The board of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate will convene its first meeting in the coming 48 hours following elections that yielded six new board members and a new syndicate chairman. With Nasserist and leftist candidates now forming a substantial bloc within the new syndicate board, and boasting a chairman of known Nasserist affiliations, Ahram Online assesses the significance of the syndicate's new political makeup.
Newly elected Syndicate Chairman Diaa Rashwan, head of the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, is a Nasserist figure and a former candidate for the leftist Tagammu Party in 2010 parliamentary polls.
Rashwan won a tight race, garnering 1280 votes against 1015 votes for Abdel-Mohsen Salama, the managing editor of state daily Al-Ahram and former member of ousted president Hosni Mubarak's now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP). A total of 2339 syndicate members voted in the elections.
While the board was already composed mainly of opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, outgoing syndicate chairman Mamdouh El-Wali was widely believed to have been allied with the group, whose Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won a majority in parliament and from which President Mohamed Morsi hails.
"Rashwan's victory has settled the split between board and chairman," said newly elected board member Khaled El-Balshy.
Salama is not only a former NDP member, but is also widely believed – like El-Wali before him – to be close to the Brotherhood. Rashwan, on the other hand, has been seen as an opponent of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the former regime, El-Balshy explained.
"The desire to end the conflict within the syndicate [between the opposition-dominated board and the Brotherhood-friendly chairman] and create consensus may have been crucial in determining the election of the new chairman," El-Balshy said.
"The press syndicate poll results can also be seen as a battle against both the current and former regime," he added, saying that Salama had represented both.
Board member Hisham Younis similarly argued that the rejection of a particular political current, in this case the Brotherhood, had driven the vote with the aim of maintaining an independent syndicate.
Syndicate board elections were over six of the board's 12 seats. Osama Daoud, a journalist for the Nasserist Al-Arabi newspaper, was re-elected, along with Nasserist journalist Karem Mahmoud and Al-Gomhouriya newspaper deputy editor Gamal Abdel-Rehim. Former Al-Ahram Al-Masai editor-in-chief and former syndicate board member Alaa Thabet also won a seat.
In addition to those re-elected, two new faces on the board for the first time are leftist journalist and former Al-Badeel newspaper editor-in-chief Khaled El-Balshy and leftist journalist Hanan Fekry.
Fekry, who is also a member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party and a journalist for Al-Watani newspaper, is the first Coptic woman to become a board member in years.
"The main principle [shared by board members] is that no one political current controls the syndicate and that it remains independent," said Younis. "The current that calls for the independence of the syndicate garnered all the votes."
Younis went on to stress, however, that this did not mean that a political current other than the Brotherhood would come to dominate the syndicate either.
Also agreeing with Younis, El-Balshy pointed out that the re-election of former Al-Gomhouriya editor-in-chief Abdel-Rehim, for example, may have been encouraged by the latter's dispute with the Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt's parliament, currently endowed with legislative powers).
The Brotherhood-led Shura Council took a decision in November of last year to remove Abdel-Rehim from his post as editor-in-chief at Al-Gomhouriya. Abdel-Rehim appealed the decision and won a court verdict in his favour, which, however, was never applied.
El-Balshy added that Fekry's electoral success "also sends a strong message…she is both a Copt and a woman, representing the two sectors suffering Islamist violence."
Both board members agreed that all the candidates believed to be close to or allied with the Brotherhood gained very few votes.
The six new board members were chosen out of a total of 46 candidates.
The six board members that will maintain their posts are Nasserist Gamal Fahmy, independent Al-Ahram journalist Hisham Younis, independent Abeer Saady, Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Abdel-Qodous, independent Khaled Meery, and independent Hani Emara.
The Brotherhood are left with only one member to represent them on the board, Abdel-Qodous, while the left-leaning camp – including the Nasserists – have at least five seats in addition to the chairman.
While the Brotherhood did not previously have a majority on the syndicate board, the Islamist group had occupied one third of the seats under Mubarak and later under former chairman El-Wali, who also represented journalists in the Islamist-dominated assembly that wrote Egypt's new constitution.
El-Wali was highly criticised within the syndicate for his uncritical stance on the new constitution, several articles of which were said to limit press freedoms. In an extraordinary general assembly meeting last November, several attendees chanted in demand of El-Wali's resignation.
Even though the syndicate's general assembly voted on an earlier decision by the board to withdraw its members from the constitution-drafting committee, El-Wali attended the committee's final session, which saw the passage of all the draft articles that the syndicate had vetoed.
Egypt's new constitution received a 64 percent approval rate in a popular referendum last December.
One day after election results were announced, the syndicate – under new chairman Rashwan – held a demonstration against the Muslim Brotherhood after the group's members reportedly attacked journalists covering a protest at the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau the previous evening.
According to Ibrahim Nawar, head of Arab Press Freedom Watch, the press syndicate remains that most affected by politics and most affected by the ruling regime, as its members play a role in shaping public opinion.
The chairman’s task, along with that of the board, says Nawar, is to protect journalists not only from physical harm, but also from any interference in their right to expression. The attack against journalists at the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, he said, was a clear indication of the syndicate's primary challenge.
"The main challenge now is establishing independence from the ruling regime," he asserted.
"The election of Rashwan, therefore, is very significant, as the syndicate needs an independent candidate," added Nawar. He went on to criticise the former chairman for being "too closely aligned" with the ruling regime.
It also shows that the current political regime is losing popularity, he argues, as the syndicate vote went mainly against Brotherhood candidates.