Egypt and Tunisia Keep Their Dictatorships Afloat Through Democratic Masquerades

Pressure from Europe and the United States, along with the economic crises, spurred Egyptian President al-Sissi and Tunisian President Saied to resuscitate their national dialogue initiatives – but no real change is afoot

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Protests against Tunisian President Kais Saied, this week.
Protests against Tunisian President Kais Saied, this week. Credit: FETHI BELAID - AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The homepage of the National Training Academy in Egypt provides a link to submit a request to participate in an upcoming national dialogue. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi announced the dialogue’s official launching during an Iftar meal in April. He explained this dialogue is meant to open a direct channel between the government and the public. He said every movement, party or organization is entitled, and even invited, to direct questions and comment on the burning issues the regime must deal with to build the “new republic.”

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, in February.Credit: Ludovic Marin/ AP

The discussion topics include security, economic welfare, education and the war against terror. The dialogue’s duration is undetermined; registration opened last week. It is supposed to bring together discussion groups nationwide, with participants formulating proposals and requests. At the end, conclusions will be presented to Sissi, who will then decide which ones will be submitted to parliament as bills.

The National Training Academy, an institution under the president’s auspices and in charge of the dialogue, explained the need for the process by saying Egypt is facing “national security threats that put it in an exceptional situation.”

National dialogue is not new to Egypt. Previous presidents, including Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, used this invention when they faced wide-spread public criticism or international pressure about human rights or during economic crises. Sadat initiated conversations with Egyptian intellectuals, the Muslim Brotherhood and opposition figures a number of times to gain their support, or at the least to neutralize their criticism against his pro-Western policy, which he began implementing after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

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This policy’s failure shortly became apparent after it granted excessive benefits to wealthy and foreign investors, deepened corruption and did not lift up the lower classes. The peace agreement with Israel added further public criticism against Sadat. He finally ended the farce of national dialogue in September 1981 – a month before his assassination – when he ordered the arrest of over 1,500 activists, intellectuals, writers and academics known for their criticism of the regime.

The national dialogue started by Mubarak in 2003 aimed to dissolve intense American pressure after the Second Gulf War, in which was born President George Bush’s initiative to sell democracy to Arab and Muslim countries. Mubarak instructed the heads of the ruling party, the National Democratic Party, to begin discussions with opposition parties to formulate a joint new national agenda: economic, social and political. The opposition saw the dialogue as an opportunity to erode the ruling party’s political monopoly. They recognized quite quickly the trick meant to trap them into endless talks without any real intention to change. It was just a show for the United States, to give the appearance of an effort to build democracy.

Cairo, Egypt, last month.Credit: KHALED DESOUKI - AFP

This dialogue, closed to the public, did not include all movements and organizations. It ended with a joint declaration condemning the involvement of “foreign agents,” i.e., the United States and European Union, in Egypt’s internal affairs.

Sissi’s national dialogue also follows intense American and European pressure to improve its human rights situation and promote democracy. Sissi is struggling to confront numerous challenges. The United States froze in September $130 million in military aid to Egypt and canceled this part of the aid in January. Egypt is also in economic dire straits in wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which caused a sharp rise in the prices of staples.

Whispers on the Egyptian street, most crudely expressed on social media, make a joke out of the official government publications on improving Egypt’s economy. The growth figures may be optimistic, but the economic reform plans – especially the promise to privatize certain government and military corporations – are buried deep.

Meanwhile, Egypt is seeking more financial aid from the International Monetary Fund, which is demanding that Egypt gives the private sector a bigger role in the economy.

Sissi does not need a national dialogue to hear what the Egyptian public is worried about. It’s enough for him to go through the real data from the national statistics ministry – and not the data it releases to the public. As the person in sole charge of setting national priorities, advice or proposals from opposition parties or human rights organizations are not exactly what the president – who has already guaranteed his term well into the next decade – needs.

