Egypt: Islamists in the National Dialogue



One of the serious challenges that is expected to face the prospected national dialogue, in Egypt, is about the inclusion of political Islamists. There has been a strong controversy in local and western media about this highly sensitive issue, since the Muslim Brotherhood leaders, in diaspora, publicly announced their willingness to participate. However, in the process, people are strangely ignoring the more disturbing reality of the continued involvement of the Salafists in the Egyptian politics, although they have always been partners with the Muslim Brotherhood, on both political and Islamic agendas.


In two separate statements, last week, the warring fronts of the Muslim Brotherhood leaderships, in London and Istanbul, have showed interest in joining the inclusive political dialogue, which President El-Sisi called for, in April.


Mahmoud Hussein front, in Istanbul, welcomed the call for the dialogue and considered it “a necessary political tool that can only succeed through showing good-will and building mutual confidence.” They asked for the release of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates from the Egyptian prisons before they can participate.


Meanwhile, Ibrahim Mounir front, in London, conveyed their keenness to have a direct dialogue with the state leadership, namely President El-Sisi. “The doors of the Muslim Brotherhood are open for dialogue and forgiveness with the current [Egyptian] regime, after responding to the group’s grievances;” mentioned the statement.


In fact, this is not the first time the Muslim Brotherhood leadership call for dialogue and reconciliation with the Egyptian leadership. At least four times, since their ouster from power in 2013, the leaders of the group offered reconciliation to the current Egyptian state. However, their calls had always fallen on the deaf ears of the state and the loud mouths of the pro-state media.


This time, too, the state has not officially responded to the calls of the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in President El-Sisi’s national dialogue, and most probably will not make a response in the future. However, the pro-state media outlets are harshly attacking the Muslim Brotherhood leaders with a similar message: “you are not invited. You are not part of this nation.”


Realistically speaking, away from the ongoing media debate of whether political Islamists should or should not participate in the approaching national dialogue, it is almost impossible for the Muslim Brotherhood to make a comeback to Egypt through this window, at this time. The group is extremely divided and weak. In other words, there is no cards of influence in their hands to play, and there is not a particular leader to the group that can lead the negotiations with the Egyptian state.


On the flip side, is the Egyptian leadership willing to dance this tango with the Muslim Brotherhood, again? The Muslim Brotherhood is still designated as a terrorist organization in Egypt, and the group’s leaders are pending death penalties and lifetime sentences by the Egyptian courts. Let alone the fact that the legacy and the popularity of President El-Sisi is mainly based on his central role in the larger Arab battle against the Muslim Brotherhood.


In that sense, it is almost impossible to expect that the Muslim Brotherhood to be welcomed by the current state leadership to the upcoming national dialogue. However, unfortunately, the same political leadership is still widely tolerating the participation of the Salafists in politics. In terms of religious extremism and political opportunism, the Salafists are ten-fold worse than the Muslim Brotherhood.


The grassroots affiliates of the Salafist movement have been the fuel that the Muslim Brotherhood used in all the activities that followed their ouster from power, in 2013, ranging from mobilizing them for protests and sit-ins, up to inciting them to burn churches, police stations, and state facilities. The political leaders of the Salafists are not any better, though. In more than one public event, they refused to stand up to salute the national flag or sing the national anthem, because they do not believe in the nation-state, and consider it a form of “kufr” to salute the flag.


Despite that, the Salafists are allowed to participate in writing the constitution, and hold seats in the Parliament, and run a political party, although the constitution bans the formation of political parties around a religious ideology. Sadly, the Salafists may, also, be invited to participate in El-Sisi’s national dialogue, in the next months.


According to a study, published in 2017, by the United Nations’ Department of Political Affairs, the careful selection of the participating political elite and the clarity on the desired outcome, are the top factors that make or break a national dialogue. President El-Sisi’s call for an inclusive national dialogue should not blind us from the importance of investigating the quality of the participating political elite and whether they can really add to the desired outcomes of the dialogue. Otherwise, we will end up with a scene that enhances polarization rather than finds the common ground between the different political shades of the Egyptian society. The participation of political Islamists – all political Islamists, not only the Muslim Brotherhood – is exposing the national dialogue to this risk.


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