Egypt’s National Dialogue: A Lost Opportunity for National Salvage

The Egyptian National Dialogue began in May 2023, following a one-year delay since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi suddenly announced plans for it in April 2022. The dialogue comes a full decade after the July 2013 coup that overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian president, the late Mohamed Morsi—a long span that indicates the magnitude of the challenges facing the Sisi regime. While the National Dialogue represents a golden opportunity for political change and national reconciliation in Egypt, it faces numerous obstacles as it occurs under the auspices of a dictatorial regime that has systematically suppressed opposition, curtailed political freedoms, and stifled civil society. Consequently, the prospects of the dialogue ushering in substantive political change in Egypt are tenuous and farfetched.

Egypt’s Political Stalemate

It has now been a decade since Egypt began a new authoritarian era, which has forced the country into a protracted political stalemate that has undermined the prospects of building a democratic state following the country’s 2011 popular uprising. The newly established regime systematically suppressed political dissent, curtailed the activities of civil society, and committed grievous human rights violations. Therefore, when President Sisi announced the initiation of a dialogue in April 2022, opposition politicians and activists hoped that the step would pave the way for resolving Egypt’s long-standing political impasse. While engaging in the National Dialogue, participants are expected to address the significant political, economic, and social issues that Egypt is currently confronting. Politically, participants should engage in discussions pertaining to parliamentary electoral laws, the exercise of political rights, political parties, and civil society, among other issues.

While engaging in the National Dialogue, participants are expected to address the significant political, economic, and social issues that Egypt is currently confronting.

Despite the importance of these matters, the exclusion of certain essential subjects from the realm of discussion undermines the comprehensive examination required for substantial political reform. Among these crucial topics is the plight of political prisoners who have been suffering over the past decade. Under the current regime, approximately 60,000 political prisoners, including individuals from diverse political backgrounds, and especially Islamists, have been incarcerated solely for their rejection of and opposition to the regime’s policies. These prisoners are subjected to deplorable conditions characterized by severe hardship and inhumane treatment. Although the regime has released around 1,000 pretrial detainees, a significant number of political prisoners remain incarcerated without signs of their being released in the near future. Furthermore, the limitations of the dialogue have become evident as it lacks the necessary authority to initiate a comprehensive transitional justice process that could hold accountable officials responsible for human rights violations. This raises legitimate doubts regarding the true seriousness and commitment of the participants in the National Dialogue to effectively address these pressing issues.

The dialogue is also meant to address key economic and social issues such as education, healthcare, unemployment, investments, public debt, and tourism. However, it falls short of holding the regime accountable for the severe economic crisis that was caused by its ineffective and failed policies. Participants appear hesitant to cast blame or demand accountability for prevailing economic challenges such as poverty, which affects 60 percent of the population, and the country’s unprecedented level of foreign debt, which recently reached $162.9 billion. In fact, despite the ongoing economic crisis, the Sisi regime persists in its borrowing policy, showing no indication of halting this approach. Furthermore, the participants in the National Dialogue lack the capacity to compel the regime to alter its economic policies and save the nation from its dire predicament. This prevailing hesitancy and lack of influence impede the dialogue’s ability to effect meaningful change and drive the necessary reforms to rescue the country’s economy.

Red Lines

Strikingly, the participants in the National Dialogue find themselves constrained by limitations that curtail their ability to openly discuss and address the full range of concerns impacting Egyptians today. This is a reality that undermines the very idea of dialogue itself. Diaa Rashwan, the government-appointed general coordinator of the dialogue, has explicitly specified three critical issues as off-limits for discussion: amending the constitution, foreign policy, and national security. Interestingly, prior to the initiation of the dialogue, Rashwan proclaimed that there would be no red lines and that all issues were open for discussion. This contradictory stance highlights a discrepancy between the dialogue’s initial promise of inclusivity and the subsequent imposition of restrictions, raising concerns about the true nature and effectiveness of the dialogue process. In fact, these red-line issues entail critical importance as they reveal several problems and challenges that plagued Egypt over the past decade.

The current constitution, which passed in 2014 and was amended in 2019, has many issues that need to be addressed in order to have real change in Egypt. The 2019 amendments enabled Sisi to serve a third six-year term, extending his rule until 2030. They also granted him the power to control the judiciary by enabling him to appoint crucial court judges, including the heads of the Court of Cassation, the Supreme Constitutional Court, and the public prosecutor’s office. Significantly, the amendments introduced a provision that enshrined the military’s participation in politics, making it duty-bound to “protect the constitution and democracy, and safeguard the basic components of the State and its civilian nature, and the people’s gains, and individual rights and freedoms.” Moreover, the amendments have significantly broadened the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians, surpassing its previous confinement to cases pertaining solely to attacks on military installations, factories, equipment, zones, borders, and personnel. Presently, the expanded scope encompasses any facility guarded by the military. These constitutional concerns are not allowed to be discussed or addressed in the National Dialogue.

The current constitution has many issues that need to be addressed in order to have real change in Egypt.

Regarding foreign policy matters, participants in the dialogue are prohibited from discussing, evaluating, or criticizing the regime’s regional and international missteps. This is a red line that they must respect. For instance, the regime’s handling of foreign policy matters pertaining to Libya and Sudan has been marred by a multitude of blunders, resulting in a significant undermining of Egypt’s regional influence. Instead of adopting a constructive approach and assuming a mediating role among the warring factions within these countries, the current regime has pursued myopic policies, thereby negatively impacting Egypt’s national interests. Additionally, Egypt’s foreign policy has experienced significant repercussions due to the regime’s reliance on external financial assistance. Notably, countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia exert considerable influence over Egypt’s foreign policy decisions given their pivotal role as primary financial supporters of the regime. This financial dependency has significantly undermined Egypt’s ability to autonomously shape its foreign policy agenda.

