National dialogue gains

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Tuesday 28 Jun 2022

 

Egypt’s long-awaited National Dialogue Conference will kick off next week, with a 19-member board of trustees announced on Sunday. Board members include journalists, strategists, MPs, economic and political experts. Invitations were extended to more than 400 public figures, out of 100 thousand who submitted requests to take part. Political, economic and social reforms are expected to predominate.

It was on 21 April that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called for a wide-ranging national dialogue to address economic and political priorities and usher in what he had dubbed “the new republic”. Most political, syndicate, and union forces welcomed the idea of the dialogue, expressing the hope that it would change the face of Egypt.

Political analysts and strategists agree that this step is being taken in the midst of exceptional global circumstances, including the coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the global and fuel crises it has triggered.

President Al-Sisi, however, said the objective of the dialogue is to find common ground among all political forces in the country and furnish an opportunity for them to listen to each other. “We want the opposition to critique our work and say what they like, and it is my duty to respond. I am sure there is one thing we can all agree on, and it is that we must preserve Egypt intact,” Al-Sisi said.

Many in various areas believe the national dialogue initiative will bring about political gains. It will breathe new life into Egypt’s political life which has been stagnant since 2014. There is no doubt that the country’s fight against terrorism, restoring internal stability, introducing economic reforms and recovering Egypt’s influential role in Africa, the Middle East and the Arab world were the priorities between 2014 and 2022. As a result, political reforms took a back seat. Now it is high time to adopt a new political and economic roadmap and that is the aim of the national dialogue.

In political terms, the dialogue will focus on reinforcing civil rights, supporting the human rights agenda that has already been adopted. While ways to confront the severe economic challenges Egypt is facing need to be discussed, everyone hopes the centrepiece of the dialogue will be political reform. Everyone is eager to see the laws regulating political parties and elections amended to broaden the scope of political participation. Some go so far as to call for amending the constitution to give the Shura Council – Egypt’s consultative upper house –  complete legislative and supervisory powers.

As for civil and human rights, all agree that the pre-trial detention law must be amended. The current law allows the prosecution to detain political activists pending trial for up to two years, and it is important to make that period much shorter.

It is undeniable that President Al-Sisi took a number of steps in the last two months, generating an atmosphere favourable for dialogue. He decided to reactivate the Presidential Pardon Committee. Since he first announced his call for the national dialogue on 21 April, dozens of political activists who were in custody pending trial have been released. The president even invoked his constitutional right to order that a number of political activists serving prison sentences should be released.

Al-Sisi also insisted that all political forces without exception should be invited to the dialogue. Some opposition forces such as the 6 April Movement and the Democratic Civilian Movement will take part in the dialogue. A list of Egyptians living abroad have also accepted the invitation to join the national dialogue. Topping the list is political activist Amr Hamzawi. Other opposition figures such as George Ishak, a political activist, and Essam Al-Islambouli, a lawyer, will also take part.

President Al-Sisi promised he would attend the final meetings and make sure its recommendations are implemented. This, along with all of the above, has made the sentiment among those participating in the dialogue overwhelmingly positive.

All political forces want the dialogue to move the country forward on the road to political reform, by amending politically restrictive laws, releasing political prisoners, and giving the press and the media greater freedom.

On the other hand, the state’s economic policies will also feature prominently on the agenda of the national dialogue. The privatisation plans of Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli’s cabinet, an anticipated deal with the IMF and the so called “State Ownership Policy Document” will all be discussed. The document aims to boost private-sector participation in the economy from the current 30 per cent to 65 per cent within three years. The document, the product of six months of debate with business, economic, and financial experts, and which is still open to further consultations, will turn Egypt into a full-fledged market economy.

A version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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