By Aidan Lewis and Farah Saafan
CAIRO (Reuters) - 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.
The dialogue, announced by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in April and expected to start in the coming weeks, will include some moderate opposition factions pushed to the margins since Sisi, while armed forces chief, led the 2013 ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi after mass unrest.
A presidential amnesty committee is processing thousands of requests to free some of those jailed under Sisi's rule - though the Brotherhood remains firmly left out of the dialogue, its leaders in prison or exile.
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.
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.
As Sisi has consolidated his position, tens of thousands of dissidents or critics from across the political spectrum have been jailed, according to estimates by rights groups.
So far, some of those invited to the dialogue see too little early progress in freeing them.
"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.
Egyptian officials have presented the dialogue as heralding a new phase of Sisi's rule made possible by improvements in security and political stability and dubbed "the new republic".
As the Arab world's most populous country reels from the financial impact of the Ukraine war, the officials say the dialogue will help chart a course for future economic and social development.
It follows steps, including publication of a human rights strategy, that appear intended to address Western criticism of Egypt's rights record.
In November, Egypt will be in the international spotlight as host of the COP27 climate summit.
Rashwan told the recent press conference that proposals from the dialogue, which will cover political, social and economic issues, will be presented to Sisi, who would "choose what he deems the best of them".
Some of Egypt's small remaining band of opposition figures have been given a platform on tightly controlled domestic media for the first time in years.
Amr Hamzawy, a liberal member of parliament after Egypt's 2011 uprising who returned to Cairo temporarily to take part in the dialogue, said that in the absence of alternatives it could be a "major tool for creating a moment of openness".
"The idea of us sitting together in one place and expressing different opinions without someone being labelled as a traitor, or having their patriotism questioned or motives doubted..., that would be crucially important," said Hamzawy, now Middle East director at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But Hamzawy added that the dialogue is likely to be a complex, stop-start process, and that the release of prisoners of conscience is needed to build confidence.
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.
Mohamed Lotfy, director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, said the rate of releases in late April to late June had been about the same as over the past two years and that there had been nearly as many new cases before the state security prosecution as there had been releases.
"The only gain is a recognition by the government finally that there is an issue around political prisoners that needs to be dealt with," said Lotfy.
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.
Some prisoners freed recently had been held in pre-trial detention since 2019, when thousands were arrested amid a wave of small, rare protests.
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."
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in London; Editing by Mark Heinrich)