be rather hard to describe Salama as a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, but most observers believe that he was more likely to gain their backing, considering Rashwan’s critical views of the Brotherhood and his reputation as the candidate backed by leftists and Arab nationalist, Nasserists. In the current highly polarised atmosphere in the country between Islamists and mainly secular parties, the battle in the Press Syndicate will definitely be seen from that perspective, even if both candidates deny they are running with a political agenda.
Both Rashwan and Salama, deputy editor-in-chief of the daily Arabic Al-Ahram, claim that they are running on a platform that aims at serving the interests of all Egyptian journalists, regardless of their political affiliation, and to improve the increasingly deteriorating living conditions of thousands of Egyptian journalists who work for state-financed, so-called national newspapers, as well as small media outlets owned by political parties. Since former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser nationalised the media in 1961, the widely circulated newspapers such as Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Gomhuriya were seen as a mouthpiece for the government. Editors-in-chief were usually appointed by the president personally, a tradition that Mubarak maintained until he was forced to give up power on 11 February 2011 following a popular revolt.
Most journalists agree that this pattern did change after President Morsi took office, and that the majority of editors who were appointed after the Muslim Brotherhood won parliament elections were considered to be loyal to the political Islamist group, or ready to adopt an editorial policy that supports their position.
Egyptian journalists working for national newspapers and those owned by political parties are also poorly paid, and the situation has been getting worse with the sharp economic downturn in the country as a whole. One major source of income for newspapers, advertising, has deteriorated tremendously, and many newspapers have been forced to carry out major budget cuts. The state, meanwhile, can no longer promise any major financial support to the Press Syndicate, as it used to under Mubarak in an attempt to back a certain candidate over another.
Besides the battle between Rashwan and Salama, another tough race is likely to take place in next Friday’s elections over the six vacant seats among the 50 candidates. Unlike the elections in October 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood did not announce that it was backing particular candidates. However, at least four candidates were known to be members of the political group. On the other side, several key leftist and Nasserist candidates are running for the six seats, and they are hoping to make use of the clear anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment among the press community to run a successful campaign. However, most observers agree that whoever wins the 1 March elections will face a very difficult job in seeking to improve the state of the Egyptian press and journalists, both financially and in terms of freedom of expression.

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