The state is exerting “tremendous efforts to curb the high inflation resulting from the global economic crisis triggered by the Ukraine-Russia war,” President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said this week while inaugurating a livestock and dairy complex in Sadat City, Menoufiya.
Egypt’s annual urban consumer price inflation rose for the sixth month in a row to reach 15.3 per cent in May — double the rate targeted by the Central Bank of Egypt — and more than 10 points higher than the 4.9 per cent recorded for the same month in 2021.
The rise in the price of foods and beverages, which represent 40 per cent of total weight of the Consumer Price Index, is largely to blame for the hike. Egypt, a net food importer, is facing skyrocketing wheat prices, and while a bumper local crop, expected to reach around 10 million tons, affords the government some space for manoeuvre, it is limited.
This week Egypt submitted a draft resolution to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which seeks to improve WTO’s response to the food security challenges facing developing, net food-importing countries. At home, the government is working to expand production of agricultural produce, livestock, and fisheries.
In addition to seeking to ensure food security, President Al-Sisi is also determined to reduce pressure on household budgets. This week he instructed Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli to put on hold the 20 per cent increase in electricity bills that had been scheduled for July as part of the government’s plan to phase out electricity subsidies completely by 2025.
The government is also keen to boost private sector participation in the economy from the current 30 per cent to 65 per cent within three years. As part of this drive, on Monday Madbouli launched the Egyptian State Ownership Document, a draft plan outlining the future trajectory of state involvement across various economic sectors.
In recent years the private sector has complained repeatedly of being crowded out of a range of activities by public sector players.
According to Madbouli, the Egyptian State Ownership Document, the product of six months of dialogue with business, economic, and financial experts, and which is still open to further revision pending further consultations, will reassure future private investors of the state’s intentions.
Some political forces invited to the national dialogue have voiced concern over the Madbouli government’s privatisation plans. Gouda Abdel-Khalek, a leading member of the Tagammu Party and a former minister of trade and supply, insists that “not only should the State Ownership Document be discussed as part of the agenda of the national dialogue, it should also be the subject of a public referendum given it is a matter of direct concern to all Egyptians.”
Meanwhile, political, syndicate, and union forces invited to attend the national dialogue said this week that they had finalised their preparations and proposed agendas. The National Training Academy (NTA), mandated to organise the dialogue, said in a statement on 8 June that sessions will begin in the first week of July.
Press Syndicate Chairman Diaa Rashwan has been named general coordinator of the dialogue, while Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation Mahmoud Fawzi will lead the dialogue’s technical secretariat.
Rashwan said on 10 June that “sentiment among most political forces invited to the dialogue was 95 per cent positive, with only five per cent setting conditions for their participation.” He also revealed that the 6 April Movement and the Democratic Civilian Movement had stipulated that “all political prisoners” should be released in advance of the dialogue.
The Democratic Civilian Movement, which includes seven political parties, issued a statement on 9 June rejecting Fawzi as head of the dialogue’s technical secretariat, saying his unilateral appointment flies in the face of agreements reached over the last month with the NTA. “The dialogue’s secretary-general should be named by participants affiliated with both the opposition and majority and not by the NTA,” it said.
On 12 June, the NTA said preparations for the dialogue had been finalised and invitations sent to more than 400 public figures to attend. It also revealed that 69,530 proposals for agenda items had been received online.
Three teams — one each overseeing public relations, logistics, and content supervision — have been formed, with the third team responsible for compiling proposals into a coherent roadmap.
President Al-Sisi first revealed plans for the national dialogue during a visit to the Toshka agricultural project on 21 April when he told journalists that “a comprehensive political dialogue” would be held to “coincide with the declaration of a new republic in Egypt”. Further details were provided during an official Iftar on 26 April when the president explained that he was calling for “a political dialogue over national priorities during the coming stage”.
Political analyst Abdel-Moneim Said argued in a TV interview on 11 June that the dialogue was a result of “a handful of exceptional global circumstances, including the coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the global food and fuel crises it has triggered”.
Other forces, however, warn that “the dialogue will be a failure if its goal is limited to gathering support from participants on a new package of economic measures designed solely to privatise state assets or reach a new loan agreement with the IMF.”
In a statement on 8 June, the Democratic Civilian Movement said the dialogue’s primary focus should be on moving forward on the road to political reform, amending politically restrictive laws, releasing political prisoners, and opening up greater media and press freedom.
Farid Zahran, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic party, signalled on Tuesday that he agreed, saying that while ways to withstand the severe economic challenges Egypt is facing need to be discussed “the centerpiece of the dialogue must be political reform.”
Speculation on social media that the national dialogue is a response to American pressure has been widespread, with numerous Facebook and Twitter comments claiming that US President Joe Biden wants friendly regimes like that of Egypt to adopt political reforms before he arrives for a planned visit to the region next month.
Said dismisses the assumptions as mere speculation. “The real reasons for this dialogue are the global economic crises which have pushed Egypt’s leadership to adopt exceptional economic measures which will need popular support to succeed,” he says.
On Monday, while inaugurating the livestock and dairy complex in Sadat City, President Al-Sisi 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 criticise and say what it likes, 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,” he said.
A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.