Sleeves are rolled up in preparation for the Egyptian “National Dialogue,” which President El-Sisi, unexpectedly, called for, last month. Since the second week of May, media institutions, human rights organizations, and political parties, including the opposition, have been gathering members and affiliates to set the priorities that they plan to discuss in the prospected meeting with the Egyptian President and top state officials, in the coming few weeks. Hopes are high that this particular national dialogue be different, in terms of proceedings and outcomes, from the similar dialogues that took place during the past ten years.
President El-Sisi’s call for national dialogue is rare. This is the first time, since he took office in mid-2014, to make such an invitation. However, the practice of holding national dialogues is, in fact, not foreign to the Egyptian political culture. In the past decade alone, while Egypt was struggling to navigate through the aftermath of the Arab Spring, at least three national dialogues were held by three different political leaders, with the purpose of either discussing an existing challenge or planning for a future ambition.
In March 2011, less than two months after the fall of the Mubarak regime, the interim government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, in coordination with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), called for a “national dialogue” with political parties and activists to study state priorities in handling the consequences of the revolution and building a new state leadership. "The national dialogue is open to all the Egyptian parties, trade unions, and civil society organizations, without any preconditions or limitations. This is a very important event that will help determine the future of Egypt;” the then Prime Minister Essam Sharaf stressed. Although the event attracted wide participation by local actors and much attention in the international media, it did not yield any useful results.
Two years later, in January 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood regime, which was in charge then, called for a national dialogue with the opposing secular parties to cool down the angry streets. The invitation came in response to violent protests that erupted on the anniversary of the revolution. In an official statement, at that time, the Muslim Brotherhood government described the presidential call for dialogue as a “broad national dialogue that is open for all members of the political elite to discuss political differences and ensure holding fair and transparent parliamentary elections after amending the constitution.” However, the extreme ideological differences between the secular opposition and the Islamist regime made it difficult for this dialogue to happen.
When the Chair of the Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, took state leadership on interim conditions, following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, in July 2013, one of the first decisions that he made was holding a national dialogue. Mansour’s national dialogue hosted about sixty persons from the politicians and the young political activists, who organized or endorsed the uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood regime. The goal was to discuss the practical means for implementing the roadmap that the then Minister of Defense, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, had announced. This “national dialogue” lasted for only one day, but the political momentum of that time helped later on with applying its outcomes on the ground.
The latest call for such a national dialogue, happened only last month, when Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, called for holding “an inclusive political dialogue that is compatible with the concept of the New Republic.” The term “New Republic” has been widely used by local media to refer to the socio-economic reforms that the current state has been devoted to creating from the ruins of the Arab Spring era.
If successfully executed, this dialogue will mark the beginning of a whole new era of political inclusiveness, that Egypt gravely needs. One of the lessons learned the hard way from the Arab Spring experience is that political diversity is key to ensuring the cohesiveness and strength of the nation-state, in the long term. A political system that lacks diversity, no matter how politically popular or militarily strong it is, makes the nation-state prone to polarization and failure.
The prospected national dialogue is different in that it is not happening amid a political crisis or during a time of political instability. Also, the dialogue is expected to discuss various topics that are not limited to political reform. This includes, for example, the current global crisis and its influence on the Egyptian economy.
However, it would be a mistake to bet on this national dialogue for fixing the entire political scene and making Egypt a more democratic country. Rather, as President El-Sisi noted last week, this dialogue should be seen as “an opportunity to listen to each other as we all have a lot to say on different issues that affect us all in this critical political moment.”
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