Egypt’s National Dialogue: Honest reconciliation attempts or a PR stunt?

By Abir Sorour
Posted on Monday, 30 May 2022 18:08

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi meets at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, August 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi meets at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, August 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Following the ousting of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the room for the opposition under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has become tighter. However, could the upcoming National Dialogue proposed by Sisi help reconcile the government and the opposition, or is it merely a tactic to boost Egypt's reputation in the international community? 

The move for dialogue was initiated on 26 April during a Ramadan Iftar event where Sisi announced that the National Training Academy (NTA) would be responsible for coordinating the ensuing discussions. In his announcement, Sisi said: “Difference in opinions is allowed and should not ruin the national cause.”

Political parties loyal to Sisi have welcomed the initiative, describing it as an advancement and victory for the government.

Hazem Omar, leader of the pro-state Republican People’s Party, says the National Dialogue is a “golden opportunity to unite the national front to confront all the economic and political challenges”.

“We need this to take place to reunite the internal front against foreign plots, external and internal challenges, polarisation,” says the pro-state politician, who has ties to the now-dissolved National Democratic party. “It will show the world that despite having suffered political turmoil and terrorism in the last 10 years, Egypt can have a healthy democratic debate.”

However, some critics see the dialogue as a political stunt by the government to improve its image before the international committee, especially after the latest suspected torture of the known Egyptian economist and researcher Ayman Hadoud, and the continued detention of Egyptian-British activist Alaa Abdel Fattah.

A senior member of the Revolutionary Socialists, one of the political groups that spearheaded the opposition after 2011, tells The Africa Report that the “current regime wants to whitewash its crimes by selectively conversing with some politicians with no promise of accountability of violations done by the police and the military in the last years”.

“The government wants to make a carnival to show the world that we have a democracy, while the regime has its fingerprints on many crimes against the people and continues to arrest, torture, and detain Egyptians,” says the Revolutionary Socialist member.

Who will run the show?

The NTA is one of the youth organisations that officially falls under the auspices of the Egyptian presidency. It was created by the country’s arguably most important security apparatus, the General Intelligence Services (GIS).

The details of the dialogue have not been yet announced, but a security source tells The Africa Report that the NTA will run the show in strict coordination with “executive bodies to assure the dialogue will be a source of constructive and national suggestions and steps”.

The dialogue can allow the restoration of the plurality of voices in Egypt, to know how to agree and how to disagree

The security source adds that “some red lines are not to be crossed, such as: the Tira. n and Sanafir Islands [controversially given to Saudi Arabia], direct criticism of the military and the president, police brutality and violations, and the counterterrorism operations in North Sinai”.

In a statement, the NTA said “a joint, impartial committee of intellectuals and opinion makers will be formed with the task of compiling the outcomes of the national dialogue through its various sessions in a unified preliminary document agreed upon by all [participating] forces, which will be later submitted to the president”.

The NTA has already opened its doors for the public to register for the dialogue.

Who will be ‘allowed’ to participate?

According to our source, “national opposition means individuals who have different opinions than that of the current decisions makers, but they neither advocate violence, holding arms, or foreign intervention,” adding that they “are aware of the economic and global challenges that the Egyptian state is going through like terrorism, the Ukraine crisis, and the GERD file”.

It is expected that from the talks there will be appointment of “different voices within the advisors of the executive branches, forming committees to revisit some controversial laws”, and to increase the presence of what they describe as “national opposition, as well as release [of] prisoners”, says the security source.

During the Iftar event where Sisi announced the talks, he included the names of known (and formerly jailed) opposition figures, such as MP and filmmaker Khaled Youssef; Nassierst politician Hamden Sabahi; and journalist and politician Khaled Dawoud. All are centre-left middle-aged men, who have directly criticised the state on several occasions, but rarely called for radical changes. The talks will however not include younger leftists, liberal and political activists, human rights defenders, researchers, feminists, lawyers, or journalists who are vocal critics of the government’s economic, foreign, and security policies.

Despite such limitations, several groups, figures, and syndicates have welcomed the initiatives and are hoping for real results.

Former presidential candidate and Popular Current party leader Hamdeen Sabbahi says he will not miss any chance to push for opportunities to overcome current problems, even if the chances of concrete change are slim. Speaking to The Africa Report, he says the benefits of participating far outweigh those of boycotting.

“The dialogue can allow the restoration of the plurality of voices in Egypt, to know how to agree and how to disagree,” he says, but adds that in order “for the dialogue to succeed, it has to be organised by the presidency which is a condition that we voiced”.

Release of prisoners ahead of the Dialogue?

Following the announcement of the talks, some 50 political prisoners, including activists, researchers, and journalists were released, a step that was praised and considered a positive sign.

Sabbahi says the dialogue should be preceded by the release of more prisoners. “Prisoners of conscience should not wait […] until the end of the dialogue [to be released].”

Thousands of mothers, fathers, wives, and sons are waiting for the return of their loved ones

Political groups say they hope more prisoners, especially those held in pretrial detention, those involved in politically related cases, or those whose detention has surpassed two years will be released.

Tariq Khouli, a member of the Presidential Pardon Committee that was created to look into requests to release prisoners from detention – tells The Africa Report that the committee is part of the National Dialogue and is looking into the status of prisoners, but “only individuals who have not participated in violent acts or killed military personnel or civilians will be considered”.

Khouli, who is a MP with the majority pro-state Nation’s Future party, says: “Members of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood group or any other prisoners who carried weapons against Egyptians will not be on any lists.”

Egypt staged a massive crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, designating the group as a terrorist entity, prisoning its members, and killing and arresting hundreds of its followers. The government holds the group responsible for any militant attack or political upheaval.

What does the opposition want?

The opposition, several human rights groups, and the Civil Democratic Movement (an alliance of liberal parties created in 2017), have published different demands ahead of the dialogue. These include:

  • An equal number of participants between the government and the opposition;
  • Ensuring the following six issues top the agenda:
    • political reform and democratic transformation;
    • economic reform and social justice;
    • legislative and institutional reform;
    • human rights and public freedom;
    • national security and national interests;
    • deepening citizenship and combatting discrimination.
  • A time frame for the Pardon committee’s work should be created, along with the announcement of a special headquarters for the committee where families can present their requests to have their loved ones released;
  • Amnesty for all political cases, such as those accused in cases of publishing false news and misuse of social media, demonstrating, and gathering;
  • Amnesty for those who have prison sentences and are now under police probation;
  • Preventing and criminalising the arrest of the families of wanted persons as a tool for blackmail and revenge, along with their immediate release;
  • Amnesty for those who did not carry arms or were accused of any acts of violence, killing, wounding or damaging property;
  • Amnesty for detainees sentenced in a military court on political charges;
  • Investigation into incidents of torture, and an evaluation process of judicial rulings issued since 24 July 2013 in all political cases;
  • An end to revoking Egyptian nationality as a punitive tool to alleged dissidents.

Why is dialogue important now?

Away from the political lobbies and the headquarters of political parties, thousands of families hope this macro-political reconciliation might result in one goal: the release of political detainees and the retrial of violence-related cases during protests.

64-year-old Um Ahmed says her son Ahmed Mohamed was arrested in 2019 September during the mass protests that took place in the country. He remains in jail on pre-trial arrest.

“We keep checking the news every day hoping his name will be there. I am sure thousands of mothers, fathers, wives, and sons are waiting for the return of their loved ones.”

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