But he is definitely asking to help design the Egyptian showcase to relieve the American pressure and enlist Western investors.
The opposition parties and human rights groups have reservations about joining the dialogue, which would grant it legitimacy. Sissi threw them a tempting bone when he released a few dozen prisoners and ordered to restart the work of the Presidential Pardon Committee established in 2016. Human rights representatives are demanding that Sissi first release thousands of political prisoners to prove the seriousness of his intentions. Some have said that if the national dialogue is meant to include all movements without discrimination or distinction – then the sessions must also include the Muslim Brotherhood, which is designated as a terrorist organization.

Meanwhile, it seems that not only will the regime exclude the Muslim Brotherhood, the group itself is unable to decide whether to bless Sissi’s initiative, and even more so whether to join the sessions or boycott them if they are invited. It is wallowing in internal power struggles, mostly between its center in Turkey and its London-based center. For now, these are just theoretical disagreements creating noise in the Egyptian media. This, of course, serves Sissi, who wants to prove that this initiative is a serious one that will change the existing contract between the government and its subjects.

Tunisian President Kais Saied, last month.Credit: ZOUBEIR SOUISSI/ Reuters

National dialogue, Inc.

Less than two weeks after Sissi announced his dialogue initiative, he found a copycat in Tunisian President Kais Saied. He announced in early May his own national dialogue, in which four main organizations would participate and present their proposals for changing the constitution, to be voted on in a national referendum on July 25. If the referendum approves the amendments, they will become the core of the elections slated for late December. Unlike in Egypt, the Tunisian dialogue is not open to all. Saied made it clear that those who “sabotaged, starved and mistreated the people” would not be allowed to participate.

He meant the Islamic Ennahda party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s sister party, and other organizations critical of Saied’s autocratic steps. Saied, a constitutional law professor elected to the presidency in 2019, heads the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring revolutions and becomes a model of constitutional success. Ennadha won a large majority in the elections held after the revolution, as did the Muslim Brotherhood did in the Egyptian elections held after Mubarak’s ouster.

But in contrast to Egypt, where Sissi seized power in 2013 and removed the elected president Mohammed Morsi, a coalition led by Ennahda and two secular parties ran Tunisia. Still, it ran quite quickly into profound disagreements that threatened its stability, until it was agreed to conduct the four-party national dialogue. These groups were the country’s largest labor union, the confederation of industrialists, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. They succeeded in establishing a democratic, relatively stable government. These groups won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly for their work.

But this arrangement collapsed thunderously in July 2021 when Saied decided that the political structure prevented him from properly running the country, and eroded his power and authority. Saied fired his prime minister and dismissed the cabinet, dissolved parliament and in February the Supreme Judicial Council, too. He began running the country by presidential decrees without public oversight. The internal and international criticism did not impress Saied – until he realized that he could not receive economic aid or loans from the International Monetary Fund if he did not reverse his anti-democratic moves.

Tunisia needs about $6 billion in loans and the Tunisian dinar has plummeted to a record low. The country’s credit rating was downgraded to CCC, reflecting fear that the country will soon default on its debts. Unemployment is now over 16 percent – and above 38 percent among young Tunisians. Saied has now invited these same organizations who conducted the previous national dialogue to hold the new dialogue and write the constitutional amendments. These steps may have earned a pat on the shoulder from the EU, and to a more limited extent from the Biden administration, too, but the Tunisian public is convinced Saied is aiming to establish an autocratic presidential system of government based on Sissi’s model in Egypt.

For both Egypt and Tunisia, the national dialogue has become a useful tool for each regime to bolster its authority with a veneer of democracy – appealing directly to the public, receiving its proposals and acting accordingly. Although each side well understands the real intentions driving the regime-initiated dialogues, they are not yielding the opportunity to present their positions and join the dialogue, as if they really offered a promise of change. They are not being naïve or have illusions that this time they will manage to influence their respective regimes. Rather, they must be seen as investing every effort to halt the hardening of the dictatorship – even if participation provides a sort of cover that protects the regime from public uprising.

The organizations involved in the dialogue initiative know very well that whether they participate in the dialogue or boycott it – they will look as if they are playing into the hands of the regime, which in any case will use every manipulation to present the results of dialogue as public support for the government.

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