At a Ramadan iftar in April, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the launch of a national dialogue as part of the establishment of a “new republic,” the first time during his presidency that he has called for such a gathering. Flanked by previously marginalized opposition figures, al-Sisi declared that the dialogue would agree on national priorities to help Egypt transition into a “modern, democratic, civil state that accommodates all its citizens.” He also announced the relaunch of the Presidential Pardon Committee to recommend prisoners for release.
After years of his regime locking up tens of thousands of peaceful opposition members, with the advent of the national dialogue al-Sisi now asserts that “the nation embraces all of us” and that “differences of opinion do not spoil the nation’s affairs.” But will the dialogue usher in a more positive chapter for regime-opposition relations, or will it end up as another one of al-Sisi’s empty public relations exercises?
In this POMED Expert Q&A, Egyptian human rights lawyer Halem Henish speaks with POMED’s Amy Hawthorne about the factors that prompted al-Sisi to hold the dialogue, what we know—and don’t know—about how it will be run and who will be invited, how the opposition has reacted to the dialogue, and whether or not this gathering can lead to meaningful reform.*
POMED: Why do you think al-Sisi wants to hold the dialogue?
Halem Henish: In my opinion, there are several reasons behind al-Sisi’s call for a national dialogue at this time, some of which are local—related to Egypt’s domestic political and economic circumstances—and others that are connected to regional and global events.
One of the main domestic reasons is public discontent over economic conditions during the past few years of al-Sisi’s rule. After years of economic policies that have proved disastrous, al-Sisi and the media he controls are aiming to evade responsibility under the guise of a national dialogue with the opposition and trying to find solutions to the crisis.
Another important point is that indicators suggest that Egypt will soon have to implement extremely harsh economic measures that will cause millions of low-income citizens to suffer. Al-Sisi may want these measures to come as recommendations from the national dialogue so that he does not bear responsibility alone.
Furthermore, al-Sisi is trying to use the national dialogue to improve his international image. He is attempting to mitigate the criticism of him and his regime from Western media and human rights organizations that follows years of closing the public sphere to parties and civic movements.
Yet another important reason that cannot be overlooked is the momentum that the national dialogue has created nationally and internationally, which Egypt will try to leverage to increase external loans and overcome its economic crisis. This situation may allow al-Sisi to make the case to lenders and donors—the most important of them being the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. government—that the country is overcoming its political crises and does not have social divisions, in order to encourage international aid that is conditioned on human rights improvements and the opening of the public sphere, as happens annually with part of U.S. military aid for Egypt.
It also cannot be overlooked that Egypt will be hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 27) in Sharm El-Sheikh in November. Al-Sisi is certainly seeking to have the largest number of world leaders possible attend the conference, led by President Joe Biden. Therefore, he wants the appearance of collaboration with the opposition and a polishing of the regime’s image internationally.
All these reasons affirm the purpose of the national dialogue, which al-Sisi is using to escape from his domestic responsibility, especially the economic crisis, and to improve his image externally after years of being described as a dictator by the Western press and human rights organizations. A genuine national dialogue would be an opportunity to resolve Egypt’s political and economic crises. But what I see now is a national “dialogue” that only aims to distract opposition groups from criticizing al-Sisi’s regime, rather than concentrating on finding solutions.
Tell us about how the regime has organized the gathering, so far: Who is selecting the participants, setting the agenda, and running the event?
The conversation about a national dialogue started in April, when al-Sisi assigned its initial organization to the National Training Academy, which is affiliated with the Egyptian Presidency and counts intelligence chief General Abbas Kamel as one of its members. This was followed by the launch of a website to receive requests from those wishing to participate. The Academy then announced that the general coordinator of the dialogue would be Diaa Rashwan, the head of the State Information Service and the Journalists Syndicate, while Mahmoud Fawzy, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, was named secretary-general of the dialogue’s “technical committee.” These two figures can be described as “men of the regime,” those who work in senior roles in the state. In my opinion, the lack of serious consultation with the opposition about these appointments gives the impression that the regime is not serious about holding a transparent and genuine dialogue.
This situation was repeated in July, when Rashwan announced another organizing body for the dialogue, the Board of Trustees, which is responsible for choosing who will be invited and what topics will be discussed. Most of the 19 names are close to al-Sisi, or support him. But among them are a limited number of opposition figures, such as well-known human rights lawyer Negad El Borai, 25–30 Alliance member Ahmed al-Sharqawi, and Egyptian Democratic Party member Amira Saber.
The Board of Trustees’ meetings so far have focused on the topics that will be covered at the dialogue. On July 19, the Board decided upon three “axes” for discussion—political, social, and economic—and subsequently announced the subcommittees for each.
Yet so far, the process of preparing the dialogue has not been transparent, and many questions remain, among the most important being:
- How will the dialogue be conducted?
- Who will be invited to participate in the different subcommittees?
- Will the sessions be broadcast live on television, and will the press be invited to attend, so that all Egyptians can see the dialogue?
- What will be the decision-making mechanism and the fate of the dialogue’s outcomes?
- Will the outcomes be binding on the state to implement, or simply proposals?
Do we have any idea about who will be invited to the actual dialogue discussions? And who is not going to be invited?
When al-Sisi announced the dialogue, he claimed that there would be “no exclusion or discrimination” in inviting participants. In the weeks that followed, a lively debate took place among the dialogue’s organizers about whether representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood would be invited. On July 3, retracting his words, al-Sisi shut the door on the Brotherhood’s participation when he noted that the dialogue would include “everyone” except “one faction,” which was widely understood to refer to the group.
A new condition on attendance at the dialogue emerged at the first Board meeting in July, when Rashwan stated that he would exclude anyone who does not accept the 2014 Constitution as the basis for ruling the country. Since then, he has claimed that the dialogue will involve four hundred participants, and Fawzy has said that the Board of Trustees is ultimately responsible for choosing who is invited. As of this writing, the organizers have revealed the names of only a very few invitees, such as political analyst and researcher Amr Hamzawy, the director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington who returned to Cairo this summer after years of self-exile. Hamzawy appeared in television interviews to affirm his approval of the conditions announced by the regime, recognizing that the reference for the dialogue is recognition of the 2014 constitution. However, Hamzawy ignored the fact that the 2014 constitution was amended in 2018 to allow al-Sisi to stay in power until 2032, instead of 2022, and gives him unprecedented powers in all areas of the state.
What has been the reaction so far of different opposition and civic forces to the idea of the dialogue? Will some participate, and if so, under what conditions?
So far, the proposal for a national dialogue has not been publicly rejected by any political forces.
Some political personalities quickly welcomed the idea, emphasizing the need to accept invitations without conditions. Among them were Diaa Rashwan and Hamdeen Sabahi, an opposition figure who ran against al-Sisi in the 2014 presidential election.
The Egyptian opposition inside the country that is represented as the Civil Democratic Movement (CDM)—an alliance of a number of secular opposition parties and politicians—held several meetings after al-Sisi’s announcement to discuss the issue and on June 8 issued a statement about its criteria for participating. The most notable criteria are that the dialogue should:
- be organized under the auspices of the Presidency, as al-Sisi is the only one capable of implementing what is agreed to;
- engage an equal number of figures from the regime and the opposition in all the sessions;
- take place soon and be open and transparent; and
- include a technical secretariat to prepare and manage the dialogue, as well as to write a public report on what happens during it.
There were disagreements among parties and individuals in the CDM over these criteria, including among those who wanted these to be conditions that must be guaranteed in exchange for participating in the dialogue, not simply “wishes.”
In addition, some members requested that the CDM boycott the dialogue due to the regime’s delay in releasing political prisoners being held in pretrial detention. But they held a meeting and decided not to boycott, instead choosing to continue raising the issue of detentions in direct conversations with those in charge of the dialogue and in public statements. Former parliamentarian Ahmed Tantawi, the head of the Karama Party within the CDM, resigned from that position over the CDM’s decision. Political forces inside Egypt have continued to express the issue of releasing political prisoners as a request to the regime and not a precondition for the dialogue.
The CDM was disappointed by the appointment of Rashwan and Fawzy, both because they considered the move a unilateral act that cast doubt on the regime’s intentions to hold a genuine dialogue and because both figures work in the regime and are not independent. Despite this, the CDM did not change its position on participating and cautiously welcomed the composition of the Board of Trustees, with one source saying that the organizers had accepted two of the five names suggested by the movement.
From another angle, a group of politicians, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, and public figures led by former political prisoner Ramy Shaath launched a petition campaign in May with the aim of taking measures to restore Egyptians’ confidence in participating in politics before the dialogue begins. So far, the petition has been signed by hundreds of opposition figures. Their demands include:
- releasing all political detainees,
- opening the public space for political groups,
- lifting the blocking of websites,
- ending all forms of arbitrary detention for those expressing political opinions,
- investigating and providing information about those whom the state has forcibly disappeared, and
- ending the use of anti-terror laws, including listing on so-called terrorist lists, to harass opposition figures.
Evidence indicates that the situation is not going in the right direction. In August, Board member Negad El Borai and 18 other prominent human rights lawyers and activists warned in a letter to Diaa Rashwan warning that the event “will lack credibility” unless the regime first commits to honoring constitutionally guaranteed human rights. They called on the dialogue’s organizers to publicly support steps to reduce pressure on the human rights community, including ending unjust travel bans and asset freezes and revising the repressive NGO law.
As for the Muslim Brotherhood, the group initially welcomed the regime’s announcement of a dialogue, although it attached a number of conditions to its participation, such as releasing detainees, opening the public sphere, and stopping executions. After the regime made it clear that the Brotherhood would not be invited, its London-based acting leader, Ibrahim Munir, expressed dissatisfaction, saying that “dialogue is really needed but it has to include everyone.”
