Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

‘Positive steps’

Does President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s meeting with intellectuals on Tuesday herald a change in policy towards thorny issues? Dina Ezzat seeks an answer

Al-Ahram Weekly

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with writers and intellectuals at Al-Ittihadiya Presidential Palace on Tuesday afternoon.

Al-Sisi told those who attended the meeting that he wanted to find an equilibrium between Egypt’s stability on one side and securing freedoms and rights on the other.

“I struggle to ensure [Egypt’s] stability,” the president told the assembled intellectuals.

The meeting is the first in a series of dialogues Al-Sisi will hold with figures from Egypt’s political, economic and arts communities, according to a statement issued by the presidency.

The almost three-hour meeting, said one presidential source, was “an opportunity to explain in detail the positions the state has adopted in the face of considerable political, security and economic challenges, and to listen to whatever ideas these intellectuals might have to offer.”

Participants at Tuesday’s meeting who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly after leaving the presidential palace said it was clear, during their discussion with him, that the president is aware of the scepticism with which many view the immediate future.

Al-Sisi, they said, was “willing to listen” to their carefully worded expressions of concern over failures to honour the text and spirit of the constitution, falling levels of public confidence, growing unease over police violations, the poor performance of some government members and the splintering of the camp that supported the political roadmap of 3 July 2013.

Participants also spoke of their concerns over recent allegations made against public figures said to have shown disrespect to religion. Some argued that the allegations were a “setback to the calls for a civil state that were made on 3 July”. Reservations were also expressed over literary censorship justified “under the questionable pretext of public morals”.

“The meeting showed the president was interested to start some positive moves,” said Abdallah Al-Sennawi, a commentator who is generally supportive of Al-Sisi but who has recently criticised the president’s position on public freedoms and the implementation of the constitution.

Al-Sennawi told the Weekly that the executive plans to meet with other groups from the civil and political spheres in the coming weeks and that he is hopeful the initial meeting “could lead to concrete steps being taken on matters of public concern”.

Diaa Rashwan, head of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said Al-Sisi seemed “willing to introduce specific steps on a range of issues causing concern among the wider public”.

Rashwan told the Weekly that the president “listened to all the views and proposals that were being made and asked for working groups to be formed to follow up on execution and connect with wider political and intellectuals circles”, the goal being to formulate a working plan to help “bridge the gap between the ideas the president condoned in principle and the plan of action required to enact them”.

According to Rashwan, the group that met with Al-Sisi will reconvene in four weeks’ time to formulate a detailed working plan.

Tuesday’s meeting was convened against a backdrop of internal political unease, not least in relation to what rights groups in Egypt and in other countries say is “a systematic attempt by the authorities to silence any voice opposed to the regime”. International criticism of human rights violations attributed to the police and other law enforcement bodies has reached a level that the authorities are unable to ignore.

Tuesday’s discussions, and the possibility of subsequent gatherings, met with at best a lukewarm response from young political activists who argue that the president is unlikely to support the kind of dialogue necessary for the current political crisis to be resolved.

“The fact the president chose to start his political dialogue, or national dialogue as some call it, with a group of intellectuals known to support him — only a few of the attendees are on record as ever having expressed reservations over Al-Sisi’s political choices — doesn’t suggest a willingness to reach out to the wider political opposition,” said Mohamed Othman, a member of the political bureau of the Strong Egypt Party.

The meeting, said Othman, was “an attempt to accommodate dissenting voices from within the presidential camp rather than reconcile with society and the opposition at large”.

Democratic Current member Chadi Harb argued that the presidential meeting — “or even meetings to follow” — is “too little too late”.

For two years, said Harb, the regime has “imposed unprecedented restrictions on public space and been at loggerheads with youth groups, civil society and all serious political parties”.

He continued, “For the president to do a U-turn he needs to undo much of what has been done over the last two years. Public space must be reopened in a way that allows politics to be revived and for civil society to make a contribution without fear of intimidation.”

Gasser Abdel-Razek, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), believes the president will allow some change, though it will be limited.

“Egypt is facing a huge amount of international criticism over its record on human rights and civil society,” said Abdel-Razek. First came the European Parliament’s resolution, then the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council weighed in, only to be followed by the US secretary of state. It is no longer a tenable response for the regime simply to dismiss criticisms, argued Abdel-Razek.

Even if the president opts for only a minimal shift in his position, room will be made for some improvements, said the EIPR head.

“On civil society, there is a decent enough draft law that was put by former cabinet member Ahmed Al-Borai which could be dusted down. On police violations the president can issue clear directives to end the absolute impunity police officers have been enjoying. On the file of prisoners and detainees the president could ask for an immediate review of all cases in which detainees are being held without charge.”

There is enough incentive, said Abdel-Razek, for Al-Sisi to shift his position, if only to reassemble his support group and win wider backing in the face of international criticism.

“Whatever the reasons, the president in certainly in a position to act.”

Abdel-Razek thinks it positive that on Monday Al-Sisi met with Fayza Abul-Naga, his national security advisor known for her firm handling of civil society, the minister of social solidarity who is in charge of the NGO file, and several senior security aides. The meeting, he said, “suggests some changes could be coming our way”.

Political scientist Hassan Nafaa argues that changes on the economic front are also feasible. All that is needed, said Nafaa, is the appointment of politically sensitive ministers who have a clear vision of how to address Egypt’s economic and political woes.

It is not too late, said Nafaa, “provided what started on Tuesday continues and expands to include the serious political opposition, including Islamists who have not been involved in any kind of violence or discriminatory actions”.

One obvious way forward is to implement the constitution approved by a public referendum in January 2014, said Hoda Al-Saada. Al-Saada, who was part of the 50-member commission that drafted the constitution, is also member of a newly established committee set up to defend its provisions.

The current state of “political tension”, she said, is the result of overlooking constitutional stipulations on “political, cultural and socio-economic rights”.

A presidential source who spoke to the Weekly said members of the committee that drafted the constitution and some, though not all, leaders of political parties, are the most likely candidates for the next round of dialogue with Al-Sisi. Tuesday’s meeting, he said, was not a one-off, “and contrary to the scepticism expressed by those who perceive such meetings as a public relations exercise, the truth is the president does wish to reconcile with the many elements of society”.

Just hours after Tuesday’s meeting ended, 19-year-old Mahmoud Mohamed was released on bail. Mohamed had spent two years in pre-trail detention after he was arrested for wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “A Nation without Torture”. Mohamed’s release, said Al-Sinnawi, “suggests we can expect some positive steps in the coming weeks”.

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