Ten years after Egyptians took to the streets on 30 June 2013 to demand an end to the failing rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is a dire need to assess what has been achieved and, more importantly, to articulate aspirations for the future in these difficult times, whether politically or economically.
The recent, sad developments in Sudan, with fighting going on relentlessly between the army’s leader, Abdel-Fattah Borhan and the leader of the Rapid Support Forces, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, despite repeated ceasefires, is only the latest example of continuing instability in the region, adding to the challenges facing Egypt’s economy and security.
Having barely overcome the devastating effects of Covid-19 which stalled the world economy, and continuing efforts to cope with the consequences of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, the war in Sudan – ongoing for over a month now – has added to the sense of urgency among Egyptians that they need to talk among themselves, prioritising the protection of the country’s interests.
Notwithstanding differences among Egyptians, the lesson learned from neighbouring Sudan is that maintaining the stability and integrity of the state must remain a top priority, especially considering the efforts of many regional and international parties to interfere in the region’s affairs to serve their own interests regardless of the wellbeing of the relevant populations. This can only be achieved through frank and sincere dialogue.
The aim of the National Dialogue which President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called for a year ago was exactly what has been taking place through its 19 sub-committees: a transparent and open discussion among diverse participants, representing all political, economic and social views. Despite the many ideological or political differences, there was a clear agreement that several reforms, political, economic and social, need to be urgently carried out in order to ensure Egypt’s stability and gradual prosperity.
On the political front, representatives of various political parties discussed reforms needed to improve existing electoral laws, especially as the country is drawing closer to both the presidential election in early 2024 and the parliamentary election in 2025. More political parties demanded a fair chance to compete by amending existing laws that seem to favour larger, more affluent parties. State representatives listened to the opposition’s demands on electoral laws with understanding, and pledged to look into the various proposals that would bring about fairer competition and wider voter participation.
Current electoral laws combine majoritarian closed lists and individual candidates. The opposition have demanded the reduction of the majoritarian lists that expand through vast parts of the country, requesting smaller lists based on proportional representation so that they can keep their share of votes and have seats in parliament. They also asked the state to deal on an equal basis with the various political parties, and not to favour one party at the expense of another.
Equally importantly for electoral laws, representatives of all political parties, whether pro-government or opposition, agreed on the need to open up the political sphere and allow more freedom of expression. They demanded guarantees that they would be able to campaign and rally freely in preparation for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. Since the president launched his call for dialogue on 26 April 2022, hundreds of political prisoners have already been released, creating a positive atmosphere that should aid with the success of dialogue. Yet opposition parties and groups demanded more releases, whether through presidential pardons or orders by the Prosecutor General to release prisoners who have been held in pretrial detention.
There were similar demands to amend existing laws organising the activities of political parties, and the role performed by the judicial Political Parties Affairs Committee, which can sometimes use bureaucratic obstacles to curtail their activities. Representatives of a variety of political parties also requested more flexible laws that would help them to finance their activities, instead of depending solely on small donations that hardly cover their needs, or conditional contributions by wealthy businessmen who are seeking their own interests.
One party representative after another urged the state to hold local municipal elections that have been suspended for over a decade, stressing that those local elections will encourage public participation and confirm that the public have an influential say in running their own affairs. Successful candidates in local elections can then run for parliamentary elections with a lot of experience, serving their own constituencies.
Participants in the National Dialogue have long debated which of three key areas – political, economic or social – is most urgent. Indeed, the economy is the top priority issue for the majority of Egyptians, considering skyrocketing inflation, difficult economic conditions, increasing external debt and regional and international instability, which make the prospects for economic recovery difficult. Social issues related to family affairs, identity, and preventing all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity or religion are also certainly matters of great concern.
Yet opening up the political sphere and holding transparent and frank discussions at the National Dialogue is what will help Egyptians agree on their priorities. What creates confidence that this current dialogue is a landmark that will make a significant difference is the personal commitment by President Al-Sisi to take its outcomes and recommendations seriously and seek to implement them.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly