The Charade of Egypt’s ‘National Dialogue’

President Sisi’s vaunted public discussion is a marketing ploy meant to appease the West as he gears up for early presidential elections

The Charade of Egypt’s ‘National Dialogue’
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi addresses a “national dialogue” session in Cairo on May 3, 2023. (Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images)

Leaning back in his purple velvet chair, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi berated a speaker at the Egyptian National Youth Conference that took place on June 14. The speaker was Abdelmonem Emam, head of the el-Adl (Justice) political party, who urged Sisi to fulfill a long-overdue promise to release political prisoners. Dismissing Emam’s words, Sisi proceeded to recount the imminent dangers from which he claims to have rescued the country. He then pointed accusingly at the podium, rebuking Emam for raising the issue of political prisoners.

“This is a matter of national salvation!” Sisi’s voice grew louder, and the hall erupted in applause. “You won’t hold me accountable, not you.” He glared at Emam. “Only God will!”

Rumors are circulating in Egypt that Sisi intends to bring forward the 2024 presidential elections, potentially scheduling them for later this year. His statements at the conference come as a continuation of a dual narrative adopted by the Egyptian state: a bold and forceful discourse crafted in Arabic for local consumption, as well as a more subdued and deferential tone when addressing the international community, seeking financial aid and continued legitimacy.

While the president wagged his finger at the young man on stage, the most recent display of this international narrative unfolded in an extensive public relations campaign on Capitol Hill and worldwide, aimed at promoting his latest offering to the international community — the Egyptian National Dialogue.

In April 2022, Sisi launched this dialogue, a political initiative gathering representatives from various sectors of society to discuss the country’s future and address issues of public freedom, including the matter of political prisoners. After a delay of over a year since the initial announcement, the dialogue officially commenced on May 3, 2023. The sessions elicited skepticism from political observers in Egypt, who perceived them as a sham. So far, the “dialogue” has consisted of nothing but a series of orchestrated speeches endorsed by the government, with an ever-extending timeline for finishing the work. The main aim of the talks appears to be the repair of Cairo’s tarnished reputation in the Western world, whose assistance Egypt seeks.

The initiation of the dialogue can be attributed to various factors, the most prominent being the economic crisis that has plagued Egypt recently. This crisis, marked by escalating unemployment rates, soaring inflation and a widening budget deficit, prompted the government to seek ways of mitigating public anger and presenting an illusion of progress.

In December 2022, the Egyptian government reached a stand-by agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), after years of deliberation. Typically, an IMF agreement, which is usually contingent on reforms, opens doors for support from other sources, or so Egypt hopes.

“It’s possible that the leadership saw the National Dialogue as a way to curry favor with certain powerful shareholders at the fund,” says Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The Egyptian state has been recklessly leveraged to the brink of insolvency; half the budget is going to servicing debt. Their delinquency has led the IMF to refuse to perform the review scheduled for March of this year, and Gulf leaders have responded by refusing to buy the public assets they had pledged to purchase as part of the IMF agreement.”

The National Dialogue allows the regime to bide its time, offering the people an image of something in the works to mitigate the anger simmering beneath the surface.

In tandem with the economic crisis, Egypt has also experienced a deepening political crisis. Since the military coup in 2013, when the current president, then an army general, seized power, the country has been engulfed in an atmosphere of immense political repression. Egypt has faced harsh criticism on the international stage for jailing over 60,000 political prisoners, engaging in acts of torture, arbitrary detention and curtailment of freedoms.

The National Dialogue emerged as, among other things, an attempt to address the pressing challenges of freedom of expression faced by Egyptians. Yet the ostensible objective of this dialogue appears far from genuine.

One might have expected the regime to ease its crackdown to project an image of cooperation for the National Dialogue. However, it seems to attach little significance to this notion.

While the authorities have emphasized the release and pardon of nearly 1,000 prisoners as a supposed sign of progress in human rights since the announcement of the dialogue, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) notes a concerning trend that overshadows the releases: For every prisoner freed, at least three others have been arrested.

On April 14, 2023, the Egyptian Official Gazette announced the inclusion of 81 individuals, mostly human rights defenders, on terrorism lists for a five-year period. This decision was accompanied by the freezing of their assets and travel restrictions. The authorities based this move on vaguely worded legal texts and broad definitions of terrorism under the so-called terrorist entities law, which is widely seen as a retaliatory measure against dissidents living in exile.

In the early hours of April 17, security forces arrested Neama Hisham, the wife of the prominent Egyptian political prisoner Mohamed El-Baqer. They seized her mobile phone before taking her to an undisclosed location. This arrest followed Neama’s visit to her husband in prison, after which she took to social media to publicize the physical abuse and solitary confinement experienced by El-Baqer and other political prisoners.

The day the dialogue commenced, May 3, the police were busy with other activities. They apprehended and detained family members and supporters of Ahmed Tantawy, a critic of Sisi’s who plans to run in the 2024 presidential elections.

Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of EIPR, believes that these trends clearly indicate a lack of genuine intention of reform. “This regime has been using incarceration as its primary method of governance for years,” Bahgat says. “It is evident that they do not plan to change this approach, especially considering the declining popularity of Sisi and the increasing public anger over recent months of economic mismanagement.”

Despite the deteriorating human rights conditions, the regime still attempts to present the dialogue as progress on the international stage. It touts, for example, the fact that it invited select human rights activists and opposition figures to the dialogue. By including dissident names on its list of participants, such as Amr Imam, a former political prisoner; Ahmed Maher, the founder of the April 6 movement; and Gamila Ismail, a political opposition figure, the dialogue creates an illusion of inclusivity while sowing discord among the opposition figures themselves.

Once the opposition figures accepted the invitation to participate in the dialogue, they faced strong criticism from many Egyptian activists who accused them of legitimizing the regime’s agenda and becoming pawns in its game. Critics argue that the regime exploits participants, manipulating the narrative to present an impression of democratic engagement and national unity. By participating, the attendees lend legitimacy to the government and bolster its image internationally, reducing the pressure to release political prisoners. The participants, however, argue that their presence at the table provides them with a slim opportunity to negotiate for the release of political prisoners — a chance that those excluded from the dialogue do not have.

Esraa Abdel Fattah, a prominent figure in Egypt’s 2011 revolution and a former political prisoner herself for two years under Sisi, shared her perspective as a participant in the National Dialogue with New Lines. According to her, the decision to participate is a pragmatic one. In contrast to previous years, when activists would gather and face the risk of arrest, the dialogue offers a legitimate platform for participants to convene and openly discuss political issues without fear of reprisals. It acts as a shield against potential retaliation, as the meetings now take place under the official umbrella of the dialogue.

“I do not anticipate any significant changes, but I still believe this is the only avenue to exert pressure,” she says. “We have no other means of supporting political prisoners without being incarcerated alongside them.”

Abdel Fattah believes that the accusations of granting legitimacy to Sisi’s regime are ludicrous. According to her, the regime already enjoys international recognition, and Western governments are complicit in turning a blind eye to the dire situation in Egypt. Aside from shallow statements and hollow rhetoric, their relationship with the Egyptian regime remains business as usual.

While other activists differ with Abdel Fattah and her fellow participants on the implications of the dialogue for political prisoners, there is consensus that the international community is complicit and chooses not to challenge the regime for its own political interests. This is why the regime appears indifferent to translating its promises into concrete actions on the ground — it perceives the signals from the international community as a quid pro quo arrangement, in which superficial reforms are traded for looking the other way.

This dynamic is evident in the recent unveiling of a draft fiscal 2024 bill, written by an appropriations subcommittee of the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives, which includes proposed foreign aid. The bill, released on June 23, provides for over $1.375 billion in military aid for Egypt, with no human rights conditions. To become law, the House bill must be reconciled with whatever language a corresponding Senate bill includes.

Whatever compromise is reached by the House and Senate, despite the worsening state of human rights in Egypt, Sisi’s National Dialogue appears to be yielding the intended outcomes for the regime: international legitimacy and assistance, with no accountability.

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