Egypt's national dialogue to begin after Ramadan, officials say

It was proposed by President El Sisi a year ago

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi's call for dialogue is part of his drive to establish a 'new republic'. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

A national dialogue to map out Egypt’s political future remains in its preparatory stage nearly a year after President Abdel Fattah El Sisi called for it as part of his drive to establish a “new republic” in the most populous Arab nation.

There has been no word from the government on when the dialogue will start, but officials speaking to The National, on condition of anonymity, said it was likely to get under way after Ramadan, which begins around March 23.

The proposed dialogue has been a central part of a significant policy shift that saw the Egyptian leader ease his government’s tight grip on the country, release hundreds of critics held in pretrial detention and allow a carefully measured margin of freedoms.

But the optimism and expectations that greeted the call for dialogue when it was first announced have since faded with the nation’s attention pulled away from the need for political reform to the grinding economic crisis chiefly caused by the Russia-Ukraine war.

The crisis has affected the vast majority of Egyptians, forcing millions to struggle daily to make ends meet in the face of soaring food prices.

It also has led to the local currency loosing nearly half of its value and a crippling foreign currency shortage that greatly reduced vital imports, including industrial materials.

There were other distractions too.

The two-week UN climate summit hosted by Egypt in November took up months of the government's attention. The World Cup in Qatar followed soon after, captivating the football-mad nation.

“I don’t think that anyone is enthusiastic now about the national dialogue as was the case earlier,” Negad Borai, a veteran rights campaigner and a member of the dialogue’s 19-seat board of trustees, told The National.

“The attention has shifted to the economic situation. It does not feel like this is a good time to debate political reform, but the dialogue can still start any day.”

The 10 months since the Egyptian leader called for the dialogue have been mostly taken up by organisational and procedural issues, including naming the 19 trustees and 44 heads and deputy heads of committees.

The gathering's discussions will be focused on political, social and economic issues.

It will conclude with non-binding, policy recommendations that would be sent to Mr El Sisi who will then decide on which ones to be adopted. It is not clear how long the dialogue will last.

Mr El Sisi has said he would attend some of the dialogue’s panel discussions late in the process, something that would give him a high-profile platform to defend his governance style and much-maligned handling of the economy.

It would be a timely undertaking for a president who is widely expected to run for a second, six-year term in presidential elections scheduled for 2024.

Already, the president has made the argument that suppressing freedoms was necessary in the early years of his eight-year rule when Egypt was rocked by a wave of terrorism unleashed by the ouster of Mohammed Morsi in 2013 by the military then led by Mr El Sisi. Mr Morsi's one-year in office proved divisive.

President El Sisi was first elected to office in 2014. He won a second, four-year term in 2018 but constitutional amendments adopted in a referendum a year later extended presidential terms from four to six years but kept the two-term cap.

A new clause tailor-made for Mr El Sisi allowed him to stay in office until 2024 when he can run for a second, six-year term.

“No one is expecting a complete change of policy to come out of the dialogue,” said Khaled Dawoud, a prominent dissident released in 2021 after 18 months in jail for allegedly collaborating with a “terrorist organisation”, government parlance for Mr Morsi’s now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

“All that we want is to see tangible steps come out of the dialogue, like opening up the political space or bring about the release of more prisoners,” said Mr Dawoud, former leader of the liberal Al Dustour Party.

The government insists that there are no political prisoners in Egypt and that everyone held in detention is facing due legal process.

However, rights groups put the number of those imprisoned for their political views in the thousands, mostly Brotherhood supporters.

Updated: February 24, 2023, 9:10 AM