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Tuesday, 10 December 2019

INTERVIEW: Reflecting on politics and the press syndicate

Veteran press syndicate member Hussein Abdel-Razik says it is 'simply impossible' to keep the syndicate away from public affairs

Dina Ezzat , Monday 16 May 2016
Hussein Abdel Razek
Veteran journalist-commentator Hussein Abdel Razek (Photo: Al-Ahram)
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Views: 1556

It was in early 1973 that the name of Hussein Abdel-Razik – a prominent member of the press syndicate, the political Left and the public sphere – was included in a list of 102 names of journalists that then-president Anwar El-Sadat wanted dismissed from the official lists of the syndicate.

The objective was to have the journalists disassociated not just from the association of journalists, but from the profession altogether. The reason was to hush the critical voices.

"It was such a list; it had the names of Philipe Gallad, Mohamed Ouda, Safynaz Kazem, Farida El-Nakkach [Abdel-Razik's spouse] and so many others," recalled the veteran journalist-commentator as he spoke to Ahram Online in his office next to the library of the once-vivid-turned-lonely venue of the leftist Tagammua Party overlooking Talaat Harb Square, downtown Cairo.

The list, as Abdel-Razik recalled, was not issued from the office of the president himself but from that of the Socialist Union.

"There was no question about it; in no uncertain terms the syndicate declined to execute the order," even though it was clear that this amounted to a rejection of a presidential wish to silence critical voices, Abdel-Razik said.

"It was a critical situation for sure; and what made it even more complicated was that this had occurred just a few weeks before the scheduled meetings of the press syndicate's mid-term elections, in which these 102 members were entitled to vote." 

Having already stood firm in the face of what was ultimately a presidential wish, the syndicate was cautious about going at loggerheads with El-Sadat.

"When you play politics you inevitably become calculating; you choose your battles, you decide how far to go and when to act and when not to," stated Abdel-Razik.

So we decided that we would deny El-Sadat the chance to escalate. We decided that we would not go to the elections, but instead announce our support for a candidate for syndicate president and the [candidates for] the six [council] seats that were going to be vacant by March 1973."

However, the 102 journalists refused to stop going to the press syndicate headquarters, holding their meetings at the garden of the syndicate's old building – which was redone in the late 1990s at the site of the current syndicate.

"El-Sadat used to mock us, and typical of his habit of passing names from every group he did not like, he called [us] the 'Garden Party'," Abdel-Razik recalled.

Against this 'Garden Party,' Abdel-Razik said, there was "a concerted effort led by no other than Makram Mohamed Ahmed to support a candidate that was proposed and supported by the Socialist Union at the time; Hafez Mahmoud."

Inevitably, Abdel-Razik recalled, it was Abdel-Moneim El-Sawy, who had a very poor performance in the previous elections, who won with the support of the ‘Garden Party’ in the face of Mahmoud.

"We did not go to the elections and we did not let the elections happen against our will – so we chose how to fight and we did actually win."

A few months down the road, on the anniversary of the birth date of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, which El-Sadat was still in the habit of honouring, the decree issued by the office of the Social Union was annulled and the 102 journalists were allowed to resume their regular association with the press syndicate.

"Here we have to say that El-Sadat acted wisely," Abdel-Razik said. "Of course it must have been under the advice of someone, maybe [Mohamed Hassanein] Heikal or [Ahmed] Bahaeddin, but of course we have to credit him for having solicited the advice of those who were knowledgeable, or at least having recognised the wisdom when it was offered to him."

Press syndicate's history with state

According to the testimony of this syndicate figure – who spent the last six decades of his life being ever-so-involved in promoting press freedom and his socialist political views – the year 1973 saw one of many instances where the state and the syndicate had to face off since the first press association was established in March 1941.

"Those have been a very eventful 75 years," he stated.

The confrontations took place irrespective of who was at the head of the state, "including the legendary leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser," Abdel-Razik said.

One of these confrontations, he said, happened in 1964 when Abdel-Nasser wanted to have some journalists, including Abdel-Rahman Khamisi, Youssef Idris and Mahmoud Awad, among others, removed from their press jobs to public sector companies like Batta.

"Take into consideration that I am talking about Abdel-Nasser prior to the 1967 defeat – we are talking about the heyday of Abdel-Nasser," Abdel-Razik said.

"Still, the press syndicate took a very firm stand and declined to bow to the wish of the president, and eventually those journalists reassumed their press posts despite a limited interruption of their journalistic career."

During the years of Hosni Mubarak, "in 1995 under the presidency of no other than Ibrahim Nafee – who was clearly not in opposition to the regime – [the syndicate] bravely opposed the wish of the executive to impose a restrictive law."

