Egypt’s national dialogue began on Tuesday with a meeting of its 19-member board of trustees, who are expected to outline the parameters of the discussions.
President Abdel Fattah El Sisi proposed the dialogue in March, without specifying the nature of the process or clarifying its goals.
Since the announcement, details have been shared by Mr El Sisi and organisers that it will cover a wide range of issues concerning Egypt's political, economic and social future.
Mr El Sisi, a retired army general who took office in 2014, said he wanted citizens and groups to speak their minds. But on Sunday he said the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood would have no place in the dialogue.
Diaa Rashwan, the dialogue’s co-ordinator, last month named the 19 members of the board of trustees. They include members of the two houses of Parliament, academics, political scientists, civil society leaders and journalists.
Requests to participate by some critics who live in exile were approved, local media reports said.
"It's too early to talk about the outcome of the dialogue but we expect it to be positive and productive," politician Ahmed El Sharqawi, one of the 19 trustees, told The National.
"We hope that the dialogue's sessions are based on transparency in dealing with whatever we may have done wrong in the past so that we arrive at findings that could be translated into executive and legislative orders that citizens can feel."
As defence minister, Mr El Sisi in 2013 played an important role in the transition leading to ending of the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist affiliated with the Brotherhood.
The fall of Morsi‘s presidency took place amid mass protests against his divisive, one-year rule. The Brotherhood, founded in 1928, was declared a terrorist group shortly after he was deposed.
Few, if any, expected the Brotherhood to take part in the dialogue but the president mentioned its exclusion from the process when replying on Sunday to a question in which he recalled the country’s “ruin” at the hands of the group in 2012-13.
His comments coincided with the ninth anniversary of the removal of Morsi from office on July 3, 2013.
Officially, the dialogue will contribute to the development of a New Republic, a term that surfaced about a year ago but has yet to be fully explained by the government.
However, indications point to the new republic being the fruit of Mr El Sisi’s efforts to modernise Egypt.
He recently said that, since he has taken office, his government has invested $500 billion to upgrade Egypt’s infrastructure, including an elaborate network of roads; the construction of at least 12 cities; power stations, solar energy farms and water desalination plants, as well as overhauling the railway network.
The state National Training Academy, the dialogue’s organiser, has said it received nearly 70,000 applications to participate and that it has sent out invitations to more than 400 public figures to take part in the forum.
If the proceedings are freely conducted and recommendations are embraced by the government, it will be a milestone in the rule of Mr El Sisi, as well as a reflection of his government’s confidence.
His call for a national dialogue also constitutes a departure from his domestic agenda, which has prioritised security and economic reform above all else. This includes freedom of speech and assembly, as well as tolerance of dissent.
In his eight years in office, the Egyptian leader has focused on containing a long-running insurgency by ISIS-linked extremists in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula and dealing with a violent backlash by Morsi’s supporters.
“We should all be ready to listen to each other and find common ground that brings us together,” Mr El Sisi said last month. “You can criticise and say what comes to your mind and I will respond to you.
“If my response is objective and convincing but you still don’t accept it, I will accept that too … but we need to agree on one thing though: we must all work to protect this country.”