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Egypt's "Dialogue" Excludes Islamist Opposition

FILE: Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks in Berlin, Germany. Taken 11.19.2019

After nine years of sweeping crackdowns on dissent, Egypt is set to launch a carefully choreographed political dialogue, but the main Islamist opposition movement is excluded and critics say a parallel move to release prisoners is proceeding too slowly.

Egyptian officials have presented the dialogue as heralding a new phase of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's rule made possible by improvements in security and political stability and dubbed "the new republic.."

The dialogue, announced by al-Sisi in April and expected to start in the coming weeks, will include some moderate opposition factions pushed to the margins since al-Sisi, while armed forces chief, led the 2013 ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi after mass unrest.

In the two months after the dialogue was announced, just under 300 detainees were freed, though more than 1,074 names had received initial approval for release, according to a member of the presidential pardon committee, Tarek al-Awady.

He said the Brotherhood - which is banned and accused of using violence against the state - would not be able to join the dialogue, but the pardon committee would not exclude any names on ideological grounds.

"All we can do is study the cases and submit them to the presidency specifically, who in turn seek the opinions of security apparatuses, and then make their final decision," Awady said.

The Brotherhood denies using violence for political ends.

Acting Muslim Brotherhood leader Ibrahim Munir told Reuters in an interview that the dialogue could not achieve results if it excluded the Brotherhood or other figures.

A presidential amnesty committee is processing thousands of requests to free some of those jailed under al-Sisi's rule - though the Brotherhood remains firmly left out of the dialogue, its leaders in prison or exile.

al-Sisi has said Egypt holds no political prisoners, that security is paramount and that the government is promoting human rights by working to provide basic needs like jobs and housing.

Opposition figures see the speed and extent of prisoner releases as a pivotal test of the dialogue's potential, and of the chances of any softening in what they describe as the most severe political repression in decades.

"The broad release of large numbers of prisoners of conscience was a necessary prelude and still is," said Ahmed Eltantawy, a former member of parliament whose leftist Karama party is divided over participation in the dialogue and who is not planning to take part.

"It was not treated as a necessary prelude, and there are no signs that it will be an inevitable outcome," Eltantawy said in an interview.

Asked at a press conference earlier this month about the speed of prisoner releases, the chair of the dialogue, Diaa Rashwan, voiced hope for more presidential pardons of convicted inmates, but said those held in pre-trial detention were a matter for the prosecution.

Rashwan, who also heads the state information service, told Reuters he was not able to answer a request for further comment. Most of the dialogue board's 19 members are attached to official bodies and several are members of parliament.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and senior member of the liberal Dostour Party, who is planning to take part in the dialogue, said authorities needed to stop making new arrests and to lift restrictions on the media.

"I'm only asking for the basics," said Dawoud, who was also swept up in late 2019 and held for 19 months, during which his sister died and his father was ailing. "We want to express our views without fear - the fear of getting arrested."