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Egypt’s press syndicate comes ‘back to life’

When Israel began bombing Gaza on October 7, Egyptian journalists draped a Palestinian flag on the front door of their syndicate to express solidarity with a besieged population. Inside, they hung pictures of 60 Palestinian journalists killed by Israel on their walls to honour them.

“All mobilisation creates an area surrounding it that opens spaces to other movements everywhere,” Khaled El-Balshy, the elected syndicate head, told Al Jazeera. “Therefore, any mobilisation, any possibility for space, it’s a mobilisation that we must stand for. The role of the syndicate is to try to create a safe space for expression.”

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Egypt has had a tricky relationship with its journalists, ranking 166 out of 180 in 2023 according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

A near-constant tight grip on the press in the past decades is said by RSF to have tightened even more under current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who has been in power for 10 years. According to RSF, under el-Sisi media workers have been arrested wholesale and hundreds of websites have been blocked.

In 2016, security forces went into the syndicate in violation of the law to arrest two journalists who had arrest warrants against them, reportedly for their activity in opposition to Egypt handing over two of its Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. “After 2016, the regime decided to control the syndicate and made a plan to control all medias,” Mohamad Issa*, a member of the syndicate, told Al Jazeera.

“[The government] bought a lot of independent news’ platforms, they forced other platforms to sell their organisations to them, they decreased journalists’ salaries…it was a strategy to control media platforms and their workers,” he added.

El-Sisi has claimed that an open and vibrant press risks publishing “fake news” that threatens the national security of Egypt and other Arab countries. He has also said that state media outlets play an important role in “spreading awareness” about Egypt’s ongoing fight against armed violence.

But critics say that under el-Sisi the syndicate changed from a lively space for debate to an administrative building that discouraged gathering. “For seven years we were frozen. [The government] even took the chairs out of the building. There was no space for the journalists to sit, nor events and not even meetings for the council itself to discuss issues the journalists were having,” Issa said.

Then, after El-Bashy had a surprise victory and became syndicate head in March 2022, things started to change and the syndicate began to regain some of its traditional lustre as a launchpad for political and social mobilisation. The veteran journalist has worked for independent and opposition outlets such as the prominent al-Dustur or the leftist daily al-Badil. “We have now come back to life,” he said.

A straightforward victory

When El-Balshy ran to head the syndicate, he ran against a candidate widely seen as supported by the government, which doubled members’ surprise when he won.“It was a victory for the opposition, but not a defeat for the government,” El-Balshy told Al Jazeera. “It revealed that when the people work in a democratic framework, they can bring a person with whom they are satisfied and, in the end, maybe we all win.”

Hossam El-Hamalawy, Egyptian journalist and scholar-activist wrote for the Arab Reform Initiative that El-Balshy won against a government-backed candidate “without raising any overt anti-el-Sisi or anti-regime slogans”, and rather “asserted he was running to reclaim the syndicate as a safe space for journalists to organise in defence of their rights”.

Under his watch, the syndicate has hosted weekly protests calling for the global community to hold Israel accountable for its atrocities in Gaza. Journalists have also called on their government to allow the syndicate’s Convoy of Conscience initiative – which aims to cross from Egypt into Gaza via Rafah to provide much-needed aid to desperate civilians. While the convoy still has not received security clearance, the ongoing activism in the syndicate has inspired and attracted many journalists.

But El-Bashy remains acutely aware that he needs to channel the enthusiasm into issues that will maintain widespread support.

History of activism

Over the last month, the syndicate has hosted demonstrations in support of Palestinians, invited Palestinian figures and activists to speak and called for medics, journalists and activists to enter Gaza through its Convoy of Conscience.

The syndicate made its voice heard in support of Palestine during the second Intifada at the end of the year 2000 and in opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A year later, it participated in the Kefaya (Enough) protests which saw unions and civil society groups call on then-President Hosni Mubarak to expand civil space.

“When the government restricts politics at the level of political parties, politics slips in and finds its way in other forms; and the professional syndicates were the arenas where the different political parties and social forces could mobilise or try to gain more margin for organising under authoritarianism,” El-Hamalawy said.

“There are always compromises and a give-and-take when it comes to the margins of freedom of expression and organisation,” he added.

“We used to always say that if we have a ceiling, we have to try to reach it and stay there. Maybe it grows a little at a time until the space widens,” El-Balshy explains. “I decided to … reach the ceiling and try to push it higher.”

Issa is happy to see the space widen. He feels solidarity with Palestine has helped revive a feeling of collectiveness that seemed to have been lost.

“It was helpful for people to go back to the streets again and reconnect … It encouraged even ‘ordinary’ people to go out, making us realise that we are not just a few, we are thousands, and we just needed a moment to go back.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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