CAIRO - Egypt's journalist union said Saturday it had elected government critic Khaled Elbalshy as its head, amid a crackdown on the press with several reporters languishing in jail.

"It's a breath of hope," said Lina Atalah, editor-in-chief of Mada Masr, an online newspaper among hundreds of news sites blocked by the authorities.

Elbalshy, editor of the blocked Darb news site, was elected on Friday with nearly half of the votes cast, the union said.

In a country where "there is no real representation" from elections, for the journalist union "there is no one who can represent us better than Khaled Elbalshy," Atalah said on Twitter.

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".

While Egypt's 2014 constitution guarantees freedom of the press, the country has around 20 journalists behind bars according to campaign group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and is regularly criticised for its human rights record.

Three Mada Masr journalists - which publishes investigations into matters involving security and corruption - are currently awaiting trial for "offending" pro-government lawmakers in August 2022.

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 North African nation "one of the world's biggest prisons for journalists".