Egypt’s national dialogue has been at the top of the agenda for policy circles and the leaders of public opinion since President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called for it in April this year. Public interest in matters of governance and public affairs has been revived in an unprecedented way as a result.
The efforts of the national dialogue board of trustees and of the meetings that have taken place have contributed to this momentum. However, some controversial issues remain, together with some unanswered questions that will be crucial to the progress and success of the dialogue as it gets underway.
Thus far, the dialogue board of trustees have held preparatory meetings to draw up guidelines for the dialogue sessions. Some members have presented these preparatory meetings as part of the dialogue sessions themselves, creating some confusion among the public. In reality, no schedule has yet been announced for the official start of the dialogue sessions.
As far as those taking part in the dialogue are concerned, the presidential call was clear in asking all groups across the political spectrum, government supporters and opposition, to be involved. President Al-Sisi also selected the National Training Academy (NTA) as the main entity overseeing the dialogue. Immediately after his call for the dialogue to take place, a general coordinator was announced and then a board of trustees.
The board of trustees has reached a consensus that the Muslim Brotherhood and other terrorist organisations can have no role to play in the dialogue. Beyond these groups, there are different views, and the NTA has adopted an inclusive approach to ensuring that the largest possible number of people can take part.
In line with this inclusive approach, the NTA has created an online platform on which any interested party can register and define the type of participation that they would prefer. It has also invited 400 entities including political parties, syndicates, unions, public figures, and think tanks to take part.
This approach has been criticised by some politicians and members of the board of trustees as in their view it could “turn the dialogue into an unwieldy talking shop”. They would prefer to see an elitist approach instead, even if this made the dialogue more distant from the people. Such differences have not yet been resolved.
President Al-Sisi called for a national dialogue because it would be a milestone on the road to the new republic. The backbone of the new republic lies in the road map that was announced during the 30 June 2013 Revolution. Since then, many of the pillars of the new republic have been built, leaving the political pillar to the national dialogue.
Considering the national dialogue as the political pillar of the new republic makes the expectations of its outcomes clear, placing them within the framework of the 2013 roadmap and 2014 Constitution. In other words, the dialogue is not in itself the new republic. Instead, it is about the future policy options that will be available to deal with the issues and challenges slowing the accomplishment of the new republic.
The timing of the call is another aspect of the dialogue’s importance. It was made at a time when many other attempts by the Arab countries to launch national dialogues have not materialised or have not led to major successes. This will make the dialogue in Egypt if it delivers outcomes acceptable by the public a major success story in the region.
Meanwhile, the inclusive approach adopted by the NTA has played a leading role in defining the dialogue agenda. Online applications to take part have reached 69,530. Some 37.2 per cent of applicants have focused on political issues, with 33.1 per cent focusing on societal issues and 29.7 per cent on economic ones. The board of trustees has taken these percentages as guidelines in dividing the agenda into political, societal, and economic sections.
Each section consists of thematic issues to be examined in the dialogue, there being a total of 15 overall including education, healthcare, population growth, family issues, culture, national identity, policies to manage inflation and debt, the economic role of the state, the private sector and foreign direct investment, food security, the industrial sector, social justice, political and civic rights, human rights and freedoms, municipal elections, and the political parties.
The agenda includes challenges to the new republic that need to be discussed by all the interested parties in order to generate viable policy options. Egypt’s foreign policies and international relations are mostly not on the agenda as they do not represent a challenge for the construction of the new republic unless they are related to a thematic issue like foreign direct investment.
There are three steps that need to be taken in order to ensure that the national dialogue delivers the desired outcomes.
First, the national dialogue is about the future path of the new republic in which young people are going to live and to which they are going to contribute. As a result, there should be a quota for youth participation in the dialogue sessions equivalent to their percentage of the total population.
Second, an inclusive approach to the dialogue sessions with a view to building maximum popular support requires more diverse and inclusive criteria in selecting participants.
Finally, the steps towards organising the dialogue sessions should be speeded up in order to build on the existing momentum.
* The writer is head of the security research unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a visiting professor of political science at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.