When President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called for a national dialogue to address Egypt’s economic and political priorities and build a consensus on the way forward, former MP and respected political commentator Amr Al-Chobaki admits he was taken by surprise.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Chobaki said he appreciated not only Al-Sisi’s call but the fact it was made at an event — an official Iftar — to which the leading opposition figure Hamdeen Sabahi, a candidate in the 2014 presidential elections, had been invited. During the course of the event President Al-Sisi told Sabahi that the goal was to build “a homeland that accommodates all Egyptians”.
“I had been calling for such a national dialogue for a long time. Egypt really needed a political discourse based on the idea of national alignment during the period that followed 2013 in order to confront terrorism,” said Al-Chobaki.
As the number of terrorist attacks and violent incidents soared Egypt faced an existential threat. But now we face challenges regarding the government performance and setting our priorities differently, including freedom of speech, political reform, and pluralism.
The publication of a National Strategy for Human Rights in September, the ending of the state emergency in October, and the reactivation of the Presidential Pardon Committee in April followed by the release of tens of prisoners, are seen as many commentators as signs that the state is serious about the dialogue.
Al-Chobaki agrees, saying he hopes for the release of more political prisoners who have not been accused of inciting or committing violent acts. He warns, however, that a display of clemency will not, in itself, guarantee the success of the dialogue, and that what is needed is an agenda that seriously addresses the pressing questions of reform.
On Monday President Al-Sisi affirmed that the national dialogue “aims to reach common ground, and we will talk and listen to each other”. But for this to happen, says Al-Chobaki, and to prevent the dialogue from descending into a “talking shop and polemical shouting match”, ground rules need to be established. The state must be open to criticism, and to accept that it can be offered constructively and does not constitute an attack.
“The dialogue must shift away from settling accounts and self-flagellation,” he stressed. And at a time when the world is facing multiple economic crises, Egypt’s political forces need to discuss ways to promote economic development and not spend their time crying over spilt milk.
There also needs to be acceptance that reform is an evolutionary process that takes place gradually, and that “a new social contract”, the avowed goal of the dialogue, is not something that can be imposed overnight.
In times of crises, says Al-Chobaki, it is essential “we do not bury our heads in the sand but engage as many people as possible in thinking up novel solutions.”
“Acknowledging the crisis, committing to trying to solve it, reviewing and correcting some of the procedures, this is the best solution.”
To build a new social contract, says Al-Chobaki, will require political will, and the patience and ability to reconcile seemingly conflicting visions for the greater good.
According to Al-Chobaki, many still believe development projects and the economy are the priority and political reform can be kicked further down the road. But the two, he argues, must go hand in hand, a position many others have come to share.
There needs, he argues, to be more room for parties to act, greater freedom of opinion and expression and respect of human rights, with a clear focus maintained on social justice and on protecting the most vulnerable groups.
Formulating a new social contract should involve the participation of as many people as possible, and not just political elites. The political scene should not, however, be open to religious parties, and Al-Chobaki rules out any possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood taking part in the dialogue. “It is a formula that has been repeatedly proven to fail,” he says.
Al-Chobaki notes that in the US and Europe religious groups operate as lobbies, many of which support conservative parties, but they do not have partisan wings.
In May, the National Training Academy (NTA), mandated to organise the dialogue, announced that a neutral committee comprised of public figures and experts would collect suggestions and prepare the national dialogue’s agenda to facilitate a “roadmap towards the new republic”. Last week it announced that Press Syndicate head Diaa Rashwan would act as general coordinator of the dialogue, and Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation Mahmoud Fawzi as head of the dialogue’s technical secretariat.
The NTA also announced the first sessions of the national political dialogue will be held in the first week of July now preparations for its convening are complete.
On the timeframe for the dialogue, Al-Chobaki believes the broad societal dialogue could stretch over six months, while the more narrowly focussed discussions on political and economic reforms need to be completed within three months at most.
A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.