Khaled Elbalshy to head the Journalists’ Syndicate in Egypt amid harsh conditions for the press

Unexpectedly, the dissident leftist journalist Khaled Elbalshy was elected head of the Journalists Syndicate after a wild elector battle with Khaled Elmery, the state-sponsored candidate. Four dissident journalists from the so-called Independence Current in the syndicate were elected to the council besides Elbalshy. Elbalshy’s winning struck the Egyptian regime keen on keeping the Journalists’ Syndicate in check, considering it is one of the most disturbing unions capable of opposing the police state created by Sisi’s regime.

Press under control

Since 2011, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then director of Military Intelligence, has worked hard on extending organs for the military inside the Egyptian media. Still, after his ascent to power in 2014, the extension of organs became a project for complete control of the media and press. The General Intelligence was the body assigned to accomplish the project via private companies owned in the last instance by the GI itself. For that, the fund established for investing the GI financials, Eagle Capital, founded the United Company, which acquired the most notable TVs; ON TV, CBC, Al Hayat, and the most significant newspapers likewise; Al Watan, Al Youm 7, Al Dostour and Al Masry Al Youm. The United Company-owned media formed, besides the already state-owned media, a propaganda empire for Sisi’s regime.

As a handful of independent news websites remained working, they were brought to heel by police persecution. Masr Al Arabiya, for instance, closed after his editor-in-chief, Adel Sabry, was detained, and the same happened with the Al Tahrir newspaper and website. Few surviving sites have been subjected to web block in Egypt since 2017, with no Egyptian governmental institution declaring responsibility for the decision. In parallel, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation was assigned to license the new news websites to reject empowering independent websites such as Mada Masr and Al Manassa.

Sisi’s regime crackdown on the press peaked with recurrent arrests of journalists, including some journalists working in state-owned newspapers. Journalists abroad did not evade it. State-sponsored TV hosts, such as Mohamed el-Baz and Nash’at el-Dwehy, attacked BBC TV host Rasha Qandil, while Al Jazeera’s TV host Ahmad Taha has been sentenced in absentia to 15-year-imprisonment. Anti-terrorism law was used to intimidate journalists, as it uses loose definitions for terrorist acts. An article criticizing Abdel Fattah al-Sisi could be considered a threat to national security and, consequently, a terrorist act that can warrant arresting the journalist and closing the newspaper as pro-terrorism.

Subjecting the syndicate

Since its foundation in 1941, the Journalists’ Syndicate was a castle for rights and freedoms in Egypt. The stairs of the syndicate became a symbol of the protest movement against Mohamed Hosni Mubarak. The syndicate continued promoting the freedom of the press after the January 25 Revolution in 2011 under President Mohamed Morsi.

After the military coup in 2013, the new regime allowed secular forces to replace the Muslim Brotherhood in syndicates so that the leftist journalist Yahya Qallash was enabled to replace the MB-supported Mamdouh Waly. But after Tiran and Sanafir’s concession to Saudi Arabia in 2016, the already-crannied alliance with the seculars utterly collapsed. Two journalists, Amr Badr and Mahmoud Sakka, campaigned against the agreement with Saudi Arabia and sit-in in the syndicate protesting it. The police broke into the syndicate and arrested them, although the syndicate law prevents inspecting the syndicate headquarters unless public prosecutors are there. In response, Qallash and Elbalshy, then the syndicate’s secretary, opened fire on the interior minister and demanded he resigns.

In 2017, the regime sponsored Abdel Mohsen Salama, then editor-in-chief of the state-owned Al Ahram, to run against Qallash, and he had already replaced him. Still, Salama seemed unable to control the independent voices in the syndicate. So, the regime played its cards right when Diaa Rashwan, the head of its mouthpiece, the State Information Service, ran for the syndicate. Dia won the elections without competition as the opposition was under persecution, and over his 4-year period, he ran the syndicate with one aim, to appease the regime.

The battle to restore the syndicate

Weeks ago, Khaled Elmery, the editor-in-chief of Akhbar Al Youm, declared he would run for the syndicate. The state-sponsored media of the United Company promoted the Elmery campaign, while the independent voices were close to abstaining from the elections because of the policy climate. But out of the blue, Elbalshy and a handful of journalists decided to engage in the battle.

Elbalshy, former secretary of the syndicate, made his debut in journalism in the state-owned Rosa Elyousef magazine between 1998 and 2005. Then he became the editor-in-chief of the leftist private journal Al Badil until 2012 after a short period in Al Dostour between 2005 and 2007. After the coup in 2013, Elbalshy founded the Al Bedaia news website as an independent voice in the Egyptian media. Still, the website was blocked in 2017, so he founded a new website, Al Kateb, but it was blocked likewise. Elbalshy finally found a website for the Popular Socialist Party, hoping this could protect the website from blocking, but his hopes failed, and his new one, Darb, was also blocked.

With Elbalshy, five faces of the Independent Current run for the council seats in these elections. While one of them, Amr Badr, failed, the other four, Gamal Abdel Rahim, Hesham Younis, Mohamed Elgarhy and Mahmoud Kamel, won seats. After winning, Elbalshy said he would be a syndicate for all journalists, not only those who support him, and visited his competitor Elmery, reassuring journalists of a new era of solidarity and public interest.