Al-Sisi Embraces Political Dialogue: Is Time up for Egypt? 

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President Al-Sisi at the Egyptian Family Iftar in Cairo, April 2022. Source: Egypt Today.

The Egyptian government is set to involve oppositions in political reconciliation efforts, leading to wonder which are the geopolitical conditions for truly new horizons. 

Internal political dialogue is underway in Egypt. According to different sources, the government is expected to promote political talks on a multiple-stage level in the following weeks. On this matter, during the annual Egyptian Family Iftar Banquet back in April, Al-Sisi had already announced the need for a comprehensive political action based on the respect for different opinions.

The national dialogue would allow for the opposition to propose recommendations in order to shape a national agenda to be later referred to the national parliament. For this purpose, the National Training Academy has been set up to gather different political groups and segments of the civil society. Moreover, this general change of path for the Egyptian government translates also in the re-activation of a Presidential Pardon Committee aimed at easing the detention situation in the country.

For the moment, the facts are not proving Al-Sisi wrong. As Cairo has been releasing several prisoners since April, ulteriorly easing detentions after the recent visit from Biden, the preliminary formation of the Pardon Committee in May saw, for example, the presence of Kamal Abu Aita, leader of the opposition Karama party. 

On this matter, despite being excluded from the political process as Egypt’s government classifies it as a terrorist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood announced they would not recur to violence and interfere with the political process. In summary, what could be seen as a new open and pacific political landscape for Egypt, leads to ask if we are in front of a turning point for the county.  

Such a new political direction would be a milestone for a country that, since Al-Sisi came to power in 2014, witnessed political turmoil and mass repression through widespread pre-trial detentions. As a matter of fact, it is estimated that 60.000 political dissidents are currently imprisoned. Their conditions are widely reported: on this strand, the well-known political dissident Alaa Abd El Fattah has been on a hunger strike since the first days of April. 

Given the depicted picture, it is natural, therefore, to explore if and how there are the conditions for a feasible change in the country. 

On the one hand, this political move from Cairo is a clear outcome derived from specific factors that pushed for a change of strategy rather than a clear commitment to a new political equilibrium. Al-Sisi needs to shift the attention from the current economic crisis that is ravishing Egypt. For a country which is the first importer of wheat in the world, the shortage deriving from the Ukrainian war worsened a public dept increasingly out of control. Indeed, whereas spending power is collapsing, the government opted to sell state-owned firms. 

The renewed focus on reconciliation represents, therefore, a strategic shift from a socio-economic situation that in the following months could get worse: the long-lasting hydric dispute with Sudan and Ethiopia regarding the Nile River seems to have reached a new turning point. In the light of the completion in 2023 of its GERD Dam, Ethiopia unilaterally proceeded, despite UN advise, with a new water collection in July: a choice from Addis Abeba that endangers Egyptian hydric reserves.

On the other hand, this new focus on the political situation in Cairo is also a direct consequence of the new EU-Egypt relations. In June, the two partners proceeded with the redefinition of the EU-Egypt Association Council’s priorities until 2027. Given that, in the light of the green transition, the EU will support the southern counterpart with financial assistance up to 240 million until 2024, Egypt change of policy in the short term could be interpretable as a strategic reliability test, a compromise vis-à-vis EU’s timid requests for a normative change in the country. 

As a matter of fact, when reporting to the press the conclusions reached on that occasion with Sameh Shoukry, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt, the High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell, recalled not only the economic milestone to reach but also the importance of a common redefinition and alignment between the shores of the Mediterranean regarding human rights protection and political liberties. After all, the EU itself is under pressure regarding its relations with Egypt: ahead of Borrell’s meeting in Luxembourg, eight relevant NGOs, from Amnesty International to EuroMed Rights, signed a joint letter addressed to EU leaders, asking for a stricter normative policy towards the Mediterranean counterpart. 

However, even if Egypt’s calculations seem to hint toward a possible policy change, the international scenario does not leave space for the exercise of conditional power by the other international actors, despite the civil society’s pressure. Egypt has indeed become, on different levels, a crucial partner that prevents the EU from using a carrot and stickapproach when it comes to the future image of the political arena in Egypt.

As hinted by the establishment of a Mediterranean Hydrogen Partnership in June, Brussels sees Cairo as a valuable and necessary partner for its Mediterranean Agenda, from the green transition to the energy sector. Considering the increasing inter-dependence, it is clear why, in her last visit to Cairo, EU’s von der Leyen explicitly did not mention human rights records.

On his side, Al-Sisi is aware of Egypt’s geopolitical power, which also explains why he is increasingly engaging in the international arena. As the already forerunner partnership with Macron over energy and security teaches, hosting the COP27 Climate Summit next November in Sharm el-Sheikh is a good spotlight for strengthening alliances and the Egyptian assertiveness.

Moreover, departing from specific Euro-Mediterranean interests, Egypt represents a major ally for the geopolitical interests of the West. For this purpose, Egypt’s increasing ties with Saudi Arabia in the past months cannot help but be positively welcomed by western allies, in the light of their interests for the regional security and the more specific Middle East Peace Process: in March, the two MENA Countries were part of a historic tripartite conference with Israel over the future of the region. As a matter of fact, Al-Sisi’s recent mediating commitment to a ceasefire in Gaza shows a general alignment with the US diplomatic efforts in the region.

In conclusion, Egypt’s widening ties and international involvement represent both the light and the threat to an actual political change in the country. If a broader international exposure hints toward a possible strategic alignment to the partners’ norms, at the end of the day, the interdependence originating from these relations leaves the room for manoeuvre entirely to Egypt’s government: when and how this political reconciliation will effectively take place represents an open but interesting question mark.

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