The National Dialogue initiative in Egypt has gotten stuck in the rusty wheel of bureaucracy. For three months, the initiative’s leadership has achieved no tangible progress on the core purpose of holding such a dialogue. That is, opening space for opposition political parties and civil society organizations to practice their work free from fear of reprisal. Instead, they have been busy with the routine procedures of assigning the leading board, specialized committees, and subcommittees.
According to Diaa Rashwan, the General Coordinator of the National Dialogue, the initiative’s board of trustees has held five meetings over the past two months. The meetings discussed the formation of specialized committees and subcommittees that are supposed to steer the dialogue. So far, 15 committees have already been formed to cover economic, political, and social topics of concern to Egyptian citizens. In the coming weeks, a dozen subcommittees should be established to facilitate the work of the specialized committees.
The board of trustees has reviewed the biographies of about 350 nominees to select the rapporteurs and assistant rapporteurs of these steering committees. Unsurprising, most selected names are of old and outdated politicians from the Mubarak era. While the board of trustees is trying to please all participating parties by making compromises on selected nominees, they are repeating the classic political mistake of putting the wrong person in the wrong place just to keep everyone happy.
The careful selection of the participating politicians 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 found through studying 17 cases of national dialogues held in several countries, worldwide, between 1990 and 2014.
Nevertheless, the lingering process of forming the steering committees gives the impression that the national dialogue initiative is meant to be a permanent presidential organization, rather than a purposeful time-bound initiative. In other words, it seems that the direction now is to turn the national dialogue into a semi-governmental body similar for example to the specialized national councils that had been formed under Mubarak to address topics related to social rights. Most of these councils are directly affiliated with and work under the supervision of the president of the state. So is the case for the currently evolving national dialogue initiative.
The Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, called for the national dialogue, in April, amidst the early waves of the economic crisis that hit Egypt following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The surprise call of the Egyptian president was widely welcomed by political parties, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, as a new path for the long-delayed democratic reform. Yet, it seems that the opposition parties are not so satisfied with the direction the initiative is heading toward.
The Civil Movement, on September 7th, criticized the slow progress of the National Dialogue and disapproved of its administrative structure. “The formation of the political committees of the National Dialogue did not achieve the required balance, that we have agreed on with fellow participants;” noted the movement’s leaders in a press statement. The Civil Movement is an umbrella bloc of leftist/socialist political parties and politicians, who comprise the majority of the opposition parties participating in the dialogue.
The Civil Movement, also, warned that the dialogue is prone to fail if its initial request to release prisoners of consciousness is not met shortly. The leftist political parties have a modest influence on the Egyptian street, compared to pro-state or Islamist parties for example. Yet, the Civil Movement is the most powerful actor in the National Dialogue. The Egyptian state refuses to include the Islamist parties in the dialogue, which makes the Civil Movement the only representative of the opposition. In other words, if the Civil Movement decides to withdraw itself from the dialogue, the entire National Dialogue initiative will collapse or at least lose credibility and viability.
The National Dialogue leadership ought to accelerate the bureaucratic procedures of forming committees. They need to rather sit to address the issues that concern the people, either on the level of political freedom or economic prosperity. The Egyptian state does not need to further deplete its budget by forming another permanent national council, filled with tens of committees and subcommittees that are managed by expired politicians. Instead, Egypt needs a genuine dialogue, that engages everyone and excludes none, to start at the nearest time possible.
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