El Sisi's national dialogue a possible turning point in his rule

With the fruits of his one-man, high-octane modernisation drive visible to all, the dialogue could signal more inclusion and freedoms

FILE PHOTO - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi delivers a statement following a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France November 26, 2014. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Picture
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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has long been seen as a man in a hurry.

He has spent most of his eight years in office pursuing a high-octane, one-man drive to modernise Egypt, a country of 103 million people, after decades of inaction and negligence.

The former army general has more than once stated his disdain for politics and paid little or no heed to dissenting voices, although they are increasingly sidelined in the country where the media, parliament and pundits rarely stray from the government line.

But Mr El Sisi's view may now be changing. He has announced a national dialogue in which everyone — regardless of political or ideological affiliations — can participate. And Mr El Sisi has called on all to join and speak freely without worrying about the consequences. Different views, he said, cannot hurt the nation.

The rare invitation to supporters and opponents alike could make the dialogue an important milestone in Mr El Sisi’s rule that, depending on its outcome, could define Egypt’s politics for years to come.

But, a month after it was announced, neither the president nor his government has spelt out the parameters of this grand debate. Applications to take part are open, even if there is no start date.

So why the change of mind?

Many believe the success of the multibillion-dollar development blitz led by the 67-year-old president and the restoration of security and stability after years of turmoil and violence are the main sources of the confidence behind the move.

Another reason cited by analysts, including pro-government pundits, is that the administration wants to see Egyptians rally behind it ahead of what is expected to be a trying time as the global economy is buffeted by rising oil prices and wheat and grain shortages in the fallout from the Ukraine war.

“The president’s announcement came at an important juncture given the conflicts currently witnessed by the world and impacting on Egypt economically,” said legislator Alaa Abed, a leading member of the majority party Mostaqbal Watan or Nation's Future.

“Listening to different viewpoints is important, especially because there is a genuine political will to build a new republic that includes everyone,” Mr Abed said.

The president’s actions point to what many in Egypt call “the easing” of the nation’s political climate.

Since Mr El Sisi took power in 2014, the state has solidified control of the media, which involves blocking independent news sites and banning critics from travel. It has also instigated a virtual ban on street protests and public displays of dissent.

As well as his offer on April 21 of a dialogue, the president has also taken action to start this "easing". He ordered the release of 41 of his critics from prison and revived a presidential committee mandated to look into the cases of others held in pre-trial detention.

Last October, Mr El Sisi lifted the nationwide state of emergency he declared more than four years earlier.

This month, authorities agreed to a long-time demand by the family of Egypt’s best-known opposition activist, Alaa Abdel Fattah, to move him from the maximum-security centre he was being held in to a modern jail north-west of Cairo. Much better living conditions and medical care are available there.

Abdel Fattah was convicted last year of spreading false news and is serving a five-year sentence.

Adding to the excitement at the announcement on April 21, Mr El Sisi was seen shaking hands and amicably chatting with Hamdeen Sabahy, a long-time critic who ran against him in the 2014 presidential election.

The moment, captured on live television and endlessly replayed on social media, signalled what might become a new page in the rule of Mr El Sisi, the latest in a line dating to the 1950s of leaders hailing from the military. It also comes around halfway through Mr El Sisi's possible time in office – having won elections in 2014 and 2018, he will be able to run again for a third and final six-year term in 2024.

The major question mark that hangs over the dialogue process is about the participation of those who do not necessarily share Mr El Sisi's vision. Without them, it becomes a largely performative undertaking, but they are likely to stay away unless at least some of their suggestions are implemented.

“We welcome the dialogue. It’s a positive initiative,” said Khaled Dawoud, chief spokesman for the Civil Democratic Movement, an alliance of liberal and left-leaning parties, including Mr Sabahy’s.

“But we will be in a very unenviable situation if we participate without the release of our members from prison.

“We need that to happen as a gesture of goodwill from the government.”

Mr Dawoud was released last year from pre-trial detention that lasted nearly two years after he was accused of spreading false news.

With the agenda of the dialogue still unknown, many fear it will focus only on the economy, social issues or reform in vital sectors such as education and health care.

Well-known Arab talk show host Amr Adeeb appears to have the same suspicions.

He cautioned last week that the president should not expect participants in the dialogue to talk only about the economy.

'Time to talk about politics'

“Historically, when the people of Egypt participate in a national dialogue they will want to talk about freedoms, political parties, the media and opening up the public sphere,” said Mr Adeeb, a staunch supporter of Mr El Sisi.

But showing uncustomary candour, the veteran Egyptian TV host said: “We are not talking here about an angelic state. Surely, mistakes have been made and they need to be fixed.

“People want to talk about freedoms, how we will release those in jail and those detained in pre-trial detention.

“After the economic reforms, it’s time we talk about politics. Politics and the economy are the two sides of the same coin.”

The dialogue will be organised by the National Training Academy, a state agency created to improve the skills and qualifications of government employees. It has issued a statement saying it will administer the dialogue with a total absence of bias and will not interfere in the discussions.

However, some disagree that the academy was the right choice to moderate the discussions.

“The presidency is the only establishment that has the power to adhere to whatever is agreed on in the dialogue,” said prominent opposition politician and former MP Ahmed Tantawi.

He has proposed a technical secretariat of 10 experts shared equally between the government and the opposition to run the dialogue.

“We don’t reject the dialogue, but we will try to secure pledges [for political reform],” he said.

Updated: May 29, 2022, 4:32 AM