Preparations for holding a national dialogue among the country’s political forces over the challenges facing Egypt in the next few years are underway.
Diaa Rashwan, general coordinator of the National Dialogue and head of the Press Syndicate, told reporters this week that the 19 members of the National Dialogue’s Board of Trustees are doing their best to ensure that the first dialogue session is held before the end of 2022.
Political pundits agree that the call for a national dialogue was the most important political development in Egypt in 2022. On 21 April and while inaugurating the Toshka Agricultural Project south of Aswan in Upper Egypt, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said that a wide-ranging political dialogue addressing the country’s economic and political priorities would be held to coincide with the launch of what is being called the New Republic.
On 26 April and during the course of an official Ramadan Iftar meal attended by representatives of most of the country’s political forces and business associations together with ministers, leading MPs, and senior officials, Al-Sisi said he had high hopes that the National Dialogue would help crystallise a new social contract.
“I will attend the final stages of the dialogue and make sure that it presents a new social contract for the country until 2030,” Al-Sisi said.
Some political observers, however, have questioned the reasons behind Al-Sisi’s sudden call. Effat Al-Sadat, deputy chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and head of the Al-Sadat Democratic Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly that there was no doubt that the war in Ukraine and its negative economic impacts was the main factor.
“Al-Sisi’s call for a political dialogue was neither the result of US pressure, as some might like to say, or because of an impending economic crisis, as some might like to suggest,” Al-Sadat said, noting that Al-Sisi’s call had come just two months after the war between Russia and Ukraine erupted on 24 February.
There were hopes that the war would end quickly and would not have any direct economic impact on Egypt, but after two months it had become clear that it would continue for some time, Al-Sadat said.
He added that Egypt is the world’s number one importer of wheat from Russia and Ukraine and that tourists coming from these two countries make up the majority of those visiting Egypt’s Red Sea resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada.
“This means that the longer the war lasts, the harsher the economic impact on Egypt in terms of more expensive imports and less hard currency revenues will be,” Al-Sadat said.
Al-Ahram political analyst Amr Al-Chobaki said that “when the war in Ukraine began to hit the economy hard, it was important for President Al-Sisi to mobilise the nation through a national dialogue to chart a new roadmap for its political and economic priorities in the coming stage.”
On more than one occasion, President Al-Sisi has clarified that he wants the National Dialogue to be a forum in which all the country’s political forces, including the opposition, can exchange views and propose solutions to the country’s problems and challenges.
“It is not enough to oppose policies. You also have to suggest solutions and propose different agendas,” Al-Sisi said.
Analysts also note that when the economic crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine hit Egypt hard in terms of more expensive imports of wheat and oil and a loss of foreign exchange from tourism, President Al-Sisi had found that the call for a national dialogue was not enough.
On 8 September, he said there was also a pressing need for a national economic conference at which economic experts, business leaders, and investors would participate and exchange views.
“I know that the National Dialogue has already formed a committee to discuss a host of economic challenges, but we are also in need of a supplementary conference to discuss pressing economic issues,” Al-Sisi said.
The Economic Conference, taking place at the end of October, wrapped up with President Al-Sisi stressing that economic reform and mitigating the negative fallout from the war in Ukraine should be high on the agenda of the National Dialogue when it convened sometime in December or later.
“The National Dialogue should lead to a restructuring of state institutions… and all issues should be on the table for discussion in a transparent way… We have to listen to each other in an atmosphere of political and media openness,” Al-Sisi said, promising that both the Economic Conference and the National Dialogue would be closely attended to by the government.
There was also room for a third open consultation, Al-Sisi said, in the form of a religious discourse conference to be held in the near future.
Al-Sisi told Rashwan that Egypt’s Muslim and Christian clerics should gather to discuss religious issues of mutual interest in a transparent way. “Embracing a new kind of cultural, constitutional, and intellectual dialogue is necessary for the country to move forward,” he said.
Emad Gad, an Al-Ahram political analyst, said that Al-Sisi’s speech at the end of the three-day Economic Conference meant that there would be two kinds of dialogue taking place: a National Dialogue and a religious discourse dialogue.
“This is a very progressive step because both dialogues will help to reinforce internal stability in the face of shocks coming from the war in Ukraine and the global food and energy crises it has caused,” Gad said.
He noted that the Economic Conference had ended with Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli unveiling a new batch of social protection measures designed to contain the fallout of the war in Ukraine and the impact of liberalisation policies inspired by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
“The government announced it would disburse LE1.1 billion in monthly cash transfers to 9.1 million citizens, and there is another LE130 billion worth of new social protection initiatives in the pipeline, including extending the freeze on electricity and fuel prices for six months and disbursing a bonus of LE300 to state employees, public sector workers, and pensioners,” Gad said.
