“The call for national dialogue is a step that we welcome... We are willing to work on it and hope it will lead to the amendment of relevant laws that could contribute to re-launching politics. Ultimately, the national dialogue should allow views and counterviews to be discussed seriously, so that we can move on. Prioritising the future is what is important now,” prominent political activist Hossam Moenes told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He believes that the state and opposition must overcome political polarisation and move towards a state that can accommodate their differences, however hard that may be.
Moenes, who first came to prominence during the revolution of 2011 and then went on to be one of the young faces of Hamdeen Sabbahi’s presidential campaigns of 2012 and 2014, is now in his early 40s. He has not abandoned the hope, first nurtured when he was a student of commerce at Zagazig University, that Egypt is on the road to becoming a fully-fledged democracy.
His resolve did not wane during the years behind bars. He received a five-year sentence in what was dubbed the Hope Cell case, on charges of cooperating with a terrorist group and disseminating false news about political and economic conditions in Egypt in order to undermine stability and trust in state institutions.
Alongside other political activists, many of whom were also arrested, Moenes had worked with MPs who were members of the 25-30 Alliance to form the Alliance of Hope, members of which would then stand as candidates in the 2020 parliamentary elections.
Released on 28 April following a presidential pardon, Moenes speaks quietly of his time in detention. He credits his family and friends for their incredible support and sounds grateful that though his time in jail was hard, it was “never abusive”.
His focus is on what needs to be done now to move on rather than what happened in the past. He becomes more animated when speaking about how to continue “the national project”. Though 88 per cent voted in favour of constitutional amendments during the referendum of 2018, Moenes points out that the turnout was low. The more than 10 per cent who voted, combined with the eligible voters who stayed away from the poll, could well provide the foundations for a coherent political opposition.
Before he had ended the first year of his sentence — for some legalities his two years of pre-trial detention had not been deducted from the total — Moenes was surprised to learn that his name had been included in the list of political activists, to date there are more than 600, pardoned ahead of the national dialogue for which President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had called.
“It all came as a surprise. And of course I was happy to be released. But my elation was tempered by the fact others remain in prison,” he says.
They include members of the so-called Hope Cell. Despite speculation that they might be released, Moenes says he has no information about when this will happen, or even if.
At the moment Moenes himself is busy picking up the pieces of his life, returning to work — he is a journalist — and trying to spend time with family and friends. He is also re-immersing himself in politics.
“I don’t have the luxury to just sit there and reflect. There is no time for a slow comeback. There is an opportunity, now, that more political activists will be released, and that they will be able to resume politics somehow.”
Moenes hopes that the national dialogue will mark a new beginning, no matter what prompted the call.
“It might be one thing or the other, or it could be many things.” he said. He runs through the standard list of possible reasons, from an attempt to reconcile with a specific political constituency", to the desire to forge a semblance of national solidarity in the face of acute economic challenges ahead.
“It could be any of these things, or all of them. Or the motives could stem from something else entirely.” But whatever they are, says Moenes, the dialogue is an opportunity to be grabbed.
According to Moenes, “nothing is certain until it happens.”
“For example, if the national dialogue evolves into an open-ended discussion over a wide range of issues, accompanied by the sporadic and very slow release of political activists, his will not be a good sign of where things are heading.”
If the goal is to be serious about moving forward, he argues, then activists need to be released in larger numbers, and no more should be arrested without compelling legal evidence. It is up to the political opposition to do what it takes to persuade the state to show enough political will to pursue a new political reality.
“I understand that all the issues placed on the agenda of the national dialogue are important, but before getting involved in discussions on the minutiae of agricultural policy and suchlike, we need to fix some basics. They include the fate of political activists who have never been involved in violence but who are still in detention or in jail. They also include defining the extent of political liberties that people can expect.”
“If we get embroiled in months of discussion without moving on these two fronts, then the worry is the dialogue is not that serious.”
Moenes firmly believes space must be created for a resumption of politics, including the participation of the opposition in any upcoming elections.
“Yes, we can pick up the pieces,” he says, though no one knows for sure how things will develop, or what the dialogue will actually deliver. In the face of such uncertainty, he remains optimistic, insisting “we have no choice but to try”.
“In 2014, we told Sabbahi that we were not expecting to win. Winning was not the point. The point was to keep the opposition alive.”
Now, he says, it is up to the opposition to maximise possible gains from the national dialogue. To do this opposition forces must consolidate. They need to strategise and make “some clear demands, not just about the position now, but about the future.”
If the opposition is allowed to express itself, Moenes says, “out of the box ideas” could emerge on how to tackle the socio-economic challenges that Egypt faces.
“We have serious problems, and we need to hear the widest possible range of opinions on how they might be faced. If we really want to improve the situation, we need to listen to one another across the ideological spectrum.”
“We are faced with crises that are impacting the entire country. It is not just about the regime or the opposition. It is about Egypt.”
Moenes says that, for now at least, civil forces are taking the challenges seriously, and are working in coordination with opposition parties.
While unwilling to predict the results, Moenes is “hopeful that things will move in the right direction.” His argument is simple. There has to be progress, he says, because it is in the best interest of Egypt.
He is happy to note that there seems to be the beginning of consultation between the state and the opposition, not least on “how the board of the national dialogue was selected.”
It is “a space of consultation that needs to expand… as the process of political dialogue moves from procedural to content.”
To say that things are irreversibly moving forward, Moenes argues four things must happen. There needs to be a prompt release of activists; a serious discussion of the space to be accorded to the political opposition; concrete plans must emerge sooner rather than later from the dialogue, and the state must promptly execute the promises it makes.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.