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Situation Assessment 02 August, 2023

National Dialogue in Egypt: Context and Hopes for Success

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

acrobat IconOn 26 April 2022, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi announced that the National Youth Conference, a dialogue forum established in 2016, would manage a dialogue with the different political and social forces in the country. Sisi thus revived the work of the Presidential Pardon Committee, which presents lists of political prisoners to the security services, requesting their release. This so-called Egyptian National Dialogue is working under the main slogan of “The Path Toward the New Republic”, which preceded the dialogue. However, the accompanying subtitle is “Common Spaces”, which implies a political will to make space for interaction with opposition forces, unheard of since Sisi came to power in 2014.

The national dialogue was launched in an attempt to mitigate severe pressures on the regime. Living conditions in the country have deteriorated rapidly as a result of failed economic and fiscal policies pursued by the government over the past decade, and the cessation of the Gulf aid that had propped up the regime in the first years of Sisi’s reign.

More than a year since preparations began, the dialogue was officially launched on 3 May 2023. A board of trustees was formed, and Diaa Rashwan was appointed as general coordinator over three main political, economic, and societal thematic tracks. These tracks were distributed over five committees, all of which worked to draw up plans of action and set parameters for conducting the dialogue. Since the start of the public sessions, the last of which was held on 22 June, 31 sessions have been held, including opponents, supporters, and representatives of the regime, all of which have been met with intense publicity.[1]

The Groups at the Table

The beginning of the dialogue marked an unusual scene in Sisi’s Egypt. In one hall, a number of figures affiliated with the opposition appeared alongside regime representatives, including representatives of political forces and parties that have been banned from practicing political action over the past decade, as well as independent figures. Diaa Rashwan, who exerted great efforts to communicate with various forces and personalities to persuade them to participate, considered the attendees “partners in the 30 June Alliance”, excluding the Muslim Brotherhood. However, these “partners”, despite their support for the regime's policies upon its establishment, were kept at arm’s length. Accordingly, the regime seemed to be seeking to revive its old alliances and “bring back cohesion”, according to Rashwan.[2] The dialogue began on the grounds of what the regime calls the legitimacy of the 2014 constitution, and the implicit condition is the exclusion of the Brotherhood and its supporters.[3]

In reality, the regime instead treated the 30 June Partners as adversaries, and a number of those affiliated with this camp are still in prisons despite the dialogue. The regime also seems caught between the need for dialogue, as it cannot continue to suppress opinion and keep the public space closed, and its fear that the dialogue might encourage opponents of the regime inside Egypt to violate its warnings that it is ready to commit severe acts of repression, and prepared to bear the brunt of any condemnations that may result.

Objectives of the “Partners” in the Dialogue

Different members of the regime, representatives of political parties, leaders of trade unions, a number of leaders of human rights organizations, and some public figures participated in the dialogue sessions, in addition to well-known personalities who participated in the 2011 revolution. This raised multiple questions about the goals of these dialogue “partners”, their expectations from it, its endgame, and its limits.

For the regime, the worsening economic conditions and the bleak horizon has made it necessary to demonstrate some flexibility and search for alternative solutions. Opening the door to dialogue with the various political and social forces in the country was a proactive step aimed at containing the growing popular discontent and disappointment that has set in among broad political groups that have supported the regime's policies in over the past decade. Opening a national dialogue also responds to pressures exerted by some Western countries to ease the security grip, open the door to political participation, and expand public freedoms. And by opening up to those whom the regime classifies as “moderate opponents”, they can appear to be finding alternatives and solutions to abate the crisis. The regime has also announced its intention to take the outcomes of the national dialogue seriously, whether in the form of legislative proposals or political proposals to be implemented in law.

The matter cannot be separated from the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for February 2024, preparations for which will begin in December this year. In such a context, the regime is rushing to spread a general sense of change or the possibility of change and hopes that the county will overcome its suffocating crises, as a prelude to reintroducing Sisi himself as the country's leader for the third time. Perhaps from this angle, some consider that the launch of the national dialogue as nothing more than propaganda, as the target of the dialogue is not the internal, but external forces whose enthusiasm to support the regime has waned in light of its failure and the exacerbation of the numerous crises.

