The National Dialogue’s closed meetings continued this week after Secretary-General Mahmoud Fawzi said the dialogue’s Board of Trustees had decided that specialised committees would hold another round of closed-door meetings to finalise the largest possible number of recommendations to be presented to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi before November.
Those involved in drafting the recommendations include rapporteurs, assistant rapporteurs, and selected pro-government and opposition figures, Fawzi said.
Following 52 public sessions over three months, Dialogue General Coordinator Diaa Rashwan said that “it is time to crystallise the recommendations of the dialogue on political, economic, and social reforms.” These should be finalised before preparations for the forthcoming presidential elections kick off during the last quarter of this year.
The National Dialogue’s public sessions have been able to create a kind of consensus on a number of political, economic, and social reforms since May, Al-Ahram political analyst Amr Hashem Rabie said.
While the participants in the sessions had differed over the details of the reforms, in general they all wanted to see the president, the government, and parliament to adopt them and turn them into facts on the ground, he said.
In political terms, the participants want the existing elections system to be changed, but they differ over what the alternative should be for conducting parliamentary and local council elections. It appears that the majority agree that 75 per cent of the seats should be elected via a proportional list system and 25 per cent by a closed party-list system, Rabie said.
Alaa Essam, assistant rapporteur of the dialogue’s Local Councils Committee, agreed that most of the participants favoured a mixed system of closed and open proportional lists. They want to use this system for both parliamentary and local council elections, he said.
However, the biggest challenge is the recommendation of a new draft local councils law. The specialised committees had differed widely over how new legislation should be drafted to regulate local councils, Essam said, indicating that the committees and participants want to grant as much power as possible to elected local councils in terms of their having the right to oversee the performance of local governors and direct questions and briefing requests to heads of executive local councils.
“They also want elected local councils to be independent in terms of their performance and budgets,” Essam said.
Rashwan said that since Egypt’s local councils were dissolved by the Supreme Administrative Court in 2011, the country has been living without a functioning local administration.
This is composed of both executive and elected local councils, but “since 2011 we have only had executive local councils and no elected ones overseeing their performance,” Rashwan said, adding that the National Dialogue will recommend that a new local councils law be drafted and passed by parliament in the coming 2023-24 legislative season and that this will grant as much power as possible to elected local councils.
Rashwan also indicated that the dialogue’s package of recommended political reforms includes drafting a new law to establish an anti-discrimination commission. Most participants also want the number of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate to increase to reflect the population growth in Egypt in recent years, he said.
In economic terms, the issue of boosting private investment took priority on the agenda of the National Dialogue. Samir Sabri, rapporteur of the dialogue’s Investment Committee, said a specialised committee had finalised several draft recommendations that include granting more incentives to investors, improving investment legislation, boosting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and integrating the informal sector into the national economy.
He also indicated that the majority wanted to see the State Ownership Policy Document re-drafted to bring it into line with recent developments in the investment field.
In social terms, Nesrine Al-Boghdadi, rapporteur of the dialogue’s Family Committee, said the main recommendation was that a new personal affairs law be drafted to find radical solutions to a host of marriage and divorce-related problems.
“We also recommend that the law ban the use of ‘verbal divorces’ and that in cases of divorce or separation assets accumulated during the marriage should be divided between the husband and wife,” she said.
Rashwan announced that the dialogue’s Board of Trustees would hold a meeting on Wednesday to review the recommendations reached during the public sessions in the political, economic, and social areas.
“During the meeting, we will also review how these recommendations can be referred to President Al-Sisi and which of them will be implemented by the government or the House of Representatives,” he said, adding that “as many as 13 out of 19 committees have already finalised recommendations.”
President Al-Sisi said last month that he would implement all the recommendations made by the National Dialogue. “I am committed to ratifying the outcomes of the dialogue without restriction as long as they serve national interests and fall within my constitutional powers,” he said.
Rashwan said that drafting a new local councils law would be at the top of the list of political recommendations.
“The recommendation by the majority of the participants is to hold local council elections by combining the two systems — the closed system and the open proportional lists — so that 75 per cent of members are elected by using the first and 25 per cent by using the second system,” he said.
He also said the Board of Trustees would recommend that the 2014 law on the exercise of political rights be amended to facilitate more rights when it comes to voting, campaigning, and media coverage. Some political forces have called for the introduction of electronic voting on the grounds that this would streamline the process of casting a vote, facilitate a faster and more accurate count, and increase voter turnout.
In the area of human rights and public liberties, Rashwan said the recommendations call for drafting legislation to establish an anti-discrimination commission as well as proposals for academic freedoms. “The Board of Trustees will also recommend that amendments be introduced to the civil work law to give greater freedoms to NGOs and that a new unified law on cooperatives be passed by the House and the Senate,” he said.
National Dialogue officials welcomed the prosecution-general’s recent decision to release 33 more pretrial detainees, including political activists Youssef Mansour and Ahmed Hassanein and economist Omar Al-Shenety.
MP and member of the National Dialogue’s Board of Trustees Ahmed Al-Sharkawi said the policy of releasing and pardoning political activists had lent additional credibility to the National Dialogue process and sent the message that state officials are serious about reform and want to create a more democratic and open atmosphere in Egypt.
Senator and head of the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party Farid Zahran said the release and pardoning of a new group of pre-trial detainees should be a step towards issuing a comprehensive pardon for all political activists.
“In all the sessions held by the National Dialogue, we have been keen to stress the importance of releasing all political figures who believe in democracy and free speech and who have never been involved in terrorist acts or in inciting violence,” Zahran said, recommending that activists who have been held in custody for more than two years should be released in line with the detention law.
At the same time “we think that certain legislation should be amended to limit the detention period,” he said.
“With the end of terrorism in Egypt and the country recovering stability, the policy of extended pre-trial detention should end to create a more democratic atmosphere in which everyone can express their views freely and democratically,” Zahran said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly