Since Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi took office nearly nine years ago, placing all forms of media under total state control has been a top priority. Sisi has repeatedly affirmed that media has a crucial role in shaping public opinion in support of his ambitious project to rebuild Egypt, and that negative coverage only divides the nation and weakens public morale, dubbing this “the fourth-generation war.”
These presidential directives have been translated into the expansion of state control over both government and privately owned media, whether print, television, or radio. Security agencies have also cracked down on journalists and private citizens expressing anti-government views, placing hundreds in jail in pre-trial detention and blocking nearly 600 local, Arab, and international news and human rights websites. Overall, Egypt ranked 168th in press freedoms out of 180 countries, according to NGO Reporters Without Borders, whose website is among those blocked in Egypt.
So when seasoned opposition journalist Khaled el-Balshy narrowly won the Egyptian Press Syndicate (EPS) election on March 17 with slightly more than 50% of the vote, it was considered a major surprise, and provided a glimmer of hope for weakened opponents that they could still challenge the heavy-handed tactics of the state. Three opposition journalists also won seats on the Syndicate’s board, providing Balshy with a stronger footing to work on achieving his goals.
Balshy, the editor of the blocked news website Darb who was put on trial and sentenced to a suspended one-year prison term in 2016 for his alleged role in anti-government protests, was competing against Khaled Miri, editor-in-chief of daily pro-government newspaper Al-Akhbar, as his main opponent in the EPS election.
In concert with the state’s dominance over the media, the post of head of the EPS has traditionally been occupied by a pro-government journalist since the mid-1950s. Before the March 17 election, Diaa Rashwan, who is also director of the State Information Service, and therefore the state’s key propaganda bureaucracy, headed the EPS for four years.
Perhaps one of the key reasons why the state’s candidate, Miri, lost the election was that concerned security agencies considered his victory an inevitable slam dunk. With all major newspapers under state control, employing a large majority of the 10,000 journalists who make up the EPS membership eligible to vote, candidates supported by the state have traditionally won elections, with a few, rare exceptions.
As the regime’s favorite, Miri was treated generously by fellow editors of state-owned newspapers, and his statements were covered daily in print. In contrast, several campaign meetings that were scheduled with Balshy were cancelled at the last minute, and the same editors of state-owned newspapers would not appear with him in photos.
All state-owned television stations ignored Balshy as well, as if he were not even a candidate, giving airtime to lengthy interviews with Miri only. In one TV show on the channel ExtraNews, owned by Egypt’s biggest media conglomerate, United Media Services (UMS), which in turn is controlled by the state, the presenter hosted Miri along with half a dozen newspaper editors, declaring that he was the only candidate in the Syndicate elections worth hosting because he was the editor-in-chief of the “prominent” Al-Akhbar.
With reported links to Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, UMS owns 14 television channels, five radio stations, and 10 newspapers and news websites, along with 40 companies involved in activities including drama production, advertising, public relations, and presidential event organization.
Such overplayed confidence that Miri would win the vote probably provoked many journalists, who felt that they were being taken for granted as part of the overall control of the media by the state. Miri took apparent pride in being the state’s candidate, announcing at the beginning of his campaign that he had succeeded in reaching an agreement with the prime minister to increase the monthly allowance the state pays to EPS members by E£600, which is less than $20. Aside from the fact that the rise was minimal compared to the soaring inflation that has followed the repeated devaluation of the local currency, the announcement was also seen as a bribe to push members to vote for Miri.
Meanwhile, Balshy, known as a leftist opposition journalist, led a meticulous campaign to win over EPS members who strongly doubted that the security agencies would allow him to win. Lacking financial resources anywhere close to those of Miri, he was unable to print hundreds of huge banners to cover the headquarters of the EPS or various newspapers, as his opponent did. Instead, he toured nearly every newspaper office on foot to meet with journalists and explain his stance, shaking hands warmly and listening to them.
Equally importantly, he had the support of dozens of young reporters, both women and men, who strongly believed that Egypt’s media had reached its worst state in decades, and that a change was very much needed. Many of those young reporters had started their careers in their early 20s shortly after Egypt’s Jan. 25, 2011 revolution that ended 30 years of the late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Hoping that the revolution would be a turning point towards a credible, open, and free media after decades of being considered a state propaganda tool, their hopes had been largely dashed, and many ended up jobless.
For the older generation of journalists, the disappointment was even greater, considering that the press currently has even less freedom than it did during Mubarak’s time in office. After the army led a coup against the monarchy in 1952, President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized all privately owned newspapers, and adopted the socialist model of the former Soviet Union, in which the media’s role was to promote the goals and policies of the state. Subsequent Presidents Anwar Sadat and Mubarak oversaw continued state control over the media, while allowing what was known as a “narrow margin of freedom” for opponents of the ruling regime to express their views.
After Sisi took office in June 2014, he said that he envied Nasser for having placed all of the media under his control, and gradually he achieved the same, ending Mubarak’s so-called margin of freedom. The security agencies strongly believed that even the controlled freedoms allowed under Mubarak, especially in the media and social media, were among the key contributors to his downfall in early 2011.
Restoring the credibility of the EPS and its historical role in defending basic freedoms in Egypt — freedom of speech uppermost among them — was a priority item on Balshy’s agenda. So too were demanding the release of imprisoned journalists and enacting laws that guarantee the free flow of information instead of the current tight control by the state and existing laws that punish journalists with prison if they publish information not released by government agencies.
Minutes after announcing his victory, Balshy headed with dozens of his supporters to the stairs at the entrance of the EPS building to celebrate. The stairs are famous for being the site of many anti-Mubarak rallies before 2011, along with those of the nearby Lawyers Syndicate building. In 2019 Rashwan announced a plan to renew the building’s front, and for four years, the stairs were covered with plastic sheets with the clear aim of preventing them being used for anti-government protests.
The sheets were removed only a few days before the election in March, in an attempt by Miri, who has been an elected EPS board member for eight years, to claim that the building will actively be back in business. Yet the journalists’ choice of Balshy to be the head of their Syndicate for the next two years gave Miri’s opponent and many dissatisfied Egyptian journalists a rare chance to celebrate.
Khaled Dawoud is the deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly and former president of the social-liberal Dostour Party.
Photo by MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP via Getty Images
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