He noted that as the conference wrapped up with Madbouli announcing a new $3 billion loan deal with the IMF, “two kinds of measures were announced — social and liberal ones that should be on the table for discussion during the National Dialogue.”
Rashwan indicated that during the Economic Conference the National Dialogue’s Board of Trustees had directed 10 questions to Madbouli. These included inquiries about the IMF’s $3 billion loan deal, the State Ownership Policy Document, the relationship between the government and the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE), the future of social protection programmes, and the problems facing industrial, agricultural, and tourism sectors of the economy.
“All these critical issues will be the subject of intensive debate by the dialogue’s 19 political, economic, and social subcommittees,” Rashwan said.
Wafdist MP Ayman Mehasseb, head of the National Dialogue’s subcommittee on state ownership, told the Weekly that as the negative fallout from the war in Ukraine was a major factor that led the president to call for a dialogue, “we should be up to this challenge and see how both opposition and loyalist politicians can reach common ground on the policies that will best help the country contain this crisis and mitigate its negative impact on the poorer classes.”
Mehasseb believes that Al-Sisi’s decision during a Ramadan Iftar in April to reactivate the role of the so-called Presidential Pardon Committee in examining the possible release of activists who are pre-trial detainees or serving prison sentences was a long-awaited step that has created a new atmosphere of political openness.
Since Al-Sisi’s call for a national dialogue in April, more than 1,200 activists, including prisoners and pre-trial detainees, have been pardoned and released, according to Rashwan. The most important step, however, came on 24 October when MP and leftist political activist Ziad Al-Oleimi received a presidential pardon from President Al-Sisi.
Al-Oleimi, a lawyer, had been serving a sentence of five years in prison for “spreading false news”.
“The pardon of Al-Oleimi created a very favourable climate for the National Dialogue and showed all the opposition forces that the president is serious about political reform and ushering the country into a new atmosphere of political openness,” Rashwan said.
MP Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, a member of the Presidential Pardon Committee, told the Weekly that he believes that President Al-Sisi’s call for a national dialogue was neither the result of US pressure nor of the negative impacts of the war in Ukraine.
“The call came only after Egypt had become a stable and strong country able to defeat the forces of terrorism and one ready to create a more politically favourable climate for all, with the stipulation that all respect the law and observe stability,” Abdel-Aziz said.
He added that President Al-Sisi’s decision to invoke his constitutional right to have different categories of prisoner released reflects sincere intentions and shows that the political leadership intends to open a new page with young activists implicated in illegal activities like violations of the demonstrations law.
MP Mustafa Bakri believes that President Al-Sisi’s call for a national dialogue in 2022 could put the country on the road towards comprehensive political reform. “Yes, it is the war in Ukraine that pushed the National Dialogue forwards, but we want it to be a new roadmap for the transition towards democracy, a new constitution, political reform, and media freedoms.”
“President Al-Sisi’s call for a dialogue is the expression of a sincere wish to reach a national consensus on a national vision for political and economic reform that will coincide with the launch of the New Republic,” he said.
He said he hoped that the National Dialogue would discuss important issues like what can be done to enhance the role of the 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.
Prominent political analyst and senator Abdel-Moneim Said said that any constructive political dialogue must address the need to amend the laws on parliamentary elections, equality, anti-discrimination, and personal status, and tackle questions of political openness, freedom of expression, human rights, transparency and accountability.
The 15 meetings held by the National Dialogue’s Board of Trustees have so far led to the creation of 19 subcommittees that will be in charge of the political, economic, and social agendas, according to Rashwan.
“We have five political subcommittees, six social subcommittees, and eight economic subcommittees,” he said, explaining that “each one of these will focus on a particular subject and end by releasing a number of recommendations.
“All the debates will be aired live on TV.
“The political parties believe that political reform should be a central issue, and so we have set up five subcommittees on the exercise of political rights, parliamentary representation and political parties, local councils, human rights, and public liberties,” Rashwan said, adding that “the largest number of subcommittees are devoted to economic matters, and most of their rapporteurs are affiliated with the opposition political parties.”
The recommendations passed by the subcommittees “will be referred to President Al-Sisi to see whether some need legislative amendments, and, if so, they will be sent to the House of Representatives and the Senate to be discussed and voted on,” Rashwan said.
“If other recommendations also require executive steps, they will be directed to the government to turn into facts on the ground,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly