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Cablegate: Egypt's Press Syndicate Elections

VZCZCXYZ0000
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHEG #3299 3241551
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 201551Z NOV 07
FM AMEMBASSY CAIRO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 7492
INFO RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC

UNCLAS CAIRO 003299

SIPDIS

SIPDIS
SENSITIVE

NSC STAFF FOR WATERS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: KPAO PGOV PHUM EG
SUBJECT: EGYPT'S PRESS SYNDICATE ELECTIONS

REF: A. CAIRO 2825

B. CAIRO 2896
C. CAIRO 2982

Sensitive but unclassified. Please protect accordingly.

1. (SBU) Summary: Against a backdrop of recent government
actions seen as restricting press freedom (reftels), Egyptian
journalists from across the political spectrum competed for
leadership positions in Egypt's November 17 Press Syndicate
elections. Judges supervising the election certified Makram
Mohamed Ahmed, editor-in-chief of the state-owned al-Musawer
magazine, as the winner of the race for chairman. Twelve
journalists, the majority associated with state-owned
publications, won seats on the syndicate's board of
directors. The results signal a shift away from a syndicate
leadership controlled by independent journalists who view the
syndicate as a vehicle for political grand-standing, to
journalists associated with the government and more focused
on professional issues. End summary.

2. (SBU) Although the campaign focused on a number of
issues, including the plight of journalists currently facing
prison sentences (Ref. A), issues of pay and the syndicate's
role ultimately held sway. Chairman-elect Ahmed, widely
viewed as the government-backed candidate, announced shortly
before the election that he had succeeded in securing from
the Prime Minister a pay raise for state journalists. During
the campaign, Ahmed pledged to "depoliticize" the syndicate,
which in recent years had come under the influence of
Islamists and Nasserists and has taken political (often
anti-American) stances on issues. (Note: The influence of
the Islamists and Nasserists was evident last spring, after
the Embassy's Press Attache was invited to speak to the
syndicate. The invitation quickly became a political issue
within the syndicate, with some members citing it as an
example of "foreign interference" and warning of violence if
the Press Attache tried to speak at the syndicate.
Ultimately, the Press Attache canceled his appearance. End
note.)

3. (U) Out of the 5100 votes cast, Ahmed reportedly received
approximately 1000 more votes than his closest rival, Ragaai
El-Merghani, managing editor of the state-owned Middle East
News Agency. El-Merghani campaigned on a platform of
"protecting the syndicate from foreign influence." He also
pledged to maintain the syndicate's role as a venue for
political discourse.

4. (SBU) Seven of the twelve new board members write for
state-owned publications. The five independent journalist
include three affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and two
Nasserists. Together with Chairman-elect Ahmed, the seven
state-affiliated members are expected to focus on
professional issues, including pay, pensions, and eligibility
for membership. Their anticipated agenda will contrast with
that of the previous board, which was controlled by
independent journalists, four affiliated with the Muslim
Brotherhood, three viewed as Nasserists, and one described as
a "leftist." Under the previous board, and former syndicate
chairman Galal Aref, a Nasserist, the syndicate became a
venue for political discussion and anti-government
demonstrations.

5. (SBU) Comment: Egyptian journalists are not well paid (on
average, they reportedly earn LE 500 per month, or
approximately $92) and often write for more than one
publication. Assuming the elections were fair, and we have no
reason to believe otherwise, the promise of a pay increase,
and perhaps future improvements in working conditions,
appears to have resonated more strongly with journalists than
the prospect of the syndicate's continued aggressive
political involvement. Moreover, some syndicate members
believe the focus on politics in recent years came at the
expense of the syndicate's traditional role of advancing the
interests of the profession. The shift in leadership
represents an opportunity to strengthen USG engagement with
the syndicate, as the new leadership is familiar with, and
hopefully will be more receptive to, USG outreach and
programming.

RICCIARDONE

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