In an attempt to save the January 25 Revolution from disunity, hundreds of Egyptian thinkers, political forces and normal citizens are being invited to a mass conference to help map out Egypt’s future.
The “First Conference of Egypt: The people protect the revolution” will be held on 7 May and will be attended by 2500 Egyptians. At the end of the day-long conference, attendees will vote for 60 figures from among them to form a “National Council” that will work to insure that the rest of the demands of the revolution are met, and to map out a unified vision for a democratic civil state.
Invitees include public figures like presidential candidates Hisham El-Bastawisy and Ayman Nour, journalists, political analysts, members of almost every party in Egypt’s public sphere as well as workers, farmers, members of the newly formed independent unions, scholars from Al-Azhar and many of the youth orchestrated the January 25 Revolution. The organisers of the event say the conference is the biggest and most diverse gathering of all of Egypt’s political forces since 1961.
The National Council, the brainchild of renowned Egyptian engineer Mamdouh Hamza, has raised many eyebrows. The Council of Ministers had staged a similar national dialogue, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Yehia El-Gamal, which included 160 attendees from different political factions as well as several ministers to also map out a vision for Egypt’s future. The first session of the dialogue took place 30 March amid heavy media coverage that aired the event live. However, the dialogue was criticised for the chaotic manner in which the proceedings took place, the lack of a set agenda to work towards, and the limited number of people who attended. The dialogue reached a dead end and El-Gamal was replaced by former Prime Minister Abdel Aziz Hegazy although it is yet unclear how different the next session will be.
“El-Gamal chose only a limited number of people to participate, which alienated many of the people who participated in the revolution,” says Amir Salem, human rights lawyer and one of the participants in this Saturday’s conference. “However, this new council has a more wide participation.”
The National Council is also, said Hamza, is a “people’s council,” whereas the dialogue was a governmental initiative, although Hamza insisted that his council is not aiming to undermine the government’s effort, but rather work parallel to it.
Gamal Fahmy, journalist, who has been working with Hamza to organise the conference also added that the National Council has an agenda to work for and based on that agenda they will create a plan of action. “The National Dialogue is just a dialogue, we actually want to implement all the plans that we make,” Fahmy explains.
Several of the public figures invited to the National Dialogue have also been invited to the National Council, including Tehany E-Gebaly, Deputy Head of the High Constitutional Court and Egypt’s first woman judge. El-Gebaly, however, says that she sees more promise in the National Council. “I’ve been invited to the national dialogue and we only had one session so far,” El-Gebaly said. “But we don’t know what the nature of the dialogue will be and if the decisions we make will be considered by the government or not.”
The National Council, however, will accumulate all the ideas discussed and create a revolutionary mandate to work with, says El-Gebaly. It is yet unclear, however, if this mandate will be officially considered by the government or not either.
The group have been very vocal about why they feel the need for the Egyptians to unite in this coming period. According to Hamza, the confusion that happened during the referendum on the constitutional amendments on 19 March is a major cause for concern. Many people he said, believed that the amendments were to the 1971 Constitution that was in use during the Mubarak era. Others, however, thought that the constitution was dissolved and believed that they were voting for articles in a new constitution. Then, he said, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) decided to make a constitutional decree for a new constitution that never went through a referendum or was approved by the people, which he said is a sign of “confusion” from within SCAF.
Another issue is that the constitutional amendments have left the door open for some “forces” to dominate the political scene. These “forces”, which he did not name directly, did not participate in the revolution and even called protesters “kafirs" (heretics) while now they want to take 40-49 per cent of seats in the upcoming parliament. Says Hamza, these forces will dominate the new parliament in September which will then write the new permanent constitution that Egypt will live with for years and which may reflect their ideology and only theirs.
The new suffocating political parties law, which stipulated that any new party formed needs to have at least 5000 members to be registered is also a red sign, says Hamza. Many analysts believe that since parliamentary elections are only a few months away, none of the new parties will manage to recruit enough members, which means that the powers of the old regime, the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, will once again dominate the parliament.
Hamza also added that the SCAF is not fighting corruption the way it should and only arrests corrupt figures or launches investigations if revolutionaries file complaints, rather than actually creating an anti-corruption programme to purify the country. Add to that, he says, the fact that SCAF arrested protesters, which goes against the values of the revolution.
Now, in an attempt to remedy all these issues, members of the National Council will create a roadmap for the transitional phase in Egypt and gather forces to ready them for the next parliamentary elections. “Since the revolution ended, we have been gathering in Tahrir Square,” says El-Gably. “But this will be the first organised gathering. Now we need unity and later we can compete.”