"At the time, Nafee surrendered fully to the wish of the masses and the members of the syndicate to oppose this law, and his position was firmly in line with the principles of this syndicate, which is not designed to just provide services for its members or get them some benefits, but essentially to protect their key rights: freedom of expression and free access to information."

Abdel-Razik, who is not at a traditional ally of Nafee, recalled that he worked "very closely with the president of the syndicate at the time, especially as I saw that he was actually using the influence of Al-Ahram to support the stance of the syndicate against this repressive law."

The syndicate was not always on the winning end of every battle against the executive branch, however.

Abdel-Razik recalled that in 1968, the syndicate failed to reverse a decision by a militarily-defeated Abdel-Nasser to impose censorship on the press.

Syndicate and politics

Throughout its 75 years, Abdel-Razik insisted, the syndicate was never disassociated from politics and public affairs.

"This is an impossible separation to make," he said. "I mean you can argue that the press syndicate should not take the side of any particular political party, but nobody could ever argue that the press syndicate could stay away from politics."

In April this year, in the wake of the so-called "Land Friday" demonstrations that started at the entrance stairway of the press syndicate, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi – during a meeting at the presidential palace attended by the heads of key professional syndicates and other public figures – called for a full detachment of syndicates from politics.

"This is not a new presidential wish; it has always been the case. Every head of the executive has wanted to depoliticise the press syndicate, but it never worked," Abdel-Razik said.

"Journalism is essentially about politics and about freedoms and rights, and throughout the years, leading press syndicate figures have firmly been prominent politicians," he argued.

The history of press syndicate's "political stances" is as long as the seven-and-a-half decades of the association, he said.

"I guess one of the relatively recent accounts that most people today would still recall was in 2005, when the press syndicate was clearly at the forefront of the opposition to Mubarak's scheme to enact constitutional amendments designed to allow for the succession" of his younger son, Gamal.

It was about 11 years ago, on 25 May 2005, when the entrance stairway of the syndicate served as a forum for expressing anger over the succession scheme.

"The state tried to quell the demonstration and employed thugs to attack and assault the demonstrators, including women journalists," Abdel-Razik said.

"But of course they stopped short of entering the building itself. It was out of the question that such irrational behaviour would take place, even during this point in Mubarak's 30-year rule."

Dispute with the interior ministry

Abdel-Razik insisted that "by comparison," it was an act of sheer political miscalculation when police decided to storm the syndicate headquarters last month to arrest two journalists, Mahmoud El-Sakkah and Amr Badr, for their alleged role in calling for demonstrations against the handover of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia earlier in April.

"This was against the text and the spirit of the [relevant] law. It was also uncalled for because historically, each council of the press syndicate has always been willing to allow for the right arrangements to be made for its members to be interrogated under prosecutors’ orders, and this would have been the case last month," he argued.

Today, Abdel-Razik argues that there has to be a way to contain the crisis that started with the police arrest of the two journalists from within the syndicate in the absence of the syndicate president or any of the council members.

"To allow for further escalation is quite hazardous given the overall sense of political tension," he argued.

The syndicate, Abdel-Razik added, already showed a sign of good will when it retracted a demand it made two weeks ago that the president, in his capacity as the head of the executive, issue an apology for the raid on the syndicate.

"According to the 2014 constitution, which the president is sworn [to uphold], the head of executive selects his minister of interior and is responsible for the political decisions of the minister," he said.

"But alright, we are overlooking the constitution and have decided to ask the head of the executive to act as an arbitrator between the syndicate and the Ministry of Interior. Now we hope the president will do so." 

Abdel-Razik sounded sceptical, at least about the possible willingness of the president to expel his minister of interior upon the demands of the press syndicate earlier this month.

"This demand was also made in 2005 and was declined, as expected," he said.

Abdel-Razik said that there are "obviously some channels [of communication] now between the two sides, and we hope that by Tuesday some positive signs will appear."

He speculated that if no deal is put forward between the syndicate and the police, then maybe the state will try to block the syndicate's general assembly from meeting, "possibly by using its assets to block the necessary quorum – as they have traditionally tried to do throughout the years."

"I remember once we were short of one person to have the necessary quorum for a general assembly," he recalled.

"We knew that the state, under El-Sadat, was lobbying against our meeting; and just as we saw that we were running out of time for the one missing person to come forward, [prominent journalist] Fahmi Howeidy stepped in and was met with joyful applause. He later knew that he had saved the day for the syndicate."

"So one should never [underestimate] the resolve of this syndicate – but of course one should hope for politically smart positions," Abdel-Razik concluded.

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