President Al-Sisi promised he would attend the final stages of the dialogue and ensure that its recommendations are implemented.
The announcement was made during the course of an official Iftar on Tuesday attended by representatives of most of the political forces and business associations, ministers, leading MPs, and senior officials. Opposition figures were among the invitees, including former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.
Al-Sisi’s intention to call for a political dialogue to help determine a new social contract was first signalled during a meeting with journalists in Aswan last week.
MP Mustafa Bakri said President Al-Sisi’s call for a political dialogue could put the country on the road towards “comprehensive political reform”.
In a tweet on 23 April, Bakri said “President Al-Sisi’s announcement reflects the determination of the political leadership to reach consensus on a national vision of this reform which coincides with the launch of the new republic and follows recent economic reforms.”
All civil society forces, tweeted Bakri, from political parties to the media, should participate in the dialogue which will “discuss a host of important issues, including whether Egypt needs a new constitution, what can be done to enhance the role of political parties and civil society organisations, the future of the press, media independence and freedoms, the future of the two chambers of parliament, and the possibility of holding municipal elections in the near future.”
Abdel-Moneim Said, political analyst and member of the Senate, said in a press interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that any constructive political dialogue must address the need to amend laws on equality, anti-discrimination, and personal status, and tackle questions of political openness, freedom of expression, human rights, transparency, and accountability.
Effat Al-Sadat, chairperson of the Senate’s Foreign and Arab Affairs Committee and head of the Sadat Democratic Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly that President Al-Sisi’s call for political dialogue was neither “the result of American pressure, or because of an impending economic crisis, as some will seek to suggest.
“While there is no doubt that the country is facing many challenges, including the economic impacts of the war in Ukraine, I think overpopulation will feature high on the agenda of the political dialogue,” said Al-Sadat.
In his meeting with journalists in Aswan, Al-Sisi noted that “we were 80 million in 2011, and now we are 104 million.”
Mohamed Saad, deputy chairman of the House of Representative’s Industrial Committee, said “the agenda of the expected political dialogue should focus on issues related to democracy, human rights, media freedoms, and the rule of law.
“Issues such as overpopulation and further economic reform should also be on the agenda since dealing with them requires a consensus among political forces.”
Al-Ahram political analyst Amr Al-Chobaki agrees there is a pressing need for a national dialogue.
“The dialogue should concentrate on vital issues such as press and media freedoms, democracy, elections, and human rights,” said Al-Chobaki.
Abdel-Sanad Yamama, the newly-elected chair of the Wafd Party, said the Wafd and other opposition forces were in agreement that “Chapter 5 of the current constitution, which covers the legislative authority, the president, and the government, should be amended.”
Maha Abdel-Nasser, parliamentary spokesperson of the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party, argues that political parties should “prepare for the dialogue by drafting a clear-cut agenda reflecting their vision on political reform. The dialogue should also discuss pressing economic issues, including levels of foreign debt.”
During Tuesday’s Iftar ceremony President Al-Sisi also unveiled a number of political and economic initiatives, including plans for the Presidential Pardon Committee to liaise with civil society organisations and examine the possible release of activists currently in pretrial detention.
On 24 April, the prosecutor-general announced a decision to release 41 pretrial detainees. President Al-Sisi said on Tuesday that he was happy that they had been released, noting that “the homeland should be wide open for all and differences of opinion do not harm the nation.”
The prosecutor-general’s decision was welcomed by a majority of political forces.
Moushira Khattab, president of the National Council for Human Rights, said most of the released detainees were political activists or journalists. “We are hopeful that others who are not involved in terror-related cases will be released,” she said.
Most of the 41 released detainees were in custody pending trial in political or freedom of speech cases.
Tarek Radwan, chairman of the House of Representatives’ Human Rights Committee, told the Weekly that the release of activists and journalists would help pave the way for a successful political dialogue.
President Al-Sisi said he had asked the government to hold an international press conference to announce its plans for dealing with the global economic crisis caused by the war in Ukraine and that he had “instructed the government to offer wheat growers the financial and service incentives necessary to help the country achieve self-sufficiency in wheat production.”
The war between Russia and Ukraine has hit Egypt hard given it is the world’s number one importer of wheat from both countries. The war has also led global prices of oil to skyrocket, exerting huge pressure on the 2022-23 budget. The government of Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli is currently trying to reach a deal with the IMF to shore up its foreign exchange reserves.
President Al-Sisi revealed that the government would soon unveil plans to cut Egypt’s levels of debt. Concerns over the recent spike in foreign debt have been voiced by many MPs.
Al-Sisi also used the Iftar to herald a new privatisation programme that could raise $10 billion, surprising many by saying “a number of companies owned by the Armed Forces will be put up for sale before the end of this year.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.