'National dialogue' in Egypt was just empty symbolism

Egypt's political atmosphere has become incredibly polarised after the recent events in the country.

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The crisis in Egypt is over after two weeks of turmoil. President Mohammed Morsi met with the opposition on Saturday, and the two sides have come to an agreement - there are some rabble-rousers who are against Mr Morsi no matter what, but they're basically crying over spilt milk and cannot really be satisfied in any event.

That is the narrative, at least, that is being offered to the media. The reality, however, is quite different.

Mr Morsi did not, in fact, meet "the opposition" on Saturday, or resolve his differences with them in a marathon set of talks. The reality is that the opposition figures who have been significant over the past two weeks did not even show up.

The former presidential candidates - Hamdeen Sabahi, Abdel Moneim Abul Foutuh and Amr Moussa - who together received almost half of the votes cast in the first round of the presidential election earlier this year, refused to attend. Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the IAEA and Nobel laureate, also did not come.

In the end, the "opposition" that Mr Morsi met included people who were advisers to him until very recently, such as the moderate Islamist academic Mohammed Salim Al Awa. None of those in attendance has any influence on the street protest movement.

And some of those who did show up left almost immediately, including Mr Morsi - the president gave a speech that lasted only a few minutes, and then handed over responsibility to his vice-president, Mahmoud Mekki. When Mr Al Awa then spoke on behalf of the "national dialogue" later on, it was clear that the actual opposition was not participating.

The conclusions were presented to Egyptians some hours later, and various media reported them as a compromise. It is, however, hard to see what compromise actually took place.

While different opposition figures have put forward different demands, there are three that are widely agreed upon: the cancellation of the decree that gave Mr Morsi immunity from judicial review; the postponement of the constitutional referendum; and the reconstitution of the constitutional assembly to make it more representative of Egyptian society and trends.

Despite rumours to the contrary, none of the leading opposition figures have called on Mr Morsi to resign. They merely ask him to do his job, as they see it. Mr Morsi is the elected president of Egypt, they argue. He might have lost "moral legitimacy" because of the violence on the streets, but moral legitimacy is neither a legal nor political requirement.

What, then, did change on Saturday night? Mr Morsiset an expiration for the decree that he issued last month - in effect, his decisions are no longer immune to judicial review.

But the president did not rescind that decree, which is a crucial distinction. If the decree had been rescinded, the president's actions of the past two weeks would have been annulled - on the contrary, the new decree stipulates that those decisions still cannot be challenged.

Mr Morsi's immunity to judicial review no longer exists - unless he decides to issue another decree stipulating otherwise - but his previous decisions still stand.

As for the constitutional assembly and the referendum, Mr Morsi has ignored his own initial road map. The president's first decree indicated that the assembly would be given three months to come to a consensus before the referendum. In this crisis, that timetable was abruptly shelved, and the assembly finished its work - with an overwhelmingly Islamist assembly - in a matter of hours. The assembly has been disbanded, and the referendum set for Saturday.

Where does that leave Egypt? After the "national dialogue", there are a mere six days for most Egyptians to understand and assess a constitutional draft that includes more than 250 articles, in a country where Unicef suggests at least 30 per cent of the country is illiterate. (Overseas Egyptians have only the next 48 hours to cast their votes.)

Perhaps most damaging of all, Egypt's political atmosphere has become incredibly polarised. Many are resorting to insults, accusing their opponents of wanting to destroy Islam or of being akin to "barbarian fascists". At least eight people have died in street clashes.

At the same time, Egypt is on the verge of a broad new economic policy. A dizzying set of new taxes and duties were announced - and then suspended on Sunday night by Mr Morsi. Some of these measures may be necessary, but the pace of change and the waffling will be attacked by the opposition.

All of this might have been different. Mr Morsi could have rescinded his decree and reconstituted the constitutional assembly - there was a remarkable opportunity in this crisis. Mr Morsi is, after all, the elected president of Egypt.

Leadership has been desperately lacking. In that regard, there have been no real winners. As a result, it will not be Mr Morsi or the opposition who will lose the most; it will be Egypt.

Dr HA Hellyer is a non-resident fellow of the Brookings Institution and the ISPU

On Twitter: @hahellyer