“Remember the crisis of 1995, when the syndicate rejected the press law. What happened then? It was able to take a strong and unified stance without losing the support of the president or Parliament … and the law was amended,” Abdel Mohsen Salama, candidate for the leadership of the Journalists Syndicate and managing editor of the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper told a reporter from the privately owned Al-Mal newspaper.
The Journalists Syndicate is preparing for its mid-term leadership elections, to be held on March 17, under the shadow of the crisis prompted by the May 2016 police raid on its headquarters, in which two journalists were arrested while holding a sit-in to protest pre-dawn raids on other journalists. The crisis is one of divergent politics and contested narratives as to what role the syndicate plays in Egypt’s political landscape: a platform from whose steps Egypt’s citizens can air political grievances, a space of independent journalism more closely aligned to civil society, a state institution with relative autonomy or a conduit for government discourse.
In the months that followed the arrests, the rift has widened, with criminal charges brought against syndicate head Yehia Qallash for harboring fugitives. This has created polarization within the syndicate itself, with some holding syndicate council members responsible for the escalation in tension with the Interior Ministry and others blaming government authorities.
The stand-off between the syndicate and the state is not without precedent, however, and echoes another political conflict in 1995, when parliament passed a restrictive bill without first consulting the syndicate.
Speaking of 1995 and 2016, Qallash, who was also a member of the Syndicate Council in 1995, says, “The only similarity is that both are crises. Each mobilized the nation and journalists, but they share nothing else.”
Parliament passed a new press law in May 1995 during an emergency session — the lower house of the then bicameral legislature was held with only 44 of 444 members in attendance to pass it. The law imposed tougher prison terms and fines for publications found to be libelous or that damaged national interests, in addition to amending the law regulating the Journalists Syndicate. All of this occurred without prior consultation with the syndicate.
The press law, seen by some as a measure to constrain the press ahead of the 1995 People’s Assembly election, came to be known by journalists as the “journalism assassinating law,” as it allowed for the preventative detention of journalists.
The 2016 crisis is unprecedented in the history of professional syndicates in Egypt: Qallash
The law ignited a stand-off between the Journalists Syndicate and the state, with a call for an emergency meeting for members of the syndicate council, during which they agreed to reject the law and subsequently held a series of general assembly meetings resolving to pressure the government and to push for the resignation of the syndicate’s chairperson.
It was around the same time of year 21 years later that police forces stormed the syndicate headquarters and arrested two journalists protesting the state’s intention to cede land to Saudi Arabia. In November, Qallash, and syndicate council members Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel Reheem were sentenced to two years in prison for harboring fugitives, a verdict that is being appealed.
“It was like a shock that hit the nervous system [of the syndicate]. Storming the syndicate generated a spontaneous reaction. When I went to the headquarters after the incident, I found hundreds of journalists already there, even before the syndicate’s council took action.”
The 1995 crisis, on the other hand, took some time to generate a reaction. “There wasn’t the same level of spontaneity,” Qallash says. “The issue needed more mobilization of journalists through a series of articles defending the profession, as well as a number of general assembly meetings.”
Journalist and writer Salah Issa, secretary general of the Supreme Press Council and member of the syndicate council between 1989 and 1993, was an active participant in the 1995 crisis.
In 1995, he recommended that the syndicate council attend a media function that was to also be attended by former President Hosni Mubarak in order to formally reject the law. Issa remembers the planned action as an attempt to “render the president a neutral party in the crisis,” keeping it between the syndicate and other branches of the state.
When Galal Issa, undersecretary of the syndicate in 1995, attended the function and announced that journalists had rejected the new law and demanded that Mubarak return it to Parliament, the president replied with a statement that would become one of his most famous: “We’re not selling peanuts here.” The implication was that, as serious statesmen, they would not backtrack on their decisions.
Salah Issa contends that the recent stand-off engendered “some rashness and dramatically raised the ceiling of [the syndicate’s demands.” To demand the minister of interior’s resignation in the first official statement, for example, Issa says was a rash decision, “akin to laying all our cards on the table.”
“The January revolution gave an impression to a generation of youth that anything is possible. In 1995, the climate was different; the moment called for calculation and not impulsiveness,” Salah Issa says.
But Qallash believes taking a milder stance this time wasn’t a possibility, given “the enormity of the incident, which sets it apart from any previous crisis the syndicate has experienced.”
“Those who created the crisis did not pay attention to the existence of a new generation, most of whom were born out of this crisis. It’s this generation that will have the responsibility of leading the syndicate in the future, even if the current council changes,” he says.
A political settlement in 2016 wasn’t really a possibility, according to many journalists.
“In 1995, the idea was to negotiate in order to reach a political solution. In 2016, however, the security apparatus was a powerful presence on the scene,” says journalist Omayma Kamal.
Comparing the state reaction in 2016 to that of 1995, Qallash says, “[this time] there was a sense that a system of power was at work, a non-political show of strength. We made several calls to state parties, but whenever we got close to reaching a settlement, someone from within the state institutions would do something to stop it.”
“The inclination of the government not to negotiate is due to what the Ministry of Interior represents in the current political context”
Last May, the syndicate’s representatives met with Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and a number of members of the House of Representatives in an attempt to resolve the issue. But these meetings went nowhere. “It was obvious that the parties representing the state in these negotiations were not instructed to find a solution,” Salah Issa says.
Issa believes that the inclination of the government not to negotiate is due to “what the Ministry of Interior represents” in the current political context. “The minister of interior represents the state in its fight against terrorism, with members of the police force being killed daily. The clash with this institution came amid special circumstances that gave it weight and power.”
A key difference between 1995 and 2016 is the level of unity demonstrated between journalists during the crisis. Unlike in 2016, despite differences in the political outlooks of the council members in 1995, there were minimal divisions.
“The journalists of the state-run newspapers attended alongside journalists from partisan papers. No one tried to go against the consensus of the general assembly of the syndicate or push for division among the syndicate council,” Kamal says.
Salah Issa confirms that all the partisan papers followed the decisions of the general assembly meeting that was held on June 10, 1995, and which included a strike in protest against the press law. “As for the state-owned newspapers, some of them stayed silent and others took opposing stances, but no opposing fronts against the decisions of the syndicate were formed from within.”
Back then, Ibrahim Nafea, chairman of Al-Ahram was the syndicate head. Close to the ruling elites, he felt a sense of neglect after the press bill was drafted without consulting him, Issa says, adding that he could only obey his syndicate’s general assembly.
Issa adds that Nafea carried a lot of weight with different state institutions, which made it harder for any opposing fronts to emerge.
In 2016, the situation was different. While newspapers supported the syndicate position initially after the first general assembly meeting in May, this support was withdrawn shortly after.
Meanwhile, a key division between the members of the syndicate council led to the creation of a certain front that called itself the Correction Front, whereby five council members opposed the syndicate’s stance against state authorities.
The 1995 crisis continued for a year, after which the contentious press law was repealed in June 1996 and a new one was issued that rescinded many of the more punitive measures and is still in effect. The 2016 crisis, however, is still ongoing, and its current battlefield may be the upcoming council elections.
The syndicate council’s midterm elections, which were to be held on March 3, but did not reach a quorum for the vote and were postponed to March 17, will see Qallash run for renewal of his post. But his clash with state authorities, particularly the security apparatus, looms over his candidacy. Competing with him is Salama, who is seen as a more pro-state figure. Another five candidates are also running.
Diaa Rashwan, who was running against Qallash and withdrew days before the poll, said in an interview with the privately owned Al-Watan newspaper that he was involved in political mediation to attempt to avoid entering the election in a state of polarization and to argue for the need for a third position between Salama and Qallash.
“I was able to reach a satisfactory solution for us all at the highest level of the state… My only hope was for Qallash to delay his candidacy. I sent him a direct message to that effect. The state welcomed a political solution on the condition that he would delay [the declaration of his candidacy] by two days. However, he went on to nominate himself one day before we reached a solution.”
Many see a political battle transcending the confines of the syndicate in this election
Writer Medhat al-Zahed says that this time the elections “come at a very critical juncture, as the state makes increasing attempts to tighten its grip over the public sphere and imposes restrictions on civil society work, with unions at its center.”
He says that the map of elections “shows that the pro-state current is trying to purge the syndicate of patriotic voices that fought national battles such as the Tiran and Sanafir battle.” He clarifies that, while the syndicate did not take an explicit stance in the Tiran and Sanafir crisis, the authorities know that “the syndicate opened its doors to this patriotic battle, as it gave space to youth who defended Egyptian sovereignty. It’s in this context that punitive attempts against the syndicate were made and the so-called Correction Front was created with the aim of forcing the syndicate to kneel and return to the control of the state.”
“The general momentum of the elections — reflected in the large number of candidates with stances against the political regime — is as an extension of the battle that started with the storming of the syndicate last May,” says Iman Ouf, journalist and member in the Front to Defend Journalists and Freedoms.
Like several others, Ouf thinks the storming of the syndicate provoked a more oppositional stance than had existed previously.
“The syndicate battles were usually confined to issues of the dismissal of journalists, which are of course important. The syndicate was absent from major battles relating to freedoms, such as the battle over the protest law, increasing arrests and attacks on journalists and even the general economic deterioration of the country. After the storming incident, the picture changed completely,” she adds.
Meanwhile, Mostafa Basyouni, a journalist and syndicate activist, notes some differences in the politics of the syndicate. For one, he doesn’t see a pro-state candidate in the same way someone like Nafea was. “Now the state does not have such traditional symbols,” he says. Similarly, journalists who have joined the Syndicate in the last year mostly belong to privately owned newspapers and their politics vary.
While some see the syndicate as a source of financial gain, others consider it a place that can regulate their relationships with professional organizations. A third group is involved in the broader politics of defending their professional freedoms against the state’s restrictions. The syndicate and its politics have altered greatly in 21 years.