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Steps to the syndicate chair
Steps to the syndicate chair
Saturday is make or break for candidates standing in the Press Syndicate elections. Shaden Shehab surveys the battle lines
Saturday’s Press Syndicate elections for the 12- member council and the post of chairman come at a crucial time for the profession
Saturday, November 17,2007 00:27
Al-Ahram Weekly

Saturday"s Press Syndicate elections for the 12- member council and the post of chairman come at a crucial time for the profession, with the regime seemingly determined to silence opposition voices and most observers agreed that the country is passing through unprecedented levels not only of dissent but of political congestion.

The five candidates standing for the post of chairman, and the 81 battling for council seats, agree on what needs to be done. Custodial sentences for publishing offences must be scrapped and legislation granting improved access to information passed. Salaries and pensions must be increased, health insurance for the profession improved and training programmes put place. If the manifestoes of candidates are similar, their strategies for attaining these goals are not, leaving journalists to make their selection on the basis of the political affiliations of candidates, and on their professional reputations.

In the battle for the chair of the syndicate, the real race is between Makram Mohamed Ahmed, 72, a former Press Syndicate chairman (1997-1999), and Ragaai El-Merghani, 59, the managing editor of the state-owned Middle East News Agency. While the two candidates object to the government -- Ahmed -- and opposition -- Merghani -- tags that they are perceived as such is likely to impact on how many journalists vote.

"It is a shame that after 50 years of work some journalists insist I am the government candidate. I have never been a government lackey and have my own views which on many occasions have contradicted those of the government which I have often criticised, basing my remarks on the available facts and remaining as objective as possible," Ahmed told Al-Ahram Weekly. El-Merghani, meanwhile, insists he is "an independent journalist representing all journalists".

Some journalists argue that choosing Ahmed, a former chairman of the state-owned Dar Al-Hilal and editor-in-chief of Al-Musawwer magazine, will open the door to government interference, while others insist that maintaining good argue relations with the government is no crime and could help any campaign to have custodial sentences removed. Increasing salaries and pensions, they point out, also requires dialogue with the government rather than conflict.

El-Merghani"s camp, which has labelled itself the "Group for the Independence of Journalists", obviously feels there is mileage in the opposition tag. They comprise mostly journalists with Nasserist tendencies, and are spearheaded by current Chairman Galal Aref. With El-Merghani as chairman, they argue, the syndicate will be in a better position to resist government attempts to silence its critics as well as consolidate its own role at the centre of the reform debate.

With Aref as chairman, the syndicate had become a focus for dissent movements and the steps to the syndicate"s headquarters a favourite venue for anti- government demonstrations. Indeed, listening to the arguments of El-Merghani"s supporters, you might be forgiven for thinking that the result of the election hinges on what uses will or will not be made of the syndicate"s steps.

Both candidates argue that protests must be regulated. Ahmed would make them conditional on agreement by the syndicate"s council and restrict demonstrations to two days a week, while El-Merghani argues that a specific area -- the syndicate actually has three entrances -- should be set aside for protesters.

The construction of the syndicate"s headquarters, which opened in 2002, began in 1998 when Ahmed was chairman. The plan, he said, was to rent additional floors and to use the revenues to supplement pension funds and finance training programmes and equipment. "With almost non-stop protests and central security forces cordoning off the syndicate, potential tenants who are willing to pay millions for the facilities have been scared away. I am perfectly happy to join protesters but without any regulation we will be shooting ourselves in the foot," says Ahmed.

El-Merghani"s supporters claim that Egypt is in desperate need of a venue where people can express themselves regardless of their political affiliations, and any talk of restricting the number of days they can gather in front of the syndicate is a precursor to ending the practice altogether.

Both candidates agree that scrapping the 16 articles in the penal code and the press law that allow journalists to be imprisoned, and that have been the basis of the spate of recent high-profile prosecutions, is an urgent priority. To this end negotiations with the government are imperative. Such negotiations, says El-Merghani, must be backed by a united front of journalists, and no concessions should be made. Yet despite both men working for state-owned institutions it is Ahmed who is seen as enjoying greater access to government circles. Indeed, he has staked his reputation on achieving these aims, saying that, if the ongoing cases against journalists are not withdrawn within two months of his being elected he will resign.

Saad Hagras, the managing editor of the Al-Alam Al-Yom, who is standing for the council, revealed in an interview with the daily Nahdet Masr that he had been astonished at how many journalists pleaded with Ahmed to nominate himself only to do the same with El-Merghani. Some of them, he goes on to say, even tried to convince Hagras to contest the chairman"s seat.

"Ahmed agreed to nominate himself listening to the continuous pleading of a number of journalists. Others, like Salama Ahmed Salama and Salaheddin Hafez, agreed to contest council seats so that there would be a strong council alongside Ahmed." Then these leading journalists did not nominate themselves and those who begged Ahmed to nominate went on to behave inexplicably.

El-Merghani served twice in the council, between 1995 and 2003, but failed to win a third term. He worked closely on the drafting of the press law, though as the managing editor of a press agency he has a relatively low-profile within the profession.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which is thought to control 600 out of a total of 5,000 votes, will play a crucial rule in determining the outcome of any close run ballot. In the last election, the Brotherhood formed a coalition with the Nasserists which many believe paved the way to Aref"s victory.

Mohsen Radi, a journalist and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, says that the group requested a public debate between Ahmed and El-Merghani in the syndicate headquarters on the basis of which they intended to decide who to support. Until press time no decision had been made on whether the debate would go ahead. Other sources within the Brotherhood, though, say the group had already decided to back El-Merghani, suggesting the debate was little more than democratic window dressing. Radi also revealed the Brotherhood will recommend only four council candidates to members, in addition to the four Muslim Brothers who will be contesting council seats. "We will not be compiling a list of 12 names. We do not want to antagonise others and lose their votes as a result," he told the Weekly.

That the 12-member Press Council has long been divided between leftists and Islamists could play badly for El-Merghani and the Brotherhood. Many journalists are concerned that the syndicate has become preoccupied with political disputes at the expense of improving the conditions of the profession. Radi accepts such criticism, conceding "it is a mistake that the economic and professional challenges facing journalists have been overshadowed by political issues but this will change".

Nabil Zaki, former chief editor of the leftist Al-Ahaly, argues that the Press Syndicate is in danger of losing its identity as a professional union and instead become a political tool in the hands of whichever group happens to be in charge. "It is long overdue for the syndicate to shoulder its responsibility to upgrade professional standards," he says.

The majority of syndicate members make no more than LE500 a month. Many find themselves forced to contribute to several newspapers in order to survive, and as a result the quality of their work suffers. Pensions are low, and many journalists find that basic medical treatment is beyond their means once they retire.

"The debate between journalists is a healthy sign and indicates that they will not be manipulated by the organisations for which they work when it comes to casting their votes which, sadly, is something we have seen in the past," says former Press Syndicate chairman Kamel El-Zoheiri. "Journalists are at an important juncture and what they do now will determine the future."


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