Many suspected Badawi of cooperating with the regime after he purchased al-Dustour several months ago, immediately before the 2010 parliamentary elections. Badawi immediately fired the paper's prominent editor, Ibrahim Eissa -- who is widely admired for his fiery and irreverent attacks on the president and the ruling party. Many believed that Badawi's acquisition of the paper and the immediate ouster of Eissa were part of a deal with the regime to silence government critics ahead of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
Next to Badawi sat Naguib Sawiris, Egypt's richest tycoon. Sawiris owns Mobinil, Egypt's first mobile phone company; his telecommunications interests also extend to Algeria, North Korea, Italy, and until recently, Iraq. Sawiris is Egypt's most prominent Coptic businessman, a liberal who is also widely known for his philanthropic activities. Sawiris is believed to have had cordial relations with regime figures, including Gamal Mubarak. After the meeting, Sawiris endorsed the idea of Mubarak staying on as president until the end of his term in September 2011.
Rifaat El Said, head of the leftist Tagammu party, sat to Suleiman's left. Opponents of the Mubarak regime treat Said with suspicion because he was appointed by the president to Egypt's upper house of parliament. Under his leadership Tagammu has also refused to vigorously oppose the regime. In December, after the absurdly fraudulent first round of parliamentary elections, both the Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood declared they would boycott runoff elections -- but Said insisted his party participate, which led to calls for his removal. It is widely known that Said despises the Brotherhood more than the regime, which may have played a part in his decision.
Others at the meeting included a motley crew of political personalities: Wafd Party General-Secretary Mounir Abdel Nour; former Wafd Party head Mahmoud Abaza; Yehya al-Gamal, a prominent and highly respected constitutional scholar and former Cairo University professor; Ragab Himaida, a shady "opposition" parliamentarian from downtown Cairo who is suspected of having links to the security services and former NDP Chairman Safwat El Sherif; and Mohamed Abdellah, a French-trained economist, longtime NDP member and parliamentarian, and former president of Alexandria University.
Of course, some very important individuals and groups were absent from the "national dialogue" because they either were not invited or refused to attend. The most notable absence was ElBaradei, though some reports indicated that his group, the National Association for Change, had a representative in the meeting. Even more importantly, representatives from the various youth groups and activists who organized the original Jan. 25 demonstrations -- including the April 6 Movement -- were conspicuously absent.
After the immense upheaval that Egypt has undergone in the past two weeks, it was striking to see that the meeting was still composed of the same old faces, trying to cut a deal as if the protesters in Tahrir Square hardly existed. In a movement dubbed "the youth revolution," the youth were strikingly absent at the dialogue. As a result, their demands -- most prominently, the immediate departure of Mubarak from power -- were largely excluded from discussion.
One cannot help but conclude that the "national dialogue" is little more than a regime tactic to co-opt the more moderate opposition parties, while leaving the youth protesters out in the cold. It is part of a wider, multi-faceted strategy that includes coercion, violence, fear, information censorship, propaganda, economic disruption, and the restriction of food and supplies coming into Tahrir Square.
The fear of those who support the protesters who have gathered across Egypt over the past two weeks is that old political faces and tired opposition leaders might be willing to accept the crumbs offered up by the Mubarak regime, allowing it to survive another week, month, or even longer. Such a development would further fracture the opposition movement, already showing signs of divisions. And it increases the danger that this incipient revolt could fall short of the fundamentally new kind of politics that Egyptians deserve.