Four months after Mubarak's ouster, Egyptians are still finding it difficult to conduct a peaceful dialogue over crucial national issues, Khaled Dawoud
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Chaos and disruption occurred throughout the three days of the National Dialogue Conference
Chaos, shouting and even fisticuffs marked two rounds of separate so-called "dialogues" among the country's elite, political figures and newly organised youth groups over critical issues in post- Mubarak Egypt.
The highly tense atmosphere that dominated the two dialogues, one over the country's future constitution and the second over other wider political, economic and social issues, reflected the lack of clarity and confusion over Egypt's political future after getting rid of a dictator that dominated the political scene for 30 years, and was setting the stage for his son to take over power.
Participants were also deeply divided over the relationship with the Higher Council of the Armed Forces (HCAF) that practically rules Egypt after Mubarak gave up power. While a majority of speakers were keen to express respect and gratitude for the Armed Forces and its commander Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi for siding with the 25 January Revolution, there were also growing signs of frustration and dissatisfaction, particularly among youth groups and a few opposition parties. Critics charged that the HCAF was slow in meeting the demands of the revolution, and failed to consult new groups that emerged after Mubarak's ousting over key laws that will rule political life such as the parties law, and that on conducting political rights.
A major test in relations with the HCAF will be tomorrow, Friday, as several key youth groups that took part in the revolution have called for yet another large protest in Tahrir Square, going as far as dubbing it "the Second Revolution" to speed up the trials of former members of the Mubarak regime and to consider their demands for the country's political future.
The HCAF and other political groups have discouraged such protests, especially if it leads to yet another sit-in at Tahrir Square that would disrupt normal life.
In both the Conference For National Accord, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Yehia El-Gamal and devoted to outlining the country's future constitution, and the wider National Dialogue Conference, headed by former deputy prime minister Abdel-Aziz Hegazi, there were also heated differences over the participation of members of Mubarak's former regime and the now dissolved former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
While the National Accord meeting was brief, lasting one day and breaking up into smaller committees, the chaos and disruption occurred throughout the three days of the National Dialogue Conference. Former leading NDP members as well as prominent journalists who were known for expressing blind loyalty to the former Mubarak regime and sharply attacking his opponents, were forced to leave the hall on the opening day of the meeting amid the shouting of slogans that rocked the main conference hall in Nasr City.
An exchange of accusations followed over who was responsible for the invitations, and whether members of Mubarak's former regime should be excluded from political participation. It was the same problem that led to the breakdown of an earlier attempt to hold a similar national dialogue in April. At that time, the dialogue was chaired by El-Gamal, and the agenda he presented included an item on "integration of members of the old regime". In an obvious attempt to calm opponents over the agenda and the way the meeting was conducted, El-Gamal was relieved of chairing the meeting and tasked instead with organising the Conference for National Accord on the constitution.
El-Gamal's National Accord meeting opened on Saturday when even participants questioned its use, considering the timetable that was drawn up by the national referendum on 19 March on amendments to the constitution proposed by the Armed Forces. Over 77 per cent of Egyptians voted in favour of those amendments that included scheduling September as the date to hold parliamentary elections, followed by presidential elections by the end of the year.
According to those amendments, the upcoming parliament would choose a committee made up of 100 members that would draft the country's future constitution. Largely liberal and secular groups have never approved that timetable, arguing that the country was not ready yet to hold parliamentary elections in September because of the deteriorating security situation, and that priority should be given to drafting the constitution first to establish clear rules that would govern Egypt's political future. The stand is strongly opposed by the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, arguing that parties calling for the postponement of elections were mainly concerned over not winning enough seats in parliament, and that they should work hard instead to attract voters.
The HCAF, represented at the meeting by Deputy Commander General for Legal Affairs Major General Mamdouh Shahin, insisted that the Armed Forces were committed to handing over power to civilians by December and to return to their barracks "to protect Egypt's national security".
Ibrahim Darwish, a veteran legal expert and professor, openly clashed with El-Gamal over the mandate of the meeting, considering that its results will be only advisory and might not even be looked into by the future committee that the next parliament would form to draft Egypt's new constitution.
Mohamed Nour Farahat, another prominent law professor at Zagazig University, also pointed out that it was improper to allow the next parliament alone to form the committee that would draft the constitution, warning that this would allow only one group that wins the elections to determine the country's future. Farahat, like many other legal experts who spoke at the accord meeting, noted that the constitution was a wider legal framework that should be reached by consensus among the majority of Egyptians, and not a single parliamentary bloc, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood whom many experts believe could win the largest number of seats in the next parliament as a single bloc because of its long history, religious appeal, finances and high level of organisation.
El-Gamal told participants at the conference that the Brotherhood's leadership has turned down his invitation to the dialogue. The group's official spokesman, Essam El-Erian, confirmed that decision, saying that there was no need to discuss constitutional amendments at this stage, and that this was an attempt "to disregard the will of the Egyptian people as reflected in the referendum. In this referendum, Egyptians said the next parliament should recruit the committee that would draft the constitution."
Meanwhile, at the National Dialogue Conference chaired by former prime minister Hegazi, the participation of several key NDP members and supporters of Mubarak led to the breakdown of the meeting, failing even to issue recommendations at its conclusion. Hegazi said smaller roundtable discussions would be organised soon to issue the main recommendations of the three-day dialogue and present them to the cabinet headed by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and the HCAF. The chaos that marked scores of separate meetings at the National Dialogue was mainly the result of clashes between organisers and newly- formed so-called youth groups which claimed they were not given a fair chance to air the views and demands despite the fact that youths sparked the 25 January Revolution which led to Mubarak's downfall.
Hegazi, a veteran politician, repeatedly lost his temper as he tried to calm down young men and women aged 20 to 30 who disrupted discussions by shouting slogans to stress their demands on the need for serious political reforms, the trial of members of the Mubarak regime and drafting the constitution first before holding any parliament or presidential elections.
Hegazi echoed the sentiments of many other participants when he expressed frustration with failing to understand who exactly represented the youth groups, considering there were dozens of such groups formed after Mubarak's ousting. But well known major youth groups, such as the Youth Revolution Coalition and the 6 April Movement, announced after the opening of the National Dialogue on Sunday that they were boycotting the meeting in protest against its agenda and list of participants. However, that did not prevent other youth groups from continuing to take part and insisting on disrupting meetings, and even getting involved in fist fights in the corridors at the conference hall to make their point.
Amr Hamzawy, a political expert, tried hard to strike a balance between the youth groups and experienced politicians, academics and experts who took part in the National Dialogue. He failed miserably. Hamzawy appealed to young participants to conduct a civilised, peaceful dialogue, stating that he personally agreed with their demand to postpone parliament elections. But they continued to shout slogans, and asked him to leave the stage because he allegedly prevented them from taking part in the dialogue to present their own views.
"All this is useless. When we know how the country will look like in the future, only then can we conduct a dialogue," said Amin Hamed, a member of a newly organised non-government organisation calling for wider political participation. "Right now," Hamed said, "nobody knows anything."