The independence of the Press Syndicate in Egypt has always been a struggle, followed by more than just its 6,500 members. But this time, the situation is different. Journalists will not vote for or against the regime but instead will choose a board that will truly represent them and will fight for their demands.
Two main candidates are running for the chairman’s seat, which has been the main target of the past few decades’ power struggle between the government’s candidates and the journalists seeking the independence of what should be a beacon for freedom of expression.
Mamdouh El-Waly and Yehia Qallash have both been members of the syndicate board for years, and they have both fought together in many battles to support freedom of the press. However, the two rivals are standing on different grounds this time.
El-Waly, who is deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram daily, is considered to be the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, even though he has denied any link with the group, which now dominates the political scene. El-Waly never denied this relationship before when the Brotherhood candidates ran jointly with other political forces in the press syndicate elections on an "independence and change" list against pro-government figures.
However, the group itself has never announced before, at least openly, that it supports any of the candidates, or that any of its members are running in the elections.
Ahmed Ezz Eddin, media spokesman for Muslim Brotherhood journalists, said in a statement to IkhwanWeb, the Brotherhood’s official website, that, "Brotherhood journalist candidates (namely Mohammad Abdul Quddus, Qutb El-Arabi, Hani Makkawi, Hani Salah Eddin, and Khaled Barakat) are ready for the elections, and have a clear vision for the advancement of the syndicate." It is also widely known that El-Waly is supported by the Brotherhood.
"In the past years we fought for the independence of the syndicate and that simply meant standing against government interference," says Yehia Qallash, who is known to be a Nasserite, "but this time we are fighting against the hijack of the union by any political group, no matter who they are." For Qallash, the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has announced that it has candidates in the election is very alarming, especially as the group now has no excuse to try to dominate professional syndicates.
"In the past that was understandable, because the group was considered illegal and was chased by the regime, but now they have a legal political party and more headquarters than the ruling National Democratic Party under Mubarak. So the struggle for the independence of the syndicate is still a valid issue." El-Waly, however, commented: "I am not the candidate of the Brotherhood or of any other political trend. I am running in the polls as an independent. Involving politics in the work of unions undermines their performance.”
The Muslim Brotherhood has won the majority of seats in a number of professional syndicates over the past few months, namely the Syndicate of Egyptian Medical Professionals and the Teachers Syndicate, and is running in a number of others, including the Egyptian Bar (the lawyers' syndicate).
But besides their political affiliation, both Qallash and El-Waly seem to have a lot in common. They share many demands, including the annulment of a law that allows journalists to be imprisoned for publishing offences, the improvement of journalists' wages, the protection of their rights and assistance to allow journalists to develop professional skills and improve their financial situations.
But while Qallash focuses more on the freedom of press and the financial independence of the syndicate from the government, El-Waly says that improving the financial conditions of journalists is the first step towards independent journalism.
There are also more than 100 journalists running for the board seats under similar programs. Some of the candidates are veteran unionists, while others are running for the first time. "Building a strong civil society is an important element in making sure that the January 25 revolution achieves its demands," says Ahmed Mahmoud, who is running for elections for the first time.
Mahmoud, like many other young journalists, witnessed the role that the journalists’ syndicate played in the political struggle against Mubarak's regime. For years, the stairs of the syndicate's headquarters in downtown Cairo, with its black marble steps, was the one place where protesters from all over Egypt would seek refuge and express their political as well as social and economic grievances.
"Keeping the steps as the only Hyde Park Corner in Egypt since the new building was opened in 2001 was a very important target," says Mahmoud. "Now we need to fight more for what is inside the building. The future of the freedom of press is actually the future of the whole country."