Egypt’s journalist union has elected government critic Khaled Elbalshy as its head, amid years of government crackdown on the press and the systematic persecution of journalists.
“It’s a breath of hope,” said Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief of Mada Masr, an online newspaper among hundreds of news sites blocked by the authorities.
Elbalshy, editor-in-chief of Darb, a news outlet affiliated with the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, was elected on Friday with nearly half of the votes cast, the union said on Saturday.
In a country where political elections provide “no real representation”, the journalist union has decided that “there is no one who can represent us better than Khaled Elbalshy”, said Attalah, who is awaiting trial for “offending” pro-government lawmakers in August 2022.
In 2016, Elbalshy, then the union’s freedoms committee head, was detained along with the union’s chief in a police raid after two fugitive opposition reporters staged a sit-in at the union’s offices.
“It’s a historic day for Egyptian journalists, Khaled Elbalshy won more votes than the state-promoted candidate despite all his support,” journalist Rasha Azzab wrote on Twitter.
The liberal opposition Dostour party praised an election that embodies “the hope for change after years of being stifled under a monopoly”.
Around 20 journalists are currently languishing in prison and several await trial, according to the campaign group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
In September 2018, Attalah and three other Mada Masr journalists – Rana Mamdouh, Sara Seif Eddin and Beesan Kassab – were charged with slander and defamation, using social media to harass the government’s party members, and publishing false news intended to disturb the public peace and cause damage to the public interest.
Egypt was ranked 168 out of 180 countries on RSF’s 2022 press freedom index.
“Pluralism is essentially non-existent in Egypt,” RSF said, calling the country “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists”.
An estimated 65,000 political prisoners have been jailed since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, in 2013.
Egyptian prisons are notorious for cruel and inhumane conditions. Inmates across Egypt’s prisons have long reported abuses, including systemic torture and life-threatening conditions.