The committee supervising the Press Syndicate elections decided on 3 March to postpone the syndicate’s general assembly to elect a new chairman and half the board to 17 March due to the lack of a quorum.
With nearly 8,300 members eligible to vote, the assembly is considered legitimate with an attendance of 50 per cent. On Friday, only 1,300 journalists attended the first assembly. A second will be called on 17 March with a required attendance of 25 per cent of members. The assembly was first called in February to elect a new chairman and six council members.
The adjournment of the elections has sparked a debate over the law that governs the Press Syndicate. The majority of the candidates for the chairmanship post have demanded that the law be changed to abolish the 50 per cent attendance requirement and the article that states the elections must be held on a Friday.
“For the past decade, holding the elections has become hard as a result of these two conditions. I believe that the next board and chairman should work with parliament to amend the Press Syndicate law,” said outgoing board member and candidate Gamal Abdel-Rehim.
Abdel-Rehim added that a working day would be better to hold the elections, especially as most newspapers have offices in the downtown area around the Press Syndicate. The 50 per cent quorum condition is required in most professional syndicate elections in Egypt, including at the lawyers, doctors and engineers syndicates.
Of the seven candidates competing for the post of chairman, outgoing syndicate head Yehia Qallash and Al-Ahram Managing Editor Abdel-Mohsen Salama are the frontrunners. The six seats up for grabs on the syndicate’s 12-member council are being fought over by 70 journalists.
Salama ran for the chairmanship of the syndicate in the 2013 elections, but lost to Diaa Rashwan who in 2015 failed to win a second term after losing to Qallash. While Salama’s campaign has focused on improving the financial and professional status of journalists, Qallash has pledged to continue the battle to secure press freedoms.
The outgoing council served during one of the most turbulent periods in the syndicate’s 75-year history following a crisis with the government that erupted after police arrested two journalists at the syndicate’s headquarters.
Qallash’s aim to secure a second term will not be easy following a year of controversy and direct confrontation with the government. He and two board members, Khaled Al-Balshi and Gamal Abdel-Rehim, were given two-year suspended prison sentences late last year on charges of harbouring fugitives inside the syndicate’s Cairo headquarters.
All three were released on LE10,000 bail pending appeal. The Qasr Al-Nil Appeals Court will issue a verdict on 25 March.
The sentences were passed after two journalists, Amr Badr and Ahmed Al-Sakka, wanted by the police for allegedly spreading false news regarding Egypt’s Red Sea islands deal with Saudi Arabia and holding protests without permission, were arrested in May last year inside the syndicate’s headquarters.
In the wake of the arrests, a general assembly was convened at the syndicate, which demanded the resignation of the interior minister and an apology from the presidency. Qallash, Al-Balshi and Abdel-Rehim’s handling of the crisis triggered divisions among journalists. Some accused Qallash of politicising the crisis and antagonising state institutions, while others supported his stance in defending the 75-year-old syndicate.
Salama, a former undersecretary of the syndicate and an elected member of Al-Ahram’s board since 2010, said he believed there had been a deterioration in the syndicate’s performance in protecting the rights of journalists and it was time to reset the relationship with state institutions on the basis of “mutual respect and dialogue and not confrontation”.
“We have been witnessing a deterioration in the working and financial conditions of journalists, and the leaders of the syndicate have not lifted a finger to stop it,” he said.