Egypt: With national dialogue kicked off, mistrust prevails amid persecution of regime critics

The official sessions of the national dialogue kicked off on May 14 under a cloud of mistrust amid ongoing persecution of regime critics

Former Karama (Dignity) Party head Ahmed Tantawi left Egypt last year after facing security pressure following his criticism of the national dialogue, but he announced in April that he would return to Egypt on May 6 and run in next year’s presidential elections.

On the eve of his return, though, authorities arrested more than a dozen of his family members and supporters and detained them on terrorism-related charges.

Tantawi was forced to postpone his return to “avoid more arrests at the airport,” but he eventually arrived in Egypt on May 11 after authorities released two of his family members from detention.

The arrests were denounced by parties participating in the national dialogue as well as by rights organizations.

The developments led the opposition Civil Democratic Movement (CDM) to reconsider its decision to participate in the dialogue, warning that “no serious and genuine dialogue needed by citizens and the homeland can succeed” in the current climate of fear. Authorities also arrested Ihab Samra, a member of the Conservative Party within the CDM, in early May.

The movement ultimately did decide to participate, although one of its constituent parties, the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, chose to boycott in light of authorities’ failure to meet the CDM’s conditions, particularly the release of political prisoners.

The first day of the dialogue was devoted to its political axis, with sessions on the electoral system for the House of Representatives, discrimination, and challenges facing unions. The first session witnessed debate over whether to adopt a proportional or closed list for parliamentary elections, while there was greater agreement over the need to establish a state commission to combat discrimination.

Economic sessions began yesterday and addressed the state’s social protection programs and tourism. The third and final axis, on social issues, will begin meeting tomorrow, with sessions devoted to controversial guardianship laws and questions of national identity.

The continuing security crackdown was not limited to the arrests of Tantawi’s relatives and supporters.

On May 11, for instance, security forces arrested student activist and former political prisoner Moaz al-Sharqawy at his home before forcibly disappearing him. One week later, his whereabouts remain unknown.

Al-Sharqawy has previously been held in pretrial detention for extended periods of time and tortured. In May 2022, an emergency court convicted him of terrorism-related charges alongside Strong Egypt Party President Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh and the party’s deputy, Mohamed al-Qassas, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. He was not taken into custody earlier, however, as the sentence has not been ratified and is therefore not yet enforceable.

A court also renewed the detention of activist Sherif al-Rouby for another 45 days, while prison authorities have refused to refer him to a doctor despite severe medical difficulties.

Al-Rouby was released from two years of pretrial detention in May 2022, just weeks after General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s announcement of the national dialogue, but re-arrested just months later.

Yehia Hussein Abdel Hady, a co-founder and former spokesperson of the CDM, was likewise released from prison one year ago before being arrested again last month. A court ordered him released from detention last week, but he is still facing trial on false bogus news charges.

Dozens of fans of Al-Ahly SC, a soccer club, who were arrested during and after a game in Cairo last month saw their detentions extended by another 15 days for “joining a banned organization” on May 14. Among them was a 15-year-old, who was presented to prosecutors in handcuffs in violation of Egyptian law.

In the same context, the Refugees Platform in Egypt reported today that Alfred Camus Djasnan, a Chadian refugee and director of the African Refugee Rights Initiative, was arrested on May 14 after writing about a demonstration in front of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in 6th of October City. His whereabouts remain unknown.