Egypt is preparing to launch a political dialogue with calculated steps, while excluding the Brotherhood, and amid criticism from some who see too slow a parallel move to release prisoners.
The dialogue announced by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in April and expected to start in the coming weeks will include some moderate opposition forces that have become marginalized since El-Sisi, when he was army chief, led the process of removing President Mohamed Morsi, who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013 following the Mass protests.
Reuters says the national dialogue is a test of the authorities’ willingness to ease a crackdown on dissent, which some say is the most severe in the country’s recent history.
Since Sisi came to power in 2014, the authorities have justified a crackdown on dissent and freedoms by targeting terrorists and saboteurs trying to undermine the state.
Officials present the dialogue as a step that heralds a new phase of Sisi’s rule that has become possible thanks to the improvement in security and political stability, and has been dubbed the “New Republic.”
Although Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, is suffering from the financial fallout from the Ukraine war, officials say the dialogue will help chart a course for future economic and social development.
The dialogue follows steps that appear to address points that have drawn Western criticism of the country’s human rights record.
During the past period, Cairo faced unprecedented economic and political challenges, which prompted the “Wall Street Journal” to warn against “awakening old fears of political unrest in the country.”
For the first time since 2013, Moody’s Investors Service lowered its outlook for Egypt from stable to negative, warning that “the country remains at risk.”
Exclusion of the Brotherhood
In light of the preparations to launch the political dialogue, the Muslim Brotherhood was excluded from participation.
The group is considered the most influential Islamist movement in the Middle East, and the group took power in the first free elections in Egypt in 2012, a year after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising.
But the success of the Brotherhood, which followed decades of confrontation with the state, its old adversary, was short-lived.
In 2013, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, then army chief and current president, ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood from power after mass protests against his rule.
Egypt then launched the fiercest crackdown on the group and issued death sentences or long prison terms to its leaders, and forced its members to hide or flee abroad.
Security forces killed hundreds of Brotherhood supporters at a Cairo sit-in in 2013.
At least 817 people and possibly more than 1,000 were killed when security forces attacked the sit-in using bulldozers, snipers and police forces, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
The Egyptian government said the report was negative and biased and relied on anonymous witnesses rather than on impartial sources.
Egyptian officials, who describe the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, have repeatedly said that some protesters were armed and shot at police and army soldiers.
Over the decades, the group has developed a wide and well-organized network of activists, gained popular support through the charitable work of its members, and had significant influence in professional organizations such as the doctors and lawyers syndicates.
In an interview with Reuters, the acting Brotherhood’s general guide, Ibrahim Mounir, said that dialogue may not lead to results unless it includes everyone.
The issue of prisoners
A presidential pardon committee is dealing with thousands of requests for the release of some of those imprisoned during the Sisi era, and opposition figures see the speed and scope of the prisoners’ release as a pivotal test that reveals the prospects for dialogue and opportunities to mitigate what they describe as the most severe political repression in decades.
The Director of the Cairo Center for Political and Legal Studies, Ahmed Mahran, considered that “the national dialogue represents a real call to open the doors for participation in achieving sustainable development, and a real change in the lives of citizens by involving the opposition in the national development process.”
In previous statements to Al-Hurra, he said, “National dialogue opens the way for dialogue and enables the political forces in Egypt to sit at a table of discussions to discuss the most important issues facing Egypt at this stage.”
He continued, “This dialogue is useful, especially with regard to rights and freedoms, and the pressures and restrictions that the Egyptian opposition faced.”
He added: “This dialogue will be the beginning of gradual gains for the opposition, which will make it strong and able to participate in political life in a real way.”
As Sisi consolidated his position, tens of thousands of his opponents or critics from across the political spectrum were imprisoned, according to human rights groups.
During the two months following the announcement of the dialogue, just under 300 prisoners were released despite the presidential pardon committee obtaining initial approval to release more than 1,074 people, according to Tariq Al-Awadi, a member of the presidential pardon committee.
Al-Awadi said that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned and accused of resorting to violence against the state, will not be able to participate in the dialogue, but the Amnesty Committee will not exclude any names on ideological grounds, Reuters reported.