The opposition forces that have accepted their invitation to the dialogue are led by the “Civil Democratic Movement” bloc.[4] They put forward several conditions for their participation, the most important of which is that the dialogue be serious and that it leads to practical results with outcomes implemented. The movement has established several procedural and substantive controls necessary to ensure that it is a means to save the country and solve its problems.[5] During the preparatory period for the dialogue, and in meetings with representatives of the regime and its mediators, the movement placed the issue of releasing political detainees at the top of its priorities, which the regime did not mind discussing, but serious doubts remain about the existence of a real intention to deal with this highly sensitive file, especially with the continuation of the repressive approach of the security services during dialogue sessions.

The work of the Presidential Pardon Committee has remained suspended, with a very limited number of political prisoners having been released. Furthermore, the authorities have continued with its extensive arrest campaigns, charging many activists and politicians for merely expressing their opinion. This has been a source of great embarrassment to the participants in the dialogue struggling to justify their participation to their bases and to critics. It is not possible to achieve reform in this atmosphere and the state of mistrust was only increased by the regime’s insistence on not resolving the issue of political prisoners. The state could resolve the issue by releasing political prisoners or by cancelling the pretrial detention law, in force since 2013,[6] which has constituted the legal umbrella for the imprisonment of numbers estimated to be tens of thousands.

The Opposition to the Dialogue

Those who reject dialogue point to contradictions that prevent their interaction with the regime, foremost of which is the sharp difference in their vision of managing the country, the method of governance, and the priorities for a solution. When the dialogue began and its agenda was made public, their point of view seemed to have merit. Given the authority’s marriage to its policies, the dialogue seemed closer to a one-sided “conversation”. The government says one thing, and the opposition says another – in the end no scenarios are put forward to solve the crisis, and no common space emerges where outcomes can be implemented.

Opponents also insist on resolving the issue of political arrests. The continued repression and detention policies reflect the regime’s conviction that keeping opposition in prisons is a prerequisite for its stability, while the opposition considers this a source of instability. The contradictory visions and conflicting priorities were evident in Sisi's speech, in which he was quoted as being disturbed by the opposition's focus on the issue of prisoners, freedoms, and democracy during the dialogue, and that he wants “people who understand the country's crisis in non-political matters, and realize that democracy and elections will not solve problems.”[7] Sisi's position appears clear in this regard. As he continued to respond to Western criticism regarding the deterioration of the state of human rights and freedoms, claiming the matter is not among the priorities of his rule, and that he adopts a special concept of those rights, based mainly on providing the people with the basic conditions of life. This, in his estimation, is a great burden, which he may be unable to pull off. Therefore, he has asked Western governments that urge him to respect human rights to help him financially instead, as he “governs 100 million” people.[8]

Juxtaposing the stability of the Egyptian state with human rights reflects an old conviction of the regime, and an awareness that the interests of Western countries, which fear the repercussions of crises in large countries such as Egypt, are pushing them to take “realistic” measures, according to which they postpone the demand for respect for human rights. The regime has always weaponized the threat of terrorism, irregular immigration, and other scarecrow matters to ensure the continued support of Western countries, or at least to silence them on the widespread human rights violations, according to the reigning belief that that Egypt’s size and role is too important for the world to allow its collapse (too big to fail).

The “Three Nos” of the Dialogue and Its Prospects

In addition to talking about rights and freedoms, other issues occupied the list of priorities for dialogue and the schedule of its discussions, most of which were related to existing and urgent crises. Diaa Rashwan established three issues as off limits for discussion in the opening session, namely: amending the constitution, foreign policy, and national security.[9] The term “national security” is one often used by the regime in a manner as justification for a number of violations, an ever-expanding umbrella term to include whatever it wants, including the issue of political detainees.

Since the start of the dialogue sessions, it has been clear that these boundaries were set to curb the opposition forces, with the limits increasing with every dialogue session, including on any criticism of the House of Representatives, as Rashwan declared in his angry response to those who complained about the performance of Parliament, and stressed that he sees this as unacceptable abuse of a state institution.[10] Many members of the opposition were keen to bet on reform despite these obstacles, the lack of real will, and dwindling opportunity for any reform. Most of them continued to attend the dialogue sessions and interact in its discussions, and the effort focused on putting forward specific demands, especially on the most urgent issues, specifically related to political reform and the upcoming presidential elections, given that they could constitute a starting point for widening the political field and proving the government’s seriousness in reform and a new era.

