President Mohamed Morsi on Tuesday evening launched the first session of his 'national dialogue' initiative with representatives of political parties and groups to discuss guarantees for free and fair parliamentary elections slated for April.
"I hold the main responsibility for holding fair and transparent elections," Morsi declared at the session, which was moderated by presidential aide Pakinam El-Sharqawy. He added that upcoming polls represented the "most important elections" in Egypt's modern parliamentary history.
The president stated that the elections, to be held on 22 and 23 April, would be organised by Egypt's Supreme Elections Commission (SEC) and supervised by judicial representatives. "The police and army will secure the elections, as was the case in previous elections and referendums over the last two years," he said.
Morsi also said that 50 civil society organisations from Egypt and abroad had requested permission to observe the polls, including the UN, the EU and the US-based Carter Centre. "No fewer than 90 observers have been granted permission to observe the elections," the president said.
He went on to urge parties and movements that were absent from Tuesday's meeting to join upcoming dialogue sessions. "We are open to suggestions," Morsi said, adding that the SEC was awaiting any recommendations to come out of the ongoing dialogue initiative.
Answering questions about the current relationship between Egypt's presidency and armed forces – in light of recent speculation about tensions between the two – Morsi stressed that there were "no problems" between his adminstration and any other state institution, including the military, intelligence apparatus or police force.
The 13 political parties that accepted the president's invitation to hold talks on Tuesday included the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP); the Salafist Watan Party; the Salafist Nour Party; the moderate-Islamist Hadara Party; the moderate-Islamist Wasat Party; Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya's Building and Development Party; and the liberal Ghad El-Thawra Party.
At the session, Nour Party leader Younis Makhioun criticised Morsi's decision to announce a date for elections without consulting his party or considering the latter's recent initiative for ending Egypt's current state of political polarisation. Makhioun also accused the Muslim Brotherhood of attempting to monopolise state institutions.
Makhioun went on to demand that the president delay the upcoming polls and refer a draft elections law to Egypt's High Constitutional Court (HCC) so as to avoid any future court rulings against the elected assembly's constitutionality.
Morsi answered by saying that the Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt's parliament, currently endowed with legislative powers) had already amended the elections law in accordance with the HCC's recommendations. "After I issued the law, it was immediately sent to the HCC for revision," the president said.
FJP leader Saad El-Katatni, for his part, slammed the National Salvation Front opposition umbrella group, which has continued to demand the delay of parliamentary polls, formation of a new government, and snap presidential elections. El-Katatni also criticised the Egyptian media for "attacking certain political parties" and attempting to influence Egypt's voting public.
Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat, head of the Reform and Development Party, stressed the importance of establishing credible guarantees for free and transparent elections so as to encourage reluctant parties to participate in the electoral process.
Attendees also discussed other issues of relevance to the upcoming polls, including campaign funding, the use of mosques and churches for electioneering, and the use of private and state media in electoral campaigning.
A number of opposition figures and parties boycotted Tuesday's dialogue session. These included the Constitution Party, the Popular Socialist Alliance Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the Wafd Party.
Public figures who declined the invitation to attend the meeting, meanwhile, included activists Gamal Eid, Abdel-Rahman Youssef, Mostafa El-Naggar and Wael Ghoneim.
The moderate-Islamist Strong Egypt Party also boycotted Tuesday's session, stating: "The presidency insists on issuing important decisions unilaterally without any social or political discussion with other political powers." The party nevertheless sent a list of 20 recommendations to the presidency regarding upcoming parliamentary polls.