Al-Awadi added, “We are studying the file and presenting it to the competent authorities, specifically to the Presidency of the Republic. The Presidency is seeking the opinion of the existing security services, and accordingly the decision is issued.”
For his part, the former parliamentarian affiliated with the left-wing Al-Karama Party, Ahmed Al-Tantawi, said, “This broad release of large numbers of prisoners of conscience was a necessary prelude and still is. Some were dealing with it as a necessary condition, and some were accepting that it remains a result.”
Al-Tantawi, who decided not to participate in the dialogue, added in an interview with Reuters, “But in any case, this is not what happened. It was not responded to as a necessary prelude, and there are no signs that it will be an inevitable result.”
Tantawi had said in a previous interview with Al-Hurra: “We are not looking for intentions, but according to previous political data, there was a need for a real national dialogue and to listen to the voice of the opposition.”
He continued, “We have reached tragic results on all political, economic and social levels, and even national security files,” noting that “solutions to most problems in Egypt do not require dialogue.”
He pointed out that “most of the powers in Egypt are concentrated in the hands of the President of the Republic, and he can use them to develop urgent solutions if the political administration is available,” adding, “But this did not happen.”
He added, “I hope that the national dialogue will represent a serious call for reunification, but achieving this remains dependent on the authority’s behavior and seriousness.”
When asked during a press conference this month about the speedy release of prisoners, the General Coordinator of the National Dialogue, Diaa Rashwan, expressed his hope for a presidential pardon for more convicted prisoners, but said that the matter of pretrial detainees is within the jurisdiction of the prosecution.
Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, said that prisoner release rates from late April to late June were roughly the same rates as the past two years, and that the number of new cases before the State Security Prosecution was close to the number of releases.
“The only gain is the government’s recent recognition that there is a problem with the issue of political prisoners and it must be dealt with,” he added.
Some of those recently released have been in pretrial detention since 2019, when thousands were arrested amid a rare small wave of protests.
Khaled Daoud, a journalist and member of the liberal Constitution Party who plans to participate in the dialogue, said the authorities need to stop new arrests and lift restrictions on the media.
“I’m not asking for more than the basics… We want to express our opinions without fear… Fear of arrest,” added Daoud, who was also arrested in late 2019 and held for 19 months, during which his sister died and his father fell ill.
Human rights groups estimate that tens of thousands have been arrested for political reasons since 2013, but al-Sisi has said that Egypt does not hold political prisoners.
Western countries called on Egypt in 2021 to end the trial of activists, journalists, and supposed political opponents under anti-terror laws, and to release them unconditionally.
In 2018, an Egyptian court placed former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh on a terrorism list after he was arrested over alleged contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood, and his family says they are “concerned about his deteriorating health in prison.”
A military court sentenced Hisham Geneina, the former head of the Central Auditing Organization, which is concerned with anti-corruption, to five years in prison in 2018 on charges of spreading false news harmful to the army, which was condemned by Amnesty International.
In 2021, prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah was sentenced to five years in prison after being tried on charges of spreading false news.
Abdel Fattah, one of the prominent activists in the 2011 uprising that ousted Mubarak after three decades in power, was previously sentenced to five years in prison in 2014 and released in 2019.
His family is concerned that his health may deteriorate rapidly after a hunger strike of more than 115 days, although his prison conditions have improved somewhat.
In 2021, a court convicted prominent human rights activist Hossam Bahgat of insulting a judicial election commission in a tweet on Twitter.
Since 2016, Bahgat has been banned from traveling abroad and his personal assets have been frozen in connection with a separate criminal investigation over a decade.
The US State Department said that the death of economic researcher Ayman Hodhoud requires a “comprehensive, transparent and credible” investigation, after his death this year in a psychiatric hospital in Cairo, where he was referred by the security services that detained him.
Amnesty International indicated that he was tortured or ill-treated before his death, but the Egyptian prosecution said that it found no evidence of a criminal suspicion in the death of the economic researcher.
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