Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

Talking about talks

Another call for national dialogue, but who’s listening, asks Omayma Abdel-Latif

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Al-Ahram Weekly

A week of marathon meetings and mediation efforts to bridge the gap between President Mohamed Morsi and his political opponents has yielded little, if any, results. News of meetings between political rivals to hammer out topics of dialogue has been overshadowed by developments including the campaign of civil disobedience in Port Said which entered its third day on Tuesday, looming economic meltdown, friction among National Salvation Front (NSF) members over preparations for the parliamentary elections, the Constitutional Court’s decision to refer back the election law to the Shura Council and the crisis between the presidency and Nour Party, which is spearheading mediation efforts, over the sacking of one of its leading figures from his post as an adviser to the president.

Asked whether the much trailed national dialogue will kick off any time soon Ayman Nour, a key player in the mediation marathon, told Al-Ahram Weekly on Monday that he was hopeful that “a breakthrough” will take place. Pressed to elaborate, Nour sounded hesitant: “All options are open. It could get more complicated but it could also be resolved if we agree on a roadmap to the dialogue.”

Nour pointed out that the agenda of any dialogue would be topped by replacing the government of Prime Minister Hisham Kandil with a national unity cabinet and postponing parliamentary elections.

The dialogue called for by Morsi was supposed to open on 13 February but has been postponed to give mediation efforts conducted by the Nour Party a chance. The NSF has threatened to boycott talks unless its demands are met. They include forming a new cabinet, replacing the prosecutor-general and halting the Ikhwanisation of the state, ie placing Muslim Brotherhood members in all available key state posts. The Nour’s mediation efforts bore fruit when, following meetings with leading opposition figures, the NSF agreed to narrow down its demands to the formation of a national unity government. It is the only condition they now require to be met before sitting at the negotiation table.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), however, refuses to accede to any pre-conditions.

“We cannot accept conditions before the dialogue,” Murad Ali, FJP spokesman, told the Weekly on Monday. Such demands, he said, reflect the arrogance of the opposition.

“If the president were to agree to this demand before the dialogue begins what is there left to discuss?” he asked.

The presidential spokesman upped the ante when he charged that turning down the call for dialogue meant condoning violence in the street. It was a line repeated by Ali who insisted that if the opposition do not accept to join the dialogue on the president’s terms “they will be pushing the country to the brink and be held responsible for the huge price that could be paid in blood and violence”.

“The process will start with or without them,” he added, begging obvious questions about who the president will be engaging in dialogue with.

On Monday Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that FJP head Saad Al-Katatni briefed both Morsi and Khairat Al-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy supreme guide, on NSF demands that elections be postponed and a national unity government formed. Al-Shater was reported to have insisted that elections be held on schedule even if it meant sacrificing Kandil’s government.

Amr Mekki, deputy head of the Nour Party, spoke about the formation of a national unity government as though it was a done deal. It has, he pointed out, been welcomed by both the presidency and the opposition.

On Saturday evening reports began to circulate about potential nominees to the new cabinet. Al-Shorouk reported on Sunday that former prime minister Kamal Al-Ganzouri had made it clear he would only consider heading a new cabinet if his tenure extended beyond parliamentary elections and he was guaranteed the final say in appointing the cabinet’s economic team. Salafist parties objected to the conditions and suggested a new cabinet be formed immediately after the elections. Ayman Nour’s name was peddled as a possible alternative. He met Morsi on Saturday leading to speculation that he was about to be nominated. His number one condition, he told the Weekly, was to delay the elections for at least a year. Islamists forces, confident of their victory, dismiss any delay out of hand.

During the past week the public has been bombarded with statements and counter-statements about the dialogue, news that has been all but ignored by a public now convinced that substantive issues of concern to their daily lives have been lost in all the squabbling.

“Issues of concern to the majority of Egyptians have disappeared from the public debate on the dialogue,” says Mohamed Soffar, Cairo University professor of political theory.

The significant players, in Soffar’s view, remain the three forces that have presence on the ground and a coherent constituency: former members of the dissolved National Democratic Party; the Islamists and the revolutionary youth groups that two years ago showed themselves capable of mobilising the street. And the single most important issue, says Soffar, is the deteriorating socio-economic situation.

The lack of confidence among the parties concerned, Soffar argues, is a major obstacle facing any national dialogue. More important, though, is the absence of rules and mechanisms to ensure a meaningful process.

“We are witnessing a political struggle over power and posts and there is arrogance and exclusion on both sides. We need confidence-building measures as a starter.”

Soffar does not view the opposition list of demands as anything more than “slogans meant to block any progress on the road to genuine dialogue which fail to reflect the socio-economic needs of the people”.

If the recent past is anything to go by attempts to initiate national dialogue will prove at best irrelevant. The Strong Egypt Party issued a statement on 17 February which served as a painful reminder of how previous sessions of national dialogue had ended in failure. In December 2012 endless hours of talks were undermined when the Brotherhood dominated Shura Council and the FJP made remarks that any ensuing recommendations were not binding. The Shura Council then went on to ignore all recommendations on the new elections law that emerged from the dialogue.

“There is,” Nour told the Weekly, “a near consensus among the opposition across the political spectrum that parliamentary elections should be delayed.”

That such a consensus should have emerged may well be a product of the opposition’s failure to build a popular base. They do not, in short, feel prepared to expose themselves at the ballot box.

While Islamist forces remain adamant in their refusal to countenance the rescheduling of elections a procedural delay is almost inevitable after the Constitutional Court on Monday judged several articles of the elections law passed by the Shura Council unconstitutional. The law has now been referred back for amendments. The opening of nominations for the parliamentary elections, which should have been 60 days after the ratification of the constitution — ie on 23 February — will now have to be delayed until the election law itself is amended and those amendments judged constitutional.

“The process of nomination will take place towards the end of this week or beginning of next week,” Ammar Al-Beltagui, a Muslim Brotherhood activist, wrote on his Facebook on Tuesday. The statement is typical of the position being adopted by the Brotherhood. That it is so widespread within the group does not make it any less optimistic.

Since last week a flurry of meetings has been held in an attempt to reach an out of dialogue settlement between the warring political factions, with the Nour Party emerging as a go-between the presidency and its opponents. The Nour held meetings with revolutionary activists on Wednesday and with NSF leaders on Thursday. The end product was a draft of assurances which the opposition demanded all parties sign in advance of dialogue.

Expectations of a breakthrough peaked when news was leaked of a surprise meeting bringing together Al-Katatni, Mohamed Al-Baradei and Wafd Party head Al-Sayed Al-Badawi. Little, however, came out of the meeting. On his Facebook page Al-Katatni said that the meeting was meant to be an “exchange of views on the political situation”. He added that the Nour Party initiative was not on the agenda. The statement complicated the already tense situation between the Nour and Brotherhood, leading Nour spokesman Nader Bakkar to demand more information about the meeting be made public. It also raised questions over how seriously the presidency and the FJP are taking the Salafist party’s efforts to stake out a middle ground.

One informed source at the Nour said on Monday that his party’s mediation efforts were not welcomed by the president.

“Morsi is unhappy with any success our party achieves in resolving this crisis. He does not want the Nour to take any credit for national reconciliation and so accumulate capital in the street.”

The timing of sacking Nour Party member Khaled Alameddin as one of Morsi’s advisers was no coincidence, says party member Mohamed Anz. “It was intended to undermine our efforts to break the deadlock.”

 

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