Open and inclusive

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Tuesday 2 May 2023


A major milestone was laid yesterday (3 May) when Egypt’s National Dialogue proceedings were launched, indicating progress on the path to political reforms delayed by all kinds of challenges over the past 10 years.

In his speech launching the initiative a year ago, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said the goal of the National Dialogue — comprising discussions, recommendations and decisions to take place over the next few weeks — was to ensure that “the homeland embraces all of us, and that differences of opinion do not spoil the nation’s affairs.” He added that the dialogue will be an important contribution towards building the “New Republic” which he defined as “a modern, democratic, civil state that accommodates all its citizens and seeks peace, construction, and development.” 

After popular protests on 30 June, 2013 led to the removal of the late president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, the terrorist group declared war on the Egyptian state and the people. Egypt suffered nearly daily terrorist attacks, both in Cairo and other major cities as well as Sinai, which the Brotherhood turned into a safe haven for terrorists from all over the world, including IS and Al-Qaeda.

At the same time as it engaged in countering the threat of terrorism which cost Egypt heavily, topped with hundreds of martyrs from the army and the police, the government needed to proceed with serious economic reforms, to renovate the country’s decaying infrastructure to enable the economy to attract investments and create much needed jobs for a mostly young population.

All this had to be done in parallel, as no economic reforms could have taken place without defeating terrorism along with many other serious security threats locally and regionally. Countering a constant propaganda campaign by the terrorist Brotherhood group that aimed at undermining the many achievements taking place on the ground, some of the political rights enshrined in the 2014 Constitution were difficult to fulfill, leading to repeated complaints by political activists and human rights groups that they were facing multiple restrictions.

Ten years later, Egypt stands on far more solid ground, and can bear the cost of political reforms and opening up serious public discussions on all issues of concern to Egyptians. Accordingly, the National Dialogue which started yesterday has been divided into three main topics: political, economic, and social.

The political axis includes five key subcommittees covering political rights, parliamentary representation, human rights, political parties and trade unions. On this axis, opposition parties are expected to request the release of political prisoners, reforming the electoral system, and amending the pre-trial detention law that has led to complaints that it was being abused to jail dissidents for long periods of time.

Dissidents also demand that no Egyptian should go to jail for expressing their views on the vastly popular social media, and that they should have a reasonable share in the state-owned media to air their views and proposals.

As for the economic axis, which many Egyptians see as the most important considering the very difficult economic conditions the country has been facing for more than three years, namely since the outbreak of Covid-19 in late 2019, further compounded by the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine a year ago, representatives of political parties and economists will discuss inflation and price hikes; skyrocketing public debt, the budget deficit, and financial reforms; public investment priorities and the state ownership policy; local and foreign private investments; industry; agriculture and food security; and social justice.

On the third, social axis, experts and politicians will discuss education, health, and population issues; family and social coherence; and culture and national identity. In all three key topics, subcommittees were divided into relatively small groups to ensure focused discussions that reflect a range of views.

The delay in launching the dialogue might have cast doubts on the intentions of the state or its seriousness in carrying out outcomes. Yet, delicate preparation for the dialogue, ensuring that all points of views will be represented in a balanced manner and establishing confidence among participants that the state means business was a necessary prelude before starting officially.

Meanwhile, over 1000 political prisoners were released over the past years, including some prominent dissidents who had been held for years. More is expected to come along with the launch of the National Dialogue.

Opposition political parties also agree that they now enjoy more space to express their views, holding meetings and appearing in the state-owned media without fear of retribution. This week, more local news websites were allowed to operate freely without fear of being blocked.

Ensuring that Egyptians participate in the process of decision making over issues that affect them directly is necessary to uphold a strong domestic front in very challenging times, especially on the regional level. With nearly all neighbouring countries facing political turmoil, whether in Sudan, Libya or Palestine, the launch of the National Dialogue confirms that the state in Egypt feels confident that it can proceed with political reforms despite all the surrounding difficulties.

A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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