Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Egypt: Presidential National Dialogue in a Stagnant Political Environment

Egypt: Presidential National Dialogue
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a meeting with his Belarus’ counterpart in Minsk on June 18, 2019. VASILY FEDOSENKO / POOL / AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

In a lake of politically stagnant water, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi threw a stone by launching a presidential initiative for national dialogue. This dialogue is the first of its kind since he came to power and ousted President Mohamed Morsi.

On the Egyptian Family Iftar, Sisi decided to assign “the management of the National Youth Conference (NYC) to conduct a political dialogue. In coordination with all youth movements and political parties, the NYC has to prioritize a national action during the current stage and to submit the results of this dialogue to Sisi himself. In this context, Sisi promised to attend these dialogues in their final stages.

Presidential Assignment

This assignment came among the 13 points that the President talked about in his speech. He considered that “the New Republic is a modern, democratic, civil state that accommodates all its children and seeks peace, construction, and development.”

In his speech, the Egyptian president did not miss the opportunity to invite “all concerned agencies and civil society institutions to launch a platform for dialogue through the NADCW, the Ministry of Social Solidarity, and the National Council for Human Rights to provide support for civil and community work and propose the necessary legislative amendments so as to facilitate community work and serve the objectives of the state in achieving sustainable development.”

He also announced “reactivating the work of the Presidential Pardon Committee, which was formed as one of the outcomes of the NYC.” He also expressed immense joy for the recent release of a batch of prisoners.

Suddenly, Sisi became open to criticism. He no longer sees what people say on social media as complete nonsense.

The president once introduced himself as the remedy to all problems in Egypt. However, this time, he did not ask the Egyptians to only listen to his words or “stop the nonsense.” Instead, he forwent the sarcasm and replaced it with a mild language, rallying the crowds through patriotism.

Also, Sisi stopped using provocative language. Instead, he needed the courtesy to launch his dialogue initiative that aims to include everyone, excluding “rogues with blood on their hands.”

Thus, it was a surprise to everyone when the president changed his stance, stressing that “the nation has to accommodate everyone” and “agree to disagree.”

Astrologers, scared, and patriots have picked up Sisi’s words. However, they were understood based on whether it conforms to their beliefs or fits their agenda.

Political prisoners

The New Republic that Sisi seeks to inaugurate requires a new stage and faces that are not overused. Therefore, different terms, perhaps glamorous in the media, resonate with public opinion united under the weight of the economic crisis that affected everyone, but he alone pays the price.

However, analysts considered the Egyptian authorities’ release of about 40 detained prisoners on the 24th of April, 2022, as “evidence that they were intended mainly to deflect domestic and international criticism.” According to these analysts, “Egypt’s international partners should recognise publicly that piecemeal releases do not indicate an end to the extensive repression practised by the current government.”

In a report issued by Human Rights Watch, the release of many prisoners was dependent on activists remaining silent and refraining from criticising the authorities. That means that their release is unlikely to increase freedom of expression in the country, including criticism of Egypt’s abysmal human rights record. In this context, thousands remain in prison for their peaceful activism and criticism of the Sisi government.

In a meeting with the press, the president announced his intention to launch this initiative, pointing out the need for a political dialogue to build the New Republic.

Last Spring, Sisi considered that the opening of the New Administrative Capital, a colossal project east of Cairo, represented the birth of a “New Republic.”

Dialogue dynamics

Egypt: Presidential National Dialogue
Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah (C) smiles next to his mother Laila Soueif (R) and sister Mona Seif (L) in Giza, the twin city of Egypt’s capital Cairo, on May 17, 2019. Today, some 60,000 Egyptian political detainees have been rounded up since then autocratic president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in early 2011, according to a grim toll by human rights groups.

When invitations to existing political parties had been sent, the National Youth Conference was assigned to organise the planned dialogue under the umbrella of the National Training Academy. The Academy pledged to conduct this national dialogue with complete impartiality and limit its role to “coordinating between the different groups participating in the dialogue without interfering with the content of what is being discussed.”

To ensure the representation of everyone, the Academy also pledged to extend the invitation to all the Egyptian society representatives from all groups and institutions. Diversity will be taken into account in the places where dialogue sessions are held, including most regions of the republic.

Furthermore, an impartial committee of think tanks would be entrusted with compiling the national dialogue outcomes in a unified preliminary document agreed upon by all the participating forces and groups. After that, the report will be submitted to the President.

Dialogue Academy

The Academy defines itself as “an institution that brings together future leaders from Egypt and the region, to promote and develop qualified, creative and innovative human capital to lead development in society, to create a better future.” The academy says that it “fosters sustainable initiatives and solutions and strives to be the main catalyst for comprehensive transformation and innovation to create effective global leaders who impact their societies.”

It was decided to establish the Academy in 2017 by presidential decree No. 434 as one of the recommendations of the first NYC in Sharm al-Sheikh in 2016.

The president supervises the Academy, which its educational system was modelled after the Ecole Nationale d’Administration and collaborated with several international scientific bodies, institutes and organisations.

Rasha Ragheb was later appointed as director of the Academy by Presidential Decree No. 247 of 2018, giving her the financial benefits of a Deputy Minister.

However, Ragheb does not have much political experience in managing a deep political dialogue, as she is a marketing specialist and holds an MBA from Seattle University.

No Place for the Muslim Brotherhood

While the invitation appears to be for everyone, the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to suggest the possibility of its participation by welcoming the initiative.

