The careful selection of the participating political elite and the clarity of the desired outcome are two of the five key factors that make or break a national dialogue. That is what a comprehensive report, published in 2017, by the United Nations’ Department of Political Affairs has found out, after researchers had spent two years closely studying 17 cases of national dialogues held in several countries, worldwide, between 1990 and 2014.
The valuable pieces of advice that this UN report offers on how to convene a successful national dialogue should be taken into consideration by the Egyptian presidential bodies responsible for convening the national dialogue that President El-Sisi called for in April. President El-Sisi’s surprise call for an inclusive political dialogue, during the public iftar gathering, is still gaining momentum, one month later. That is an indicator that almost everyone, on the Egyptian political stage, starting from the head of the state down to the youngest political activists, is craving communication.
The media, especially the popular evening talk shows, are still discussing the issue with lots of enthusiasm and trying to figure out when and how the dialogue will be convened. In parallel, the political parties are oiling and meshing their gears in anticipation of their meeting with the president of the state and senior state officials, which they will definitely use for marketing themselves to the public citizens, who never heard about most of these parties before. Meanwhile, the presidential body responsible for organizing the event has yet to announce specific details on the convention date, priorities of the topic agenda, and selected political elite participants.
The lack of this information in the early stages of organizing the dialogue opens a space for high expectations and unrealistic improvisations by different actors and observers on the political stage and in the media too. One dominant aspect of this confusion is the recycling of the old outdated figures of the political opposition, who belong to the defunct socialist trend. They are the same faces that have burnt themselves out in almost all the political events, including national dialogues, that took place in the past ten years and were one of the reasons why these dialogues had failed.
Also, there is no clear vision of what we want to achieve out of this dialogue. Is it to discuss the economic problems we are going through, right now? Or, is it about laying the foundation for a democratic state with an active and productive multiparty system that can truly lead the future of political reform? Or, is it only a therapeutic session for pouring our hearts out to each other to release some of the tensions resulting from the compounding economic pains? Nobody has a clear answer to any of these questions, up till this moment, and that is dangerous.
There is a general impression that this national dialogue is probably nothing more than another copy of the youth conferences that have been regularly held over the past six years. That is mainly because the body assigned to organize the national dialogue is the National Training Academy (NTA) which is the organizer of the presidential youth conferences.
Although the main theme of the youth conferences has always been talking with the young people, President El-Sisi has been using them as a platform to openly communicate with all the Egyptian citizens, of all demographic backgrounds, about different matters of concern, on the domestic and international levels. So far, the youth forums have been very successful and very effective, in that regard.
Yet, it would be a mistake to believe that applying the same technique would work properly in convening a national dialogue, where tough conversations between state officials and political opposition are expected to take place. Otherwise, the inclusive political dialogue will turn into a huge frustration that will eventually backfire on the image of the state leadership in the public eye. This is a potential consequence that should be avoided at all costs, especially during the acute political and economic stress that the country is going through, these days.
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