Furthermore, the National Dialogue sessions exclude deliberations pertaining to Egypt’s national security, thereby limiting comprehensive discussions on crucial matters. The regime adopts a broad and ambiguous interpretation of national security, encompassing topics that are deliberately shielded from public scrutiny, such as ongoing counterterrorism efforts and the complex Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue that affects Egypt’s water supply. This approach restricts the opportunity for in-depth analysis and public engagement on vital aspects of Egypt’s security landscape. The counterterrorism policy implemented by the regime has been utilized as a pretext in the past decade to prevent national reconciliation and hamper political change. Moreover, it has been employed to conceal numerous human rights violations in Egypt, including cases of mass arrests and trials, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings.

Regarding the GERD, the Sisi regime bears complete responsibility for the prevailing crisis with Ethiopia because it signed a Declaration of Principles in March 2015, which allowed Ethiopia to accelerate the construction of the dam prior to reaching a binding agreement on its management and operation during drought years. This sequence of events triggered significant discontent among the Egyptian public. Consequently, the regime harbors apprehensions about engaging in any discourse pertaining to the GERD issue, fearing that it may provoke public outrage and further exacerbate the situation.

No Vote, No Power, No Timeline

The National Dialogue faces inherent limitations, as participants lack both voting rights on the issues under discussion and the authority to enforce the outcomes of their deliberations upon state institutions. The dialogue bylaws prohibit the utilization of a voting mechanism, particularly on contentious issues potentially leading to differences among participants. This limitation raises concerns regarding the effectiveness and quality of the dialogue’s outcomes, as it may hinder constructive engagement and critical decision-making. Moreover, although the participants in the National Dialogue have the freedom to engage in discussions regarding political, social, and economic issues, they do not possess the authority to directly implement solutions for resolving these challenges. Instead, their recommendations and the outcomes of the dialogue are subject to review by the president, who retains the ultimate power to determine the course of action to be pursued. According to Rashwan, “The dialogue will propose legislations or executive decisions which will be submitted to the president to take the necessary actions, whether by presenting them to the House of Representatives, or by issuing executive decisions in their regard.”

This inherent handicap undermines the potential impact and effectiveness of the dialogue, calling into question its ability to bring about meaningful change or influence decision-making processes within the broader framework of state governance. Furthermore, the absence of a defined timeline for the National Dialogue sessions and deliberations raises several concerns regarding its significance and the regime’s level of commitment. Rashwan emphasized that the National Dialogue does not have a fixed timeline, underscoring that the process will continue until discussions across different issues are finalized. The lack of a clear timeframe leaves room for uncertainty, potentially impacting the perceived value and overall seriousness of the dialogue process.

The imposed restrictions coupled with the repressive political climate have generated skepticism regarding the dialogue’s effectiveness.

The imposed restrictions within the National Dialogue, coupled with the repressive political climate in Egypt have generated skepticism among both the participants and the broader opposition regarding the dialogue’s effectiveness. An example of such skepticism can be seen in the remarks of Amr Hashem Rabie, a member of the National Dialogue Board of Trustees, who expressed criticism regarding the ambiguity surrounding the dialogue process and the perceived absence of political will from the regime to release political prisoners, thereby questioning the extent of genuine political openness being demonstrated. He also criticized the exclusion of critical issues from the dialogue’s agenda such as the activation of constitutional articles that require the issuance of specific laws within designated timeframes. One such case is the transitional justice law, which the state was constitutionally obligated to issue by 2015 at the latest. According to Rabie, the omission of these discussions raises concerns regarding the dialogue’s comprehensiveness and its ability to address vital matters outlined in the constitution.

Moreover, shortly after the initiation of the National Dialogue on May 3, a significant development occurred as the authorities detained the relatives of former lawmaker Ahmed Tantawi, who had announced his intention to challenge President Sisi in the upcoming presidential elections. This incident drew strong criticism from multiple opposition figures actively participating in the National Dialogue. Notably, Khaled Dawoud, a member of the Civil Democratic Movement, a coalition comprising liberal and leftist parties, expressed strong discontent and criticized the authorities for their failure to cultivate a conducive and positive atmosphere essential for meaningful dialogue. As he put it, “If you’re starting the national dialogue and the first move you make is the takedown of a possible candidate and the arrest of his family and supporters, that’s a very bad sign for the presidential elections.”

Dawoud’s statement underscores the negative implications of initiating the dialogue process with actions that hinder political candidacy and result in the arrest of supporters, ultimately casting doubt on the fairness and transparency of the upcoming presidential elections. These criticisms and concerns reflect deep misgivings among the opposition forces and figures who are participating in the National Dialogue about the overall environment surrounding the dialogue process, its potential to foster open and constructive discussions, and its ability to achieve meaningful outcomes and address critical issues within the prevailing political climate.

In conclusion, Egypt’s urgent need for a genuine National Dialogue to tackle its pressing issues and facilitate long-awaited national reconciliation remains unfulfilled. Instead, the current regime’s approach to the dialogue appears to trivialize its purpose, serving the government’s own interests and perpetuating its grip on power. This undermines the potential for meaningful change and diminishes the prospects of resolving Egypt’s political deadlock. It represents yet another missed opportunity that could have revitalized the nation’s present and future.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Facebook/Egyptian National Dialogue