Cinema syndicate elections: Issues and politics

Walking past El-Salam Theatre on Qasr el-Aini street last Sunday afternoon, one might have been forgiven for presuming they got caught in the whirlwind of a local moulid procession. A dense balloon-dotted crowd, clapping and chanting names to the ear-piercing horns and vigorous percussion of a local shaabi band, spilt out of the theatre onto a sidewalk that was near-impossible to traverse. A closer look, however, would reveal numerous posters displaying faces and numbers, and observers would soon identify the cinema syndicate’s ongoing presidential election–the most heated, critical and competitive in the syndicate’s 60-year history–and the assembly as enthusiastic campaigners rallying support for their chosen candidates.

The proceedings leading up to election day began at least two months earlier, with the field eventually being narrowed down to six candidates vying for a position once held by industry luminaries (such as playwright Saad el-Dein Wahba): editor Adel el-Nadi, TV animation director Abdel Salam el-Ghoul, television director and syndicate treasurer Shoukri Abu Emeira, television director and syndicate secretary-general Mosaad Fouda, acclaimed film director Ali Badrakhan, and contemporary film director Khaled Youssef, who submitted his candidacy less than an hour before the deadline. Preoccupied with shooting a series, television director Ahmed Saqr bowed out of the race, he claimed, out of respect for Badrakhan.

Many of the issues at stake were obvious and already clearly outlined by union members. Over 80 percent of the syndicate’s 7000 plus members are without steady employment. Certain initiatives, some already underway and others in varying stages of development, were established in 1987–the last time the syndicate’s by-laws were reformulated into a draft yet to be approved by parliament because of repeated State interference. These include the establishment of a Nile-side social club and residential compound for members, actuating "judicial officers" to monitor production sites for proper permits and to ensure that union members are employed, as well as effectively collecting the one percent fee owed to them from all sold cinema and television productions. Strengthening the syndicate through increased affiliations with public and private production entities, establishing offices in the country’s major governorates, the formation of a website, and improving revenue generation through collaboration projects with the social development fund, establishing a satellite channel, and collecting shares from cinema ticket sales and filmed advertisements, are all ideas that have been previously proposed and made it onto most candidates’ campaign programmes. Other issues, such as how to achieve an adequate balance when employing foreign workers in local productions, would have to wait until the larger employment concerns were addressed.

Initially, local media wasted no time presenting the election as a popularity contest between the two more prestigious–and glamorous–candidates, filmmakers Badrakhan and Youssef. Encouraged by their youthful Higher Cinema Institute graduate supporters, each utilized their Facebook pages to promote their campaigns. With a following of over 1300 fans for Badrakhan and more than 2100 for Youssef, the two contestants managed to effectively sideline most of their competition. Controversy was courted by the media and rumors that Youssef was a bribed agent serving private sector interests were fanned. In a press conference held by Badrakhan at the Sawy Culturewheel on 13 February, the celebrated director admitted that he held a private meeting with Youssef where "certain parties" suggested one of them step down. Badrakhan noted that he "refused on principle." Youssef obtained an insufficient 364 votes last Sunday while Badrakhan secured 801.

Abu Emeira, who had successfully spearheaded a protest that impressively reduced television union workers’ unemployment from 85% to under 5% in March of last year, following the implementation of a January 2009 law that allowed producers from the private sector to collaborate on public television projects and hire cheaper non-union members, vowed to address the cinema syndicate’s employment concerns with the same ardor. He was also the only candidate who seemed capable of discussing specifics when pressed about the mechanisms he would utilize to generate revenue for the syndicate, citing by name the production companies with which he was negotiating affiliations, as well as sound projections of the net worth of the proposed syndicate satellite channel over the coming five years. It may be, however, that his strict stance that no director, cinematographer or editor from outside the union be allowed work, as well as his position that the LE400 per month pension scheme was sufficient, proved unpopular. He only managed to secure 87 votes, and his dreams of becoming the next syndicate president came to an end.

Fouda piqued voters’ interest with his campaign proposal to found an "artistic projects and scripts repository," intended to encourage and promote younger members’ projects, as well as protect their intellectual property rights by having the syndicate function as mediator with production companies through a proposed "artistic forum." But it was undoubtedly his years of diligent service to union members that earned him a striking lead in the poll last Sunday with 1050 votes. As Hisham Askar, member of the cinematography subdivision of the syndicate stated to Al-Masry Al-Youm, "Every time we go to the syndicate we don’t see anyone from the board of directors except Mosaad Fouda. That’s been the case ever since I joined the union over six years ago. If any issue arises, he’s the only one who picks up his phone." Union members who feared Badrakhan would isolate himself in an ivory tower, removed from workers’ day-to-day concerns, seemed to have already decided who was more worthy of their support. "I’m against anyone who says we need an impressive or recognizable ‘character’ that can address the authorities. We’re a trade union, we need someone who can serve us," said Askar.

Dwarfed by the accomplishments and clout of their competition, El-Ghoul and El-Nadi were hardly taken seriously as contenders, and their media appearances didn’t help their cases. Pit against each other in an installment of TV-station Nile Cinema’s special coverage of the event, many of their statements were nothing short of laughable. El-Ghoul said the idea of running for syndicate president came to him in "a vision," in which it was revealed to him that he must "think thoroughly first" before outlining a program. In a gross insult to the syndicate members’ intelligence, El-Nadi said he would refrain from announcing his campaign programme until a week before the elections "so that it would stay fresh in voters’ minds." Pressed as to why he still hadn’t produced a programme by election day, he said such a programme would be "an illusion" that he did not wish to perpetrate on his colleagues. El-Ghoul obtained 12 votes, and El-Nadi one vote. Many die-hard Badrakhan supporters insist the inclusion of these two contestants was a ploy designed by parties intent on fragmenting the vote away from their frontrunner candidate.

Since syndicate by-laws state that the winner must secure more than 50 percent of the total votes, the South Cairo Elementary Court ruled that a runoff election between Fouda and Badrakhan, the two contestants who secured the most votes, would be held on 28 February. In an exciting time, where many feel that over 20 years of dormancy can finally be shaken off to galvanize the syndicate into effecting genuine constructive change for its members, Badrakhan is now the clear favorite to become the institution’s next president, especially since both Youssef and Abu Emeira had previously announced they would encourage their supporters to back him if they dropped out of the race. And while the salt-of-the-earth work ethic of Fouda should not be underestimated, and may yet earn him a surprise upset victory, film director Ali Ragab expressed the sentiments of many when he addressed local media at El-Salam Theatre on Sunday: "I believe that if Ali Badrakhan wins and assumes the role of syndicate president he’ll fight to make sure sure the [1987 draft] of syndicate by-laws are approved by parliament, and [State officials] will not be able to stand in his way… [Badrakhan] is known to be a revolutionary."

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