During the conference, four main papers will be discussed. The first is about the formulation of a new constitution that reflects the values of the revolution and forms a democratic civil state. The second will discuss the economic woes of the country and possible solutions. The third — and possibly the most important paper to be discussed in the conference — is about the possibility of creating a unified list of candidates for the next parliament. The candidates, according to organisers of the conference, must include Muslims and Christians, males and females, and workers as well as farmers with the aim of having as diverse a parliament as possible. The fourth and final paper to be discussed in the conference, will structure the role of the National Council in achieving all these aims.
“There is chaos right now and the main aim of the Council will be to organise these forces,” says Fahmy. “The problem is the revolution is not owned by any particular group or party but rather by the Egyptian people as a whole. This plurality is the most important achievement of the revolution and the council’s role will be to organise this plurality because after years of political repression none of these groups have the tools to express themselves.” The Council, says Fahmy, is only temporary, for this “dangerous” transitional period only. The biggest threat, he says, is that some groups are more organised than others, which may mean that they will dominate the political landscape.
“If we let one group dominate again, we will just be replacing one dictatorship with another, which means that the revolution has failed and we don’t want that,” insists Fahmy.
Although Fahmy did not specify which group he was talking about, Ahmed Bahaa El-Din Shaaban, an activist and one of the founders of the Kefaya movement, who will also participate in the National Council, did not mince his words. “We need to create a force with a united vision for the future, and the only group that is organised are the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Shaaban. “However, civil society with its various factions have not produced any organised plan on how to deal with the coming period or how to counter the Muslim Brotherhood."
While Hamza proudly boasts that almost all of those invited to the conference have RSVP’ed, the Muslim Brotherhood has declined to attend and released a statement saying that they prefer to participate in the government’s official dialogue. The absence of the group, which has emerged as one of the main political players in post-revolution Egypt, will leave a big gap in a conference that is supposed to “have representation for Egyptians from every political group,” as Hamza has repeatedly insisted.
Shaaban, however, says that maybe the Brotherhood's refusal to attend is a sign that they are not in sync with the goals of the National Council. “Maybe it’s because we are a civic force, asking for a civic state, and they have always asked for an Islamic state,” said Shaaban.
In a press conference Tuesday, to announce the final plans for the conference, Fahmy brushed aside a question by one journalist on whether the Brotherhood's lack of participation will weaken the National Council. “If they don’t attend, it’s their loss not ours,” said Fahmy. “But the invitation will remain open for them until the minute the conference begins, and we ask them to reconsider their position.”
It is easy to understand though, why the Brotherhood may have declined the invitation. In the conference’s preparatory meeting, held 3 April, none of the prominent figures of the Brotherhood were invited. The notes of the meeting, published on the group’s website, may also have left the Brotherhood disgruntled.
During the meeting, political activist Abdel Khalek Farouk pointed out that the Muslim Brotherhood joined the revolution after 28 January and became part of it before causing divisions among various revolutionary forces. “The danger of leaving the Muslim Brotherhood alone is that it threatens the revolution,” said Farouk. “It splits the revolution into two and plants the seeds of mistrust, and whether they did that randomly or with the agreement of SCAF is not clear.”
Hamza responded by saying that the Muslim Brotherhood's stance is “unclear,” and that they don’t want to join the National Council’s unified agenda because they have their own.
Farid Zaahran, head of the Social Democratic Party and one of the figures expected to attend, said that the Brotherhood, once a weak group and repressed by the Mubarak regime, is now strong and does not feel the need for political allies. “They don’t want a National Council that represents the Egyptian people; they want to be the only ones to represent the Egyptian people,” says Zaahran. “This comes from the feeling they have that they are the strongest and most organised."
Regardless of whether the Brotherhood decides to make a last minute move to attend or not, the organisers believe that many of the hazy clouds that have overwhelmed the political landscape since Mubarak stepped down in February will be cleared by the end of the conference.
However, not everyone sees it that way. Hassan Nafaa, political science professor, says that the National Council will only succeed if it really aims to unite Egypt’s political forces. However, he fears that this is not the real intention.
“What worries me is that the purpose of this meeting is to create a political counter-bloc against the Muslim Brotherhood, because they see the Muslim Brotherhood or the Islamic movement in general as a danger,” Nafaa points out. “I believe that any attempt to alienate the Brotherhood will fail and any attempt by the Brotherhood to overtake the revolution will also fail.” This means , says Nafaa, that the end result will be that Egypt’s political forces will divide instead of unite, and the dream of a new democratic Egypt will disappear as they compete with one another.
“I still haven’t decided if I will go or not,” says Nafaa. “But if they really are doing all this to fight the Brotherhood, or to try and alienate them or try and create a political force to push away another force, then I’m against it and I don’t want any part in it.”
Another issue that worries Nafaa is the large number of attendees. “You can’t have a serious dialogue with that number of people; practically, it’s impossible,” says Nafaa.