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Political opposition attend presidential iftar, demand release of political prisoners, as Sisi calls for ‘national dialogue’

Several prominent opposition politicians who have been sidelined by the state in recent years made a high profile appearance at the annual Egyptian Family Iftar on Tuesday, where the president called for a yet-to-be-defined “national dialogue.”

The opposition figures, led by Nasserist politician and 2014 presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, were approached by officials from a “sovereign entity” in the leadup to Tuesday’s gathering to secure their attendance.

According to three political sources, they attempted to secure the release of several political prisoners as a prerequisite for engaging in the presidential call for a national dialogue. Officials in the “sovereign entity” acquiesced to these demands, “provided that all of the activists to be released remain silent and refrain from criticizing the authorities,” one of the political sources said.

Alongside Sabbahi, the opposition politicians who attended the meetings and iftar included: Social Democratic Party chair Farid Zahran, journalist and former detainee Khaled Dawoud, Socialist Popular Alliance head Medhat al-Zahed, lawyer Tarek al-Awady, member of the National Council for Human Rights George Ishaq, journalist Abdallah al-Sinawy, labor activist and Karama Party leader Kamal Abu Eita, among others.

The intervention seems to have borne immediate fruit, as Sabbahi’s former campaign manager Hossam Moanis was released on Thursday afternoon. He was sentenced to four years in December, 2021 for “spreading false news at home and abroad that suggested to public opinion the illegitimacy of state institutions.”

Moanis was detained in 2019 on the back of his participation in the “Coalition of Hope,” a political alliance that was coordinating a campaign for the 2020 parliamentary elections.

Alongside Moanis, the opposition politicians called for the release of former MP Zyad Elelaimy, journalist Hesham Fouad, lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer, blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim and others, the political sources told Mada Masr.

While it is not yet clear what the “national dialogue” will entail, several opposition figures have voiced their hopes that it will lead to changes in the extensive use of remand detention and open greater space for political expression and press freedom.

The Tuesday event was attended by senior state officials, public figures and politicians, and headlined by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who announced two noteworthy decisions: the re-formation of the amnesty committee over which he presides, as well a call for a political dialogue that includes “all” political forces in the country to be organized by the National Youth Conference, the outcome of which are to be presented to him directly. Sisi also promised he would attend the later stages of that dialogue.

Following the event, according to three sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, a closed meeting was coordinated by senior ranks in the “sovereign entity” with Sabbahi, Zahran, Dawoud, Awady and Ishaq.

The meeting touched on the agenda for the political dialogue called for by the president, in addition to the release of political prisoners, and was followed by the announcement of the recomposition of the presidential amnesty committee.

The amnesty committee — first formed in October 2017 — will now include Awady and Abu Eita, in addition to its original members, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, Tarek al-Khouly, and former member of the National Salvation Front Karim al-Saqqa, according to Khouly.

The committee will begin to receive the names of imprisoned youth from various parties and political factions and from the National Council for Human Rights and the House Human Rights Committee. It will then submit a list of names to be considered for amnesty during the coming period, Khouly stated on social media.

While one of the sources considered the decisions to be a step on the part of authorities to create a ground for new political leaders and cadres to manage the next political stage preceding the 2024 presidential elections, another source viewed them as “merely a move to contain the political sphere and the public opinion ahead of expected economic turmoil and huge spikes in prices.” The second source noted that the decision to re-form and reactivate the presidential amnesty committee was taken without consultation with Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, the head of the Reform and Development Party, a member of the government-appointed National Council for Human Rights, and a public figure who has risen to prominence in recent months for holding talks with security agencies to inquire about the fate of some of the disappeared and to negotiate the release of detainees.

Egyptian journalist and former detainee Kahled Dawoud told Mada Masr that the president’s political dialogue aims “to strengthen the national front in light of Egypt’s passing through exceptional circumstances due to the repercussions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as regional crises in Libya, Palestine and Sudan.”

Dawoud added that during the meetings he called on security authorities to release 33 political prisoners, including 25 detainees held in remand detention, and eight others who have received prison sentences, including Hossam Moanis, Zyad Elelaimy, Alaa Abd El Fattah, Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim, Ahmed Douma and Fatma Ramadan.

Since his release from prison about a year ago, Dawoud said he has been attempting to secure the release of prisoners of conscience through communications with concerned authorities, but the impact of those demands has been very slow. He added that he had previously received similar invitations for dialogue over the past year, but refused them, asking for a “proof of serious intention.” The release of 41 prisoners early this week was a gesture sufficient enough for Dawoud to respond to this Tuesday’s presidential proposition for national dialogue.

During the event, Dawoud stressed the urgency of the demands to release prisoners of conscience, provide open space for press freedom and lift the ban off news websites.

Farid Zahran, the head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said in a statement on Wednesday that considered the event to be “a real start toward opening the political arena and placing the opposition in its rightful place in the political life.”

In his statement, Zahran welcomed the national dialogue and called for all those imprisoned as a consequence of their political views to be pardoned. He called for alternatives within the justice system to the use of detention, focusing on amendments to the laws governing remand detention and a halt on its use as a tool of punishment.

Meanwhile, Zahed, the leader of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, expressed hope that the national dialogue will propose realistic alternatives for dealing with the current economic challenges, as well as mechanisms for lifting restrictions on political freedoms, lifting the ban on press websites, amending remand detention laws and suspending their use in cases of political opinion.

Zahed told Mada Masr that he expects the dialogue to allow for demands to amend the regulations of the current electoral systems, particularly the closed list system, and push for holding elections in line with individual and proportional representation systems, noting that there are local council elections that have been delayed for more than ten years and that the local councils “are the core of the democratic system.”

“There’s also the possibility that this national dialogue will address constitutional amendments,” Zahed added, pointing out that his party calls for upholding the 2014 Constitution, limiting presidential terms, and amending the articles regulating the appointment of heads of judicial bodies in order to better balance the powers of state.

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