CAIRO // The topic may be the stairs outside the journalists syndicate's headquarters in Cairo, a kind of Hyde Park for Egyptians, where protesters and activists have gathered to air political, economic and social grievances. But like many topics in Egypt, the real subject is the government and its relationship with people who oppose it. Almost 5,600 members of the journalists syndicate can vote for their director on Sunday. Makram Mohamed Ahmad, 76, is the pro-government incumbent. His main challenger is Diaa Rashwan, 50, who is running as an independent under a slogan of "youth and change".
The elections have highlighted the union's internal divisions and mirror disagreements between pro-government and opposition forces Egypt generally. "The syndicate should go back to play its original role of safeguarding journalism as a profession, instead of being a home of political divisions, sometimes playing the role of political parties, other times undertaking the role of the judiciary and that of the foreign ministry," said Abdel Moneim Saeed, chairman of the board of Al Ahram, Egypt's oldest and largest state-owned daily newspaper.
"To tell the truth, there has been improvement lately of 'regaining' the stairs of the syndicate, which were hijacked by protest movements that were trying to gain legitimacy to their demands," he added. Those who would return the syndicate to the way it was before Mr Ahmad was elected two years ago argue the opposite. "Mr Ahmad managed to hijack the syndicate for the regime and he went on threatening anyone who thinks about having a protest on the syndicate's stairs, the last hope of the poor to express their inner feelings of oppression and frustration," wrote Tarek Radwan, a columnist for the opposition daily newspaper Al Dostor.
The syndicate headquarters, built in 1941, was closed for renovation for a few years in the 1990s. It was officially opened again in 2001. The black marbled stairs became the stage for several major protests. It has become the venue where protesters meet whenever prevented from protesting anywhere else; author signings are held there for books against the regime. "I'm - not the government's nominee, but I refuse turning the syndicate into an arena to insult the president," Mr Ahmad said recently. "I'm neither pro-government nor pro-normalisation [with Israel]. The government never let me down," he said in a boast that he can get things done because of the relationship.
Yet that relationship does not sit well with some journalists. "We need to get rid of the idea that we need a pro-government syndicate director to act as a mediator for us," said Hani Salah Eddin of the independent weekly newspaper Al Youm Al Sabea. "During his four terms as a head of the syndicate, Makram's close ties with the government didn't solve journalists' problems; besides, it's time to emphasise to the regime that the syndicate is not for sale and will remain a citadel for freedom."
Mr Ahmad, who started his career as a military correspondent more than half a century ago, is the former editor of the state-owned weekly Al Mussawar and is now a columnist with Al Ahram. He survived an assassination attempt in 1987 for some articles he wrote against terrorism in Egypt. He is controversial because he occasionally travels to Israel for work. This is anathema to most Egyptian journalists, however, who consider such visits "normalisation", a vague term referring to the political and cultural relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbours, particularly Egypt and Jordan.
Journalists should elect him because of his long history, not "to seek the blessings of the Muslim Brotherhood or others", Mr Ahmad told el Mehwar, a private Egyptian television channel. The Brotherhood is Egypt's largest opposition group despite its outlaw status. Ali al Din Helal, the chairman of the media committee in the ruling National Democratic Party, threatened recently that the party will intervene in the forthcoming syndicate elections by supporting a candidate in case of the "interference of illegitimate forces".
Some state-owned publications have referred to Mr Rashwan, Mr Ahmad's challenger, as having close ties with the Brotherhood. Mr Rashwan is a prominent expert on Islamic movements and internal Egyptian politics at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. He is a columnist for several newspapers, including the independent daily Al Sherouk. "This is nonsense; all journalists know I'm a Nasserite," Mr Rashwan said in an interview, referring to the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser, under whom Egypt adopted nationalist and socialist policies.
"I'm the candidate of independents and change. With all due respect to Mr Ahmad and his generation, it's time for them to rest, and give a chance to me and younger generations," he said. Mr Rashwan vowed to try to annul a law that allows journalists to be imprisoned for publishing offences, to improve journalists' wages and to protect their rights. In a meeting with Mr Ahmad, the Egyptian prime minister, on Wednesday, Ahmed Nazif, expressed the government's readiness to help journalists develop professional skills and improve their financial situations. Some here have said such promises are a sign the government might be inclined to support to Mr Ahmad in his re-election campaign.
"Why now? Makram has been at the helm of the syndicate for so many years, why such promises now, which don't take place after he's elected?" said a journalist who did not wish to disclose his name. "Is the prime minister going to meet all the candidates and make similar pledges to them?" firstname.lastname@example.org