All this makes clear to what extent Egypt’s opposition political forces, whether at home or abroad, have engaged with the regime’s call for dialogue. I believe that even their cautious engagement is very positive, as all their demands are aimed at generating a national dialogue that can succeed in lifting Egypt out of its economic, political, and social crises.
In my opinion, the ball is now in the regime’s court. If it is operating in good faith, it must prove that it is serious by releasing political prisoners and opening the public sphere to political parties and human rights organizations.
Is there a risk for the opposition in participating—and also a risk in not taking part?
Certainly, I think there is a danger for those who refuse to participate in the dialogue, especially if their refusal is public. We witnessed what happened with Ahmed Tantawi, who only wanted to increase the opposition’s demands in exchange for participating in the dialogue. The president himself attacked Tantawi in remarks at a conference, though without naming him directly. After this the former parliamentarian was subjected to a harsh attack from state-affiliated media, and he is now outside of Egypt.
In my opinion, the attack to which Tantawi was subjected and that led to him resigning from his party and leaving the country—under ambiguous circumstances—is a message from the state to anyone who is thinking of veering from the government path, announcing his withdrawal from the dialogue, or even participating and saying things that do not satisfy the authorities. I also believe that the regime’s delay in implementing the opposition’s basic demands—releasing a large number of political prisoners, stopping the arrests of others for merely expressing opinions, and lifting the blocking of websites—is discouraging to many, especially those living abroad.
Can the dialogue accomplish anything meaningful in terms of finding solutions to some of the serious challenges facing Egypt right now, or is it a distraction from finding solutions?
Much about the dialogue remains unclear, but indications so far suggest that al-Sisi has no real desire to create a true national dialogue. As I mentioned before, the regime’s decision to appoint a coordinator and secretary-general without even consulting the opposition—and to choose, no less, figures who work for the government and receive their salaries from it—points in that direction.
Regardless of the regime’s true intentions, one positive aspect of the call for the dialogue is the reaction of the civil opposition. They have demonstrated that, despite the narrowing of the public sphere and the heavy arrests from which they have suffered under al-Sisi’s regime, they have a clear vision for the dialogue’s success. They have shown that they can respond to the regime in an organized manner, make clear demands, and engage and coordinate with the authorities. This demonstrates that the opposition is still present, has not been completely crushed, and can still be active, even with the very minimal tools available. When the opportunity for a national dialogue appeared, they responded. This indicates that political actors in Egypt are trying to cooperate with the regime in finding solutions, despite all the harassment and restrictions to which they have been subjected under al-Sisi’s rule.
Another positive result so far is that the proposal for a national dialogue has spurred new interest about politics among Egyptians, including among political party figures and activists, especially those outside the country. Prior to al-Sisi’s announcement of the dialogue, speaking about politics in Egypt, whether on television channels that are completely controlled by the state or within political parties, was taboo because of people’s fear of the security ramifications. The public sphere was essentially closed to all but the regime and its supporters. Now, in the past few months, some political opposition figures have been allowed to give interviews on television, and some have been able to return to writing in certain newspapers.
Yet security forces have continued controlling the scene. Their campaign of repression and arrests did not stop even after al-Sisi announced the national dialogue. Recent repressive actions include the detention of television anchor Hala Fahmy, the enforced disappearance of YouTuber Mohamed Anis, and the long prison sentences handed to former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh and his deputy in the Strong Egypt Party, Mohamed al-Qassas (15 and 10 years, respectively, after they had already spent more than four years in pretrial detention). The courts have also renewed the remand detention of at least four thousand political prisoners in recent months, in addition to the restrictions imposed on many prisoners such as Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Douma.
Finally, I see that there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the regime’s intentions for this dialogue and the dialogue’s feasibility as a means of genuine debate. Yet the interaction and the momentum that has accompanied the dialogue invitation has proven, beyond any doubt, that opposition forces and human rights groups remain able to interact, to articulate clear demands, and to demonstrate good faith in cooperating with the regime. The most important question remains: Is al-Sisi really ready for a real dialogue?
Halem Henish is a lawyer with the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. He is on Twitter @HenishHalem. Amy Hawthorne is POMED’s Deputy Director for Research.
*The editors thank POMED’s Yasmeen El-Hasan for her assistance with translation and editing.
1. According to the Board of Trustees, the political axis subcommittees are political rights, legislative representation and political parties, and human rights and public freedoms. The social axis subcommittees are education, health, population, family issues and social coherence, and culture and national identity. The economic axis subcommittees are public debt, the budget deficit, and financial reform; priorities for public investment and the state ownership policy; private investment (domestic and foreign); industry; agriculture and food security; and social justice.
2. The political parties in the Civil Democratic Movement include Al Karama (Dignity Party), Al Dostour (Constitution Party), Al Tahaluf (Socialist Popular Alliance Party), Al Muhafizeen (Conservative Party), ‘Aysh wa Hurriya (Bread and Freedom Party), and Al Wifaq Al Qawmi (National Conciliation Party).
Photo credit: Egyptian Presidency website