By Carmel Delshad
On a balmy October weekend in Washington, D.C., three independent Egyptian presidential candidates met with roughly 200 Egyptian-Americans at the “Egypt Vote” conference. It was a trans-Atlantic campaign pit stop for the presidential hopefuls, thanks to new law giving Egyptians abroad the right to vote.
For the first time ever, Egyptians abroad cast their votes in the November parliamentary elections and will return to the polls in the summer for the presidential elections. Both are the first elections since the February ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
“A lot of people have rediscovered their relationship and loyalties to their home country since the revolution,” says Sherif Mansour, an Egyptian-American and Middle East program officer for Freedom House, a Washington-based NGO.
While this new right has awakened a sense of nationalism for many Egyptian-Americans that didn’t exist during the Mubarak era, it’s unlikely their votes will have anything more than a symbolic impact, at least in the short-term. In future elections, liberal Egyptians hope the expatriate community could provide a needed boost to their cause, especially next summer when elections are expected to be tight.
For the ongoing parliamentary elections, where some 500 seats are up for grabs in 27 districts, the abroad vote is unlikely to push a candidate to victory. While the first round of voting has finished, there are two more rounds of elections for parliament in December and January. But only about 20,000 of the 120,000 voting-aged Egyptian-Americans registered, a disappointing number to those who helped organize the movement to bring this new right abroad.
Even more discouraging was the actual amount of votes that arrived at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Of the 14,000 eligible for the first round of parliamentary elections, only 5,500 actually sent in their ballots. The Foreign Ministry reported that fewer than 4,000 votes came from America.
With a record-breaking 52 percent voter turnout in Egypt, experts say Egyptian-Americans will make little impact on the parliamentary elections. “If you count the number of votes distributed among the districts, they will be too little to make any difference in the overall results,” Mansour says. “So the votes may not sway the results one way or another.”
Still, the end of Mubarak’s 30-year reign is proving to be the perfect entrance for Egyptian-Americans into the political sphere now that a so-called democracy is taking shape.
Mansour monitored the elections in D.C., sharing photos on his Facebook page and keeping friends and family members updated as ballots arrived.
People drove with their ballots from New York, took last minute flights, and mailed them in during the Thanksgiving weekend. The extraordinary lengths that some Egyptian-American voters went to get their ballots to the embassy by a strict Saturday deadline showed how determined they were to vote. But others, daunted by the complicated voting process and constantly changing orders from Egypt, didn’t vote at all.
“I was disappointed that voter turnout was low,” Mansour says. “We would have hoped that the right that we fought a lot to have as Egyptians would have been maximized.”
Despite this, independent presidential candidate Medhat Khafagy believes the inclusion of Egyptians abroad means a larger voting bloc that could sway in his favor come elections next summer. “There is no definite candidate who is agreed upon,” Khafagy says. “I think any extra one or two percent voting will make a difference.”
Experts say Egyptian-Americans will potentially have a greater impact on presidential elections.
“A lot of presidential candidates will have to appeal to this voting bloc,” Mansour says. “And they will make a difference, much more than they do in parliamentary elections, because they’re voting for far less candidates.”
A total of 350,000 Egyptians abroad registered to vote online, a small fraction of the estimated seven to nine million Egyptian foreign nationals. The majority of these live in Arab Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. They are expected to vote conservatively, while Egyptians in America will most likely vote for more liberal candidates. “The Egyptians who live here tend to be or describe themselves as liberal,” says Ahmed Issawi, director of the Alwan Center for the Arts. “They don’t want to vote for Islamists and tend to want to have a secular government.”
This is what Dalia Abusharr hopes the Egyptian-American community can bring to the table as elections continue—a vote for a secular, fair Egypt. As a Coptic Christian, a minority in the Muslim-dominated country, Abusharr is afraid of just how much religion will be included in the new government. “I’m honestly afraid of extremism on all sides,” she says. “I want Egypt to be a free and democratic country.”
Abusharr didn’t vote in parliamentary elections because of paperwork issues, but she is adamant about voting in presidential elections next summer.
Many in the diaspora are now questioning whether the interim military government purposefully complicated the voting process by requiring ID cards that a majority of people outside Egypt don’t have, as a way to eliminate the votes of more liberal Egyptians living in the west.
Youssef Zada, the Consul General of Egypt in New York, says the interim government’s failures to efficiently cater to Egyptian-Americans aren’t strategic. “It’s not an intention to disrupt elections for Egyptians abroad by people in Egypt,” Zada says. “I think it’s more inexperience on their part, it’s a first attempt, and not a very successful one.”
As a result of the recent majority victory by conservative parties, some Egyptians in Egypt are calling for liberal parties to unite as one, so that the liberal vote both in the country and abroad won’t be split among numerous groups.
Mansour contends that more Egyptian-Americans will vote as they see their home country shifting towards a place where they can relate politically and eventually live in once