(L) Abdul Mohsin Salama and (R) Yahya Qallash. Image Credit: Supplied

Cairo: Last November, Yahya Qallash, the outgoing head of Egypt’s Journalists Syndicate, was handed down a two-year sentence in prison after being convicted of sheltering wanted colleagues inside the union’s premises. Two aides to Qallash were given a similar sentence in the same case. While an appeals court has yet to rule on their challenges against the verdict, Qallash is standing for a second term in the union’s election slated for March 3.

In May last year, police raided the syndicate’s building in central Cairo and arrested two journalists wanted for organising unauthorised anti-government protests.

The unprecedented raid on the 75-year-old union sparked angry protests from journalists, but triggered divisions within the media community.

Pro-government journalists accused Qallash and the union’s then board of politicising the crisis and antagonising state institutions.

Qallash sees the situation differently.

“What the syndicate’s board did on May 4 was in defence of the syndicate’s dignity and law,” he contends.

“The storming of the syndicate was unprecedented. It required a collective stand not only from the chairman, but from all journalists,” he told Gulf News.

Qallash has no regrets about his handling of the May standoff.

“The crisis of the syndicate’s storming is now in the hands of the judiciary. I acted in defence of the syndicate. I am prepared to accept the consequence of this position. I don’t wait for a pardon or reconciliation.”

In 2015, Qallash, known for his leftist leanings, won as head of the independent union.

His tenure has been marred by tensions between the union and the government of President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi, who took office in mid-2014.

Al Sissi has on several occasions criticised the media for causing problems for Egypt by publishing what he said were inaccurate reports.

Qallash has repeatedly advocated freedom of the press and accused the government of violating the union’s independence.

“It is untrue that we have practised political polarisation or promoted a certain political agenda inside the syndicate. We have always called for respecting the law in the face of the law of force,” the 62-year-old journalist said. “The upcoming elections are unprecedented and exceptional.”

Six journalists, including Qallash, are vying for the union’s helm. His main rival is Abdul Mohsin Salama, a senior editor in the state-owned newspaper Al Ahram.

Salama has said he will focus on improving the financial and professional status of journalists if he is elected.

“As a leader, I’ll upgrade the profession and create better economic situation for the journalists,” he said.

Egypt has seen a spate of price rises since November when the government free-floated the local pound and cut the fuel subsidy as part of tough economic reforms. Inflation surged to 30 per cent in January, the highest in the country in more than a decade, according to official figures.

“Every effort should be made in order to ensure that journalists will not hit the poverty line,” Salama told a rally in Cairo.

“We [journalists] are hardly 10,000 in number, i.e. journalists do not equal the number of a company. Therefore, the main focus of the [union’s] chief should be solving their problems. Doing this not contradict freedoms and the syndicate’s dignity. There is a difference between managing the crisis and being part of the crisis,” he said in a veiled criticism of Qallash. “We are fighting a battle for survival.”

Salama, in his late fifties, lost a bid for the union’s presidency in 2013.

Some journalists have staked out their positions ahead of the Friday vote that also includes replacing half of the union’s board members.

Prominent journalist-cum-television host Ahmad Mousa last week announced on his night-time talk show unqualified backing for Salama.

“My nomination of Salama is aimed at cleansing the syndicate after it was hijacked by a certain political faction,” Mousa, a staunch government loyalist, said. “Salama is distinguished by his professionalism and patriotism.”

A group of mediapersons, calling themselves the National Movement for Journalists, has also backed Salama, saying that his election would represent a “lifeline for rescuing journalists and their syndicate.”

Other journalists disagree with this narrative, though.

“What is the value of journalism without freedom?” said Hatem Nasser, a freelancer. “The syndicate’s chairman and board did nothing wrong,” he told this newspaper, referring to the police raid on the union’s building last May.

“The two colleagues who took shelter in the syndicate were wanted just because they said they were against abandoning Tiran and Sanafir,” Nasser said, citing Egypt’s planned transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

“Freedom of opinion is at the heart of the crisis. It was the Interior Ministry, not the [union’s] chairman, who made a mistake by storming the syndicate and detaining the two journalists as if they were terrorists.”