One of the group’s most prominent leaders, Youssef Nada, expressed this opinion from his exile in Switzerland. He proposed for the second time the possibility of dialogue with the Brotherhood provided that “Justice is served, in addition to ending aggression and the suffering of prisoners and their families.” However, the Egyptian authorities ignored his proposal.

The Muslim Brotherhood believes that it can benefit from the slow and steady improvement in Egyptian-Turkish relations and the budding understanding between Ankara and Cairo. Moreover, advancing economic relations and developing cooperation on files the two parties do not agree on, such as Iraq and Syria and Libya.

Ibrahim Munir, the acting leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, had previously announced in March 2021 that the group was ready to accept any offer that served the interest of the Egyptian people. However, researchers believe it is a fragmented organisation begging for dialogue and seeking relevance.

Regardless of that, Sisi’s initiative has a place for everyone except the “Evil People” or the Muslim Brotherhood. This stance is based on a “mounting evidence” suggesting that “dialogue is not possible, and deals are impossible.”

Surprisingly, the dialogue attracts extremists who have fled abroad to escape justice. Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya considered itself included in the invitation and even welcomed the dialogue and announced its support for serious dialogue.”

Priorities and Hopes

On the other hand, the remnants of Egyptian politicians seem enthusiastic about the dialogue. This was expressed by Hamdeen Sabahi, whom Sisi singled out by mentioning his name and shaking his hands at the Egyptian Family Iftar.

From Sabahi’s point of view, the civil movement parties oppose the government because it is loyal to the people, concerned for the state, and searching for a better life. He summarised the dialogue’s hopeful agenda by addressing “political reform issues, the integrity of elections, the freedom of opinion and expression, and the Egyptian press to restore its historic role.”

The head of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Mostafa el-Feki, admits the frailty of political parties. While admitting that that this situation is a “weak point,” el-Feki hopes that this dialogue would strengthen them. According to him, the dialogue should “begin by eliminating the population problem.”

We don’t yet know the number of seats. However, we were told to watch out as we prepared for the debate because the president had lost his temper. In the Quran, Yusuf the prophet was searching for the stolen king’s cup. He started with the vessels of his brothers, who threw him into the well. After that, he searched his brother’s vessel, knowing, for a fact, the cup would be there. But in the current political discourse, the president has no brother to ask for his return, nor brothers who have been hard on him. There is also no king nor Yusuf the Prophet and his brothers.

The president doesn’t have fixed standards. Nonetheless, he needs to update these standards in light of a severe economic crisis, the second wave of which will soon emerge. This wave will come soon despite official and governmental assurances of the state’s ability to cross it.

With the anticipation of increasing floating rates of the Egyptian pound against the U.S. dollar and the harmful effects and challenging scenarios it might entail, the call for dialogue acquires double importance, especially with the return of terrorism to show its ugly face again on Egyptian lands, specifically in Sinai, which was subject to two separate attacks recently, after a long period of stability.

Return of Terrorism

Egypt Presidential National Dialogue
Mourners, soldiers, and military police members carry the casket of Egyptian conscript Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed Ali, one of 11 soldiers killed in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group in the Sinai Peninsula, during his funeral in the town of Khanka, in Qalyoubiya province about 33 kilometres north of the capital, on May 8, 2022. The attack on the water pumping station in the Sinai peninsula was the heaviest loss of life the Egyptian army had suffered in years in its long-running campaign in and around the Sinai against militants loyal to the jihadist group. AFP

The Egyptian army is launching a new military operation to cleanse the Sinai Peninsula after a terrorist attack resulted in five martyrs from the Egyptian security forces.

This is the second attack in a row, just a week after one of the bloodiest attacks in the past few years in the northern Sinai Peninsula. This attack led to the killing of an officer and ten Egyptian soldiers after targeting a checkpoint at one of the water-pumping stations on the road leading east from the Suez Canal to Al-Hasana in the central North Sinai Governorate. ISIS claimed responsibility.

The army pledged to continue its efforts in combating terrorism and uprooting its roots. “Such miserable attempts by the forces of evil and those who assist them will only increase our forces in insistence on achieving security and safety,” the army spokesperson said.

Political Class

The most crucial question is who will participate in the dialogue in light of the political life that does not exist. Some analysts believe it is “a caricatured absurd phenomenon that reflects the state of slackness, opportunism, ineffectiveness and extreme weakness that the politics have reached.” The ultimate goal of political work has become to achieve the personal interests of political activists and partisans because everything has become an opportunity, and there is no place for political values or ideals.

Some believe that the Egyptian parties have not yet been able to convince the majority of the importance of their role in the political system. Yet, others believe that “parties are dying slowly” and that these parties are “captive to their wheelchairs.” Others describe the partisan march as a march of decadence, at least in the period that followed the Jan. 25 revolution.

The decision-maker has succeeded, maybe unintentionally, in creating a worn-out political class that lives in an atmosphere where there are no competencies and authentic national voices in favour of a vast army of political bottom-feeders who occupy the forefront of the media and political scene.

In conclusion, despite all the doubts about the timing and meaning of the dialogue and the sudden flexibility shown by the decision-maker, the President’s invitation to a new dialogue could represent an opportunity to think seriously about how to achieve a “healthy democratic life,” as one of the six goals the July 1952 revolution preached. This is the inevitability of history and what is imposed by the changing-constant reality of Egypt, geographically and strategically.

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