It has been a long time since I wrote about Egypt for the readers of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, which tended to be in a broader regional or international context, or in the framework of the reformist trend which has been one of the major reactions to the turbulence that set in following the so called Arab Spring.
The overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood rule, which had come to power as a result of sharp decline and deterioration in the wake of the 25 January 2011 Revolution, led to three realisations: first, there could be no turning back to the pre-2011 era; second, terrorism had to be uprooted; and third, profound and comprehensive political, social and economic reform was of the essence.
On 30 June we will mark the end of a decade of immense change, not least extensive nationwide urban development in tandem with a shift in the geo-demographic balance between the Nile Valley and the coastal areas, bringing the latter from seven to 15 per cent of the inhabited area of the country, in keeping with “Vision 2030.” In the eight years since this ambitious national sustainable development programme was set in motion, Egypt had to modernise and develop essential infrastructures and social services, and reconstitute social relations between men and women, Muslims and Christians, and north and south.
Moreover, as it pursued such ends, it also had to deal with the fight against terrorism, the Covid-19 pandemic and its repercussions and the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine, not to mention a population growth of 20 million in decade.
Faced with these cumulative challenges all at once, the Egyptian leadership understood the need to take a pause for review and reflection, as many countries do when they reach important junctures.
In Egypt, this juncture is characterised by difficult economic circumstances at a time when the Vision 2023 timeframe has reached its halfway mark and when Egypt has its heart set on building the “new republic” which, as the constitution states, is to be anchored in a civil, democratic and modern state. Thus, during an Iftar sponsored by the Egyptian Family development programme in Ramadan just over a year ago, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called for a National Dialogue to engage in such a review process.
Holding a National Dialogue of this sort is no easy task, as experience has shown. In the interval since that Iftar banquet, a general secretariat has been formed consisting of representatives of all political and social forces in Egypt. Recently, this body launched the dialogue process at a general conference attended by all socio-political forces.
The keynote address was delivered by the chairman of the Committee of Fifty, which had drafted the 2014 Constitution, former Egyptian foreign minister and former secretary general of the Arab League Amr Moussa, who opened proceedings with a set of questions of concern to the greater Egyptian polity. The speeches that followed reflected the state of affairs in countries that have achieved much, yet continue to face mounting challenges plus the sky-high costs of dealing with them. It was at this juncture that a new and unfamiliar term surfaced in Egyptian public discourse: the “jurisprudence of priorities.” What this meant was that it was necessary to reach a consensus on the goals that should be achieved in the forthcoming period.
This is not the first National Dialogue in Egyptian history. There have been several. One in the early 1960s aimed to produce the National Charter, another followed the October 1973 War and sought to produce the “October Paper” establishing the legal foundations for the economic Open Door Policy, and several national dialogues were held in the era of president Hosny Mubarak. What they all had in common was that they underscored a political trend, rallied people around it and paved the way for significant development in the overall direction or shape of national policy.
The dialogue that began two weeks ago suggests that it will have a foundational character. It started with discussions of electoral laws and procedural issues such as electoral lists versus individual candidacies and drawing up constituencies; its scope is all-embracing. A whole gamut of social, economic and cultural issues are on the agenda and it seems that the overall thrust is to promote reform in all spheres.
The obvious problem is that the Egyptian public expects the dialogue participants to come up with immediate answers to the people’s most pressing problems, namely inflation and rising prices. This presents another challenge to the process of reshaping the Egyptian developmental experience to meet the needs of the upcoming period, with all its inherent complications and contradictions. It is a problem that is typical of difficult times when societies are caught between the need to plan for the future and the need to deal with the urgent and often painful exigencies of the present.
What no one seems to have addressed, up to the time I submitted this article, is a vision for the country as a whole. For example, will it remain captive to its population growth or will it take a proactive stance on this? Will it prepare itself to accommodate anticipated population growth through a development programme that not only enables Egyptians to exploit the fall expanse of their geography from the narrow Nile Valley to our vast coastal regions, but that also steers them from the management of poverty to the management of wealth?
The dialogue is still in its early stages. A full day per week has been dedicated to each of its various political, economic and social tracks. For each of these tracks, participants have been divided into different thematic subcommittees in which representatives from the diverse political parties and social sectors will engage in debate and draw conclusions.
But what has also gone unmentioned until the time of writing is the question of the dialogue’s “frame-of-reference.” Is it inclined towards Western models, where capitalism and liberal economics have merged with political democracy and great strides towards the realisation of individual freedoms and liberties?
Or is it looking eastward to the experiences of East and Southeast Asian countries which have also accepted the formula of the capitalist system, but have kept it within strict, well-regimented bounds, yielding highly efficient and productive results?
When modernisation began in Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th century, the first trend prevailed. A reading of the situation today gives preponderance to the second.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly