Egypt’s much-vaunted National Dialogue was officially launched on 3 May 2023 and lasted until 22 June, with the broad theme ‘The Path to the New Republic’ and the sub-heading ‘Shared Spaces’, suggesting a political openness to interact with opposition forces; a rarity since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2014.
In the face of persistent criticism of Egypt’s human rights record, Sisi initially announced plans for the national dialogue in late 2021 after nearly a decade of political stagnation and with the country facing a severe economic crisis.
This followed the failed economic and financial policies pursued by the government over the past decade. The halt of Gulf assistance, pivotal in backing the regime in its early years, has compounded these difficulties.
In the run-up to the dialogue’s launch, Sisi carried out a number of preparatory measures such as reactivating the “presidential pardon committee” – a body set up in 2016 to advocate for the release of political prisoners, and a “national dialogue board of trustees”, with Diaa Rashwan appointed coordinator.
“In the face of persistent criticism of Egypt’s human rights record, Sisi initially announced plans for the national dialogue in late 2021 after nearly a decade of political stagnation and with the country facing a severe economic crisis”
Wide range of participants – bar the Muslim Brotherhood
Thirty-one sessions were held during the “dialogue” in which various issues, split between political, economic, and social, were discussed by a wide range of participants including regime figures, party representatives, union leaders, human rights organisation leaders and public figures.
Opposition figures long barred from politics were invited to participate in the dialogue, including some well-known individuals who took part in the January 25 revolution. However, anyone affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood has been pointedly excluded.
The “Civil Democratic Movement” bloc was at the forefront of the opposition groups who agreed to participate in the dialogue, “subject” to several conditions, first and foremost the release of political prisoners.
Egypt’s National Dialogue has been launched against the backdrop of an acute economic crisis and declining international support [Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty]
Political prisoners – a sticking point
While the regime did not object to discussing this issue, extensive arrest campaigns targeting activists and politicians continued throughout the span of the dialogue. Likewise, the presidential pardon committee has remained inactive, with only a small number of political prisoners released. Critics have pointed out the impossibility of achieving reform in such an atmosphere.
The lack of trust is increased by the regime’s insistence on not resolving the political prisoners issue, either by releasing them, or repealing the pretrial detention law in place since 2013, under which tens of thousands of Egyptians are estimated to be held.
With upcoming presidential elections due in February 2024, it appears the regime is keen to instil the sense that change – or potential for change – is underway, and that the country’s crises are surmountable. This may be a prelude to Sisi presenting himself for the third time as the best option for leader to take Egypt forward.
However, some see the dialogue instead as a propaganda exercise aimed predominantly at foreign powers who have become increasingly reluctant to openly support the regime in light of its failures and deepening crises.
“With upcoming presidential elections due in February 2024, it appears the regime is keen to instil the sense that change – or potential for change – is underway”
The stance of the rejectors
The regime’s opponents who refused to take part in the dialogue highlighted irreconcilable differences which prevent them even engaging with the regime. These included their visions on how the country should be governed, and what the priorities of any solution would be.
They made it clear that due to the government’s intransigence the dialogue would be more akin to a “dialogue of the deaf” where the government would present its views, the opposition would present theirs, and in the end no resolution would be put forward. The lack of common ground would also stop goals from becoming results, according to them.
They also insisted on the release of political detainees. The regime’s persistence in its policies of suppression and mass incarceration reflects its conviction that keeping these individuals detained is necessary for its stability. However, its opponents view these policies as a major cause of its instability.
Sisi’s irritation at the opposition’s focus on prisoners, freedoms, and democracy during the dialogue was clear when he stated that he wanted “people to understand that the country’s crisis lay in non-political matters and to realise that democracy and elections won’t solve the problems”.
Acting as though the stability of the Egyptian state somehow depends on the denial of human rights reflects an entrenched conviction of the regime and an awareness that the interests of Western states will push them to make “pragmatic” choices, such as pausing their demands that human rights be respected. Moreover, the regime has long brandished issues like “terrorism” and “illegal migration” to guarantee continued Western support, or at least their silence.
“The regime’s persistence in its policies of suppression and mass incarceration reflects its conviction that keeping these individuals detained is necessary for its stability”
The three no’s dialogue and its horizons
Other issues discussed were linked to ongoing and urgent crises. However, some issues were not up for discussion – the “three no’s” which Rashwan announced in the opening session; no tampering with the existing constitution and fully complying with all its provisions; no discussion of foreign policy in any context, and no discussion of “strategic national security”, whose “management” was “the remit of the army” according to Rashwan.
These restrictions seem to have been a way of limiting opposition demands, and they grew during the dialogue sessions. For example, it was subsequently made clear that criticising the Egyptian parliament also wasn’t allowed.
Many opposition figures held onto their arguments for reform, despite these obstacles. They continued to attend and engage in the sessions, where they focused on specific demands, particularly those related to political reform.
The upcoming presidential election was a major focus – many opposition figures see it as a potential starting point to open up the political arena, demonstrate the government’s seriousness about reform, and initiate the promised new phase.
For example, some participants stressed the need to amend the National Elections Authority law to ensure that full judicial oversight will continue in the coming elections (judicial oversight is due to expire).
The opposition has also proposed the “absolute closed list” electoral system for the parliamentary elections be replaced with a proportional lists system, which they say is needed to expand political representation, unlike the closed list system which generates a parliament dominated by large blocs which support the regime.
This suggestion is fiercely opposed by regime supporters.
No conclusion was reached by the end of the 31 dialogue sessions, but Rashwan promised that differing opinions would be raised to President Sisi. This implies that a supposed party to the dialogue will also be the judge: it will be up to him to accept or reject the recommendations reached.
“The regime seems to be wavering between the necessity of dialogue – continuing to suppress divergent opinions and close public spaces is unsustainable – and its fear that engaging in dialogue with its opponents within Egypt could embolden them to overstep the regime’s ‘red lines'”
The 31 rounds of the national dialogue so far haven’t succeeded in generating a consensus on how to navigate Egypt’s crises. In view of the regime’s continuing policies of repression and obstruction as well as the opposition’s weakness, expectations have not been high.
The opposition itself is deeply divided on many issues, and does not appear to have a clear vision on next steps, or how useful continuing the dialogue will be. What the possible outcomes might be (if any) remain unclear – closed sessions are currently being held to discuss these.
The regime seems to be wavering between the necessity of dialogue – continuing to suppress divergent opinions and close public spaces is unsustainable – and its fear that engaging in dialogue with its opponents within Egypt could embolden them to overstep the regime’s “red lines”.
The regime has made a huge effort to establish these through unprecedented levels of repression, for which it has been heavily criticised.
Source : The New Arab