CAIRO — On April 24, Egyptian authorities released dozens of people detained in various cases related to their political activities as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi calls for a national dialogue.
Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyed, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, told Al-Monitor that these steps represent a shift in the way the Egyptian government is dealing with opposition forces and human rights issues.
The authorities freed 41 political activists from jail. On the same day, authorities released nine Copts who were imprisoned for demonstrating to demand the reconstruction of a church that Muslim Brotherhood elements burned down in Minya in 2013.
The decision to release the detainees was welcomed by governmental and political circles in Egypt. Two members of the National Council for Human Rights were present with the families of the detainees to celebrate their release.
Sisi expressed happiness at the prisoners’ release, saying, “The homeland embraces all of us and that differences of opinion do not spoil the homeland’s affairs.”
Speaking at Egypt's annual iftar banquet held on April 26, Sisi also announced the reactivation of the so-called Presidential Pardon Committee and said that it would be joined by two opposition figures, in reference to Kamal Abu Aita, a former minister and leader of the opposition Karama Party, and lawyer Tariq Awadi.
Head of the National Council for Human Rights Moushira Khattab said in a press statement April 24, “It has become clear that there is a real and realistic political will to improve the human rights file in the country.”
The Egyptian government had held a series of meetings between the National Council for Human Rights, a government agency, in March and independent human rights institutions, various political parties and representatives of websites that were blocked as part of government measures against defamation.
Sisi's government has carried out a massive crackdown on the opposition, arresting many activists and journalists and blocking dozens of opposition websites with the stated purpose of averting security risks including terror attacks.
Criticism against Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record grew louder after economist Ayman Hodhoud, a leading member of the opposition Reform and Development Party, died under mysterious circumstances on April 9 after his disappearance on Feb. 5.
Human rights organizations accused security services of being behind Hodhoud’s disappearance and causing his death. Amnesty International called on Egyptian authorities to conduct an independent and impartial investigation into his suspicious death while in custody.
As criticism escalated, the National Council for Human Rights demanded on April 11 that the investigation into Hodhoud’s death include all claims about him being subjected to forced disappearance before his death. The council confirmed that it is currently investigating 19 cases of forced disappearance, in addition to several complaints of exceeding pretrial detention periods or ill-treatment of several activists in detention.
The head of the Egyptian Parliament's human rights committee and a leader of the Nation's Future Party, Tariq Radwan, told Al-Monitor that the releases are a very positive step and came at a significant time as Sisi calls for dialogue. He told Al-Monitor, “The release of the young men is the foundation of such a dialogue.”
On April 21, Sisi said during a meeting with top Egyptian journalists that his country needs a political dialogue between the government, political forces and parties and civil society.
Sisi, who has been in power since 2014, surprised Egyptian political circles and the public by hosting civil opposition figures at the iftar banquet, which has usually been attended by public figures and parties affiliated with the government since it was held for the first time in 2017.
During the event, Sisi welcomed Hamdeen Sabahi, a prominent opposition figure and former presidential candidate, with whom he had a private conversation. Sisi also shook hands with Khaled Daoud, former head of the Constitution Party, who was released last year after two years in prison for his political activity.
Sayyed described the move as “rehabilitation of the civil opposition and state recognition as a movement that must be respected." He added, "At the same time, the regime was reassured that the civil forces do not pose a threat and that it will not mobilize public opinion against it.”
At the banquet, Sisi tasked the National Youth Conference with organizing a political dialogue with civil society and opposition forces to discuss priorities for national action to be reported to his office.
Sayyed said that the economic crisis in the country and the government's concerns about demonstrations are behind the change in Sisi’s approach to human rights issues.
Russia's war on Ukraine has worsened living conditions in Egypt, the largest wheat importer in the world, amid the global rise in commodity prices and the depreciation of the Egyptian pound.
“We now see conditions for the Egyptian economy worsening," said International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva during a meeting of the World Bank Group and the IMF on April 20. "A great number of people in Egypt today are vulnerable.”
Sayyed said, “The regime is afraid that the Muslim Brotherhood will take advantage of the crisis to call for demonstrations, as happened before,” a reference to the rare demonstrations against Sisi in September 2019.
Sisi’s government is trying to satisfy Western countries with close ties with Egypt that are pressing for human rights progress in exchange for assisting Egypt obtain an IMF loan, said Sayyed, pointing out that Sisi has not been invitated to visit Washington amid the continuing dispute between the Egyptian government and the Biden administration.
Radwan, the parliamentarian, said that the state is serious this time in holding a dialogue with the various political forces. The opposition welcomed the call for dialogue as a chance to lay the foundations of a new republic.
Hamdeen Sabahy, the former presidential candidate and founder of the Egyptian Popular Current, welcomed Sisi’s call for national dialogue. He told the local Masrawy news site, "The national dialogue requires first the release of prisoners of conscience in order for the dialogue to be efficient, and so we can trust it.”
He added, “We are an opposition that loves this country and seeks its best interests. And we want to contribute in reaching the best solutions to our national problems.”