There are guarantees or principal determinants for the upcoming electoral process, including amending the National Elections Commission Law in order to continue full judicial supervision of the elections. For the opposition, the most important thing remains the abolition of the current electoral system, which is based on the absolute, closed list, in order to replace it with a fairer electoral system. On this issue, the dialogue has seen disagreements. On the one hand, those close to the government have insisted on the necessity of continuing the current list system, while the opposition clings to its demand for a modified system based on proportional lists, believing this would expand the representation of political forces and parties, in contrast to the list system that marginalizes them, which leads to large blocs of parties in loyal to the regime in Parliament.[11] In general, the discussions on the subject did not result in anything significant, with the exception of Rashwan’s promise that the different opinions regarding the electoral system, like all political issues, will be raised to the President of the Republic, meaning that the authority that is supposed to be a party to the dialogue will actually govern it, as it is up to them to accept or reject the recommendations made.


The 31 rounds of national dialogue held so far have not succeeded in producing a consensus on ways out of the deep crisis the country is embroiled in. There were no great expectations in this regard in light of government adamance and the opposition’s lack of cards to play enabling it to impose any change, however limited, in addition to its divisions and differences over many talking points in the dialogue. It does not seem that the opposition currently has any conception of the next stage, nor the feasibility of continuing the dialogue, and even in this regard, the divisions appear severe, with part of the opposition announcing the suspension of its participation until the release of political prisoners. At the same time, ambiguity surrounds the outcomes of the dialogue, which are currently being undertaken in closed sessions.

[1] For more, see the official “Egyptian National Dialogue” page, at: https://bit.ly/3KliO9R

[2] “The launch of the National Dialogue session with the Board of Trustees under the slogan ‘the road toward the new republic’”, 5/7/2022, ON, YouTube, accessed on 23/7/2023, at: https://bit.ly/3DyRwZR

[3] Ibid.

[4] The movement consists of several parties and public figures, the most prominent of which is former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.

[5] “7 controls... The Egyptian civil movement accepts dialogue with Sisi,” Al Jazeera Net, 9/5/2022, accessed on 24/7/2023, at: https://bit.ly/3QjkdS5

[6] The Interim President of the Republic, Adly Mansour, approved Law No. 83 in 2013, which amends some provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure, allows pretrial detention for crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment without adhering to any time limit set by law and turning pre-trial custody into absolute imprisonment and punishment in itself.

[7] Rana Mamdouh, “In the presidential elections… the noise of the candidates begins with the participation of the parties… and Sisi is preparing the battlefield,” Mada Masr, 14/6/2023, accessed on 25/7/2023, at: https://bit.ly/43NPD6p

[8] See, for example: “President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s speech during the Egypt summit and the countries of the Visegrad grouping,” 10/12/2021, The Presidency of the Arab Republic of Egypt, YouTube, accessed on 25/7/2023, at: https://2h.ae/NNzM; “This is what President El-Sisi said about human rights in Egypt,” the press conference between Sisi and Macron on 28/1/2019, Extra News, YouTube, accessed on 25/7/2023, at: https://2h.ae/cBUs; In addition to Sisi’s speech, in which he responded to countries that demand that he grant his citizens their political rights, he said disparagingly after he indicated that he has 100 million people that he doesn’t know what to do with: “What rights? I can’t deal with the issue, I can’t work, I can’t feed them, I can’t house them...”. See: “President Sisi’s speech during the launch of the national project for family development,” 28/2/2022, Extra News, YouTube, accessed on 25/7/2023, at: https://2h.ae/Mdfa

[9] “Speech by the General Coordinator of the National Dialogue, Diaa Rashwan, at the opening session of the National Dialogue,” 3/5/2023, Extra News, YouTube, accessed on 25/7/2023, at: https://bit.ly/459D06P

[10] Safaa Essam, “So that the national dialogue does not become all-talk no action,” Al-Manassa, 26/5/2023, accessed on 24/7/2023, at: https://bit.ly/3rR7mfZ

[11] Tamer Hindawi, “The closed proportional list… disagreement between the opposition and regime loyalists over the electoral system on the first day of the national dialogue sessions,” Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 14/5/2023, accessed on 26/7/2023, at: https://bit.ly/3rSjBc7