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

Sisi, during Ramadan Iftar, announced that the National Training Academy (NTA), would coordinate the discussions. In his announcement, Sisi said: “Difference in opinions is allowed and should not ruin the national cause.”

Political parties loyal Sisi supporters have welcomed the initiative, calling it “a welcome development.” A 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.”

Some critics view the dialogue as a political stunt of the government to improve its image in front of the international committee, especially after the latest suspected torture by Ayman Hadoud (economist and researcher from Egypt) and the continued detentions of Alaa Abdel Fatah (ethnic-British activist).

A senior member of Revolutionary Socialists, one the political groups that led the opposition after 2011, says 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 be the show’s boss?

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

Although the details of the dialogue are not yet known, a security source says they will. 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”.

Dialog can be used to restore the plurality in Egypt’s voices, to learn how to agree and disagree

The security source adds that “There are certain red lines that must not 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 allowed the public to register to participate in 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.

Sisi announced his talks at Iftar. He listed the names of opposition figures like Khaled Youssef (MP and filmmaker), Hamden Sabahi (Nassierst politician); and Khaled Dawoud (journalist and politician). All three are middle-aged centre-left men in their mid-twenties, who have repeatedly criticised the state, but rarely called on for radical change. 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 these limitations, many groups, figures, or syndicates have welcomed the initiative and are looking forward to real results.

Hamdeen Sabbahi, a former presidential candidate and leader of Popular Current party, said he would not miss any opportunity to push for solutions to current problems, even though the odds of concrete change seem slim. Speaking to The Africa ReportHe said that Participation has many benefits that outweigh 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”.

Are prisoners released before the Dialogue?

The announcement of the talks saw the release of 50 political prisoners including activists, researchers, journalists, and others. This was praised and viewed as a positive sign.

Sabbahi insists that dialogue must be preceded with the release more prisoners. “Prisoners of conscience should not wait […]The dialogue will continue until the end [to be released].”

Many thousands of fathers, mothers, wives, and sons wait for their loved ones to return

Political groups believe that more prisoners, particularly those in pretrial Detention, those involved with politically related cases, and those whose detention has exceeded 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 launched a massive crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. It designated the group as terrorist, imprisoned its members, and killed and arrested hundreds of its supporters. The government holds the group accountable for any militant attack on democracy or political upheaval.

What is the opposition looking for?

Before the dialogue, the opposition, several human rights groups and the Civil Democratic Movement (an association of liberal parties formed in 2017) have made different demands. These include:

  • A proportionate number of participants for both the government & the opposition
  • These six issues are top of the agenda
    • political reform and democratic transformation
    • Economic reform and social justice
    • Reform of the legislative and institutional system;
    • Human rights and public freedom
    • national security and national interest;
    • Deepening citizenship and fighting 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 cases of political crimes, such as those charged in cases of publishing false information and misuse of social networks, demonstration, and gathering
  • Amnesty to those currently under probation and serving time in prison;
  • The prevention and criminalisation of the arrest of families of wanted persons as a tool of blackmail and revenge, together with their immediate release.
  • Amnesty to those who were not armed or accused of any acts violence, killing or wounding others;
  • Amnesty to detainees sentenced at a military tribunal on political charges
  • Investigation of incidents of torture and evaluation of judicial rulings since 24/7/2013 in all political matters;
  • Abolition of revoking Egyptian nationality to punish dissidents.

Why is dialogue so important?

Many families hope that this macropolitical reconciliation, away from the headquarters of political parties and the political lobbies, will result in the release of political detainees as well as the retrial for violence-related cases during protests.

Um Ahmed, 64 years old, says that her son Ahmed Mohamed was taken into custody in September 2019, during the massive protests that took places in the country. He is currently in prison on pre-trial detention.

“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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