Did President Al-Sisi’s call for an expansive political dialogue come as a surprise?
No. Actually, I was expecting it to come earlier. Since I was released from prison a year ago, after being held for 19 months in pretrial detention, opposition parties have been receiving messages of willingness to open up the political space after nearly eight years of tight restrictions on both politics and the media.
We were told the launch of the National Human Rights Strategy in September and the end of the state of emergency were the first steps towards serious political reforms. The message was that the country had faced many serious and dangerous challenges, domestic, regional and international, and that political reform was not seen as a priority. After achieving a level of stability, particularly in terms of confronting terrorism, and feeling increasingly sure of Egypt’s position on the regional and international stages, senior officials said they were now ready for a direct conversation with opposition groups.
The main obstacle for us in the opposition was, and remains, the release of political prisoners, particularly those held since late 2019. We were all arrested for expressing views, particularly on social media, which security agencies saw as contributing to instability. We all faced charges such as “participating with a terrorist group in achieving its goals, spreading false news and abuse of social media”. Our argument was that as legitimate political parties, we were operating within the rule of law and regulations set in the constitution that assured multi-party politics and the exchange of power through fair and free elections.
We were all partners in the significant changes that followed the removal of late Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013 following protests by millions of Egyptians on 30 June. We did not understand and saw no reason for the arrest of our members. It was a huge shock to be accused of assisting a terrorist group when I had narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by Muslim Brotherhood supporters three months after Morsi’s removal.
But after the president made his call for political dialogue many prisoners were released…
True, but not enough. We want everyone arrested for peacefully expressing their political views and held in pretrial detention to be released. We are also demanding a presidential pardon for six colleagues who were sentenced to four to five years imprisonment by the State Security Emergency Court, rulings which cannot be appealed. I’m talking about Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Hisham Fouad, Yehia Hussein, Ziad Al-Eleimi, Mohamed Al-Baqer, Mohamed Oxygen and Ahmed Doma.
President Al-Sisi has already issued a pardon for my prison colleague Hossam Moenes after he spent three years in jail. We also want serious reconsideration of the so-called pre-trial detention law which allows for the detention of prisoners for up to two years if they are charged with terrorism.
Worse — and I saw this a lot while in prison — after prisoners finish the two years they get “revolved” in a new case with a different number but with the same charges in order that pretrial detention can be extended to three or four years. All this time is spent in prison without trial, which defies basic notions of justice.
People charged with murder or dealing drugs go to trial after a few months, at most a year. I was charged with spreading false news and abuse of social media, so how did I come to spend such a long time in pre-trial detention?
Everybody is entitled to a fair, speedy trial, and that’s why we want to amend the pre-trial detention law.
So is it a precondition of opposition parties that political detainees be released?
No, we do not set conditions. That’s not the way we conduct the dialogue with the senior officials who are talking to us in order to make the political dialogue initiative a success. But we are being honest in telling them that without the release of prisoners it will be very difficult for us to convince members of opposition parties that the political dialogue is serious. We want those prisoners to be released in order to help the political dialogue succeed.
I feel that the authorities are serious this time. The fact that opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi and I were invited among other opposition figures to attend the Iftar hosted by the president in Ramadan, and briefly exchanging greetings with him in which we requested the release of prisoners, was a reassuring move. Later, we conducted two closed meetings with a senior official who told us that the president is very serious and wants to make the dialogue a success.
When do you expect the dialogue to start?
Among the signs that the authorities are serious about the dialogue is that there is no rush to hold sessions. We succeeded in our direct talks with officials who agreed that setting the agenda of the dialogue should not be the prerogative of a single party. We agreed to form a joint committee that will act as a secretariat for the political dialogue, while the role of the National Academy for Training, which follows the president, will be mainly logistical and technical.
The joint committee will hopefully be made up of around 10 people divided between opposition and pro-government parties and will set the agenda, the topics, working groups, and ways to follow up and implement what we agree on. The release of nearly 20 prisoners on Monday, and we expect more today, will hopefully speed up the process of forming the joint committee and launching the political dialogue.
What are your own priorities?
There are many different expectations. Some expect the attendees to agree on everything, politics, economics and social reforms. I don’t think this is possible, and to set this as a goal will turn the dialogue into a talking festival in which everyone will deliver speeches and then go home.
I want the dialogue to concentrate on the most urgently needed political reforms which will allow parties to work freely without fear. I asked the officials we met with to take a political decision that security agencies stop arresting people for peacefully expressing their views, release all those held without trial for long periods, and gradually lift the restrictions on government and privately-owned media companies, print, TV and news websites.
It is unacceptable that more than 600 websites are blocked in Egypt and that any attempt to set up an independent media outlet is rejected.
We also need to amend the election laws because they discriminate against smaller opposition parties that don’t enjoy government backing and mean the results of elections are always known in advance. We need to open up the political and media space and amend pretrial and election laws so that political parties are free to compete in fair elections with the results decided solely by the people. The public wants democracy, the rule of law, and dignified services in health, education and other sectors. Those were the lessons I learned from the 25 January 2011 Revolution and the 30 June 2013 protests that led to the Brotherhood’s removal.
* Khaled Dawoud is deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly and a senior writer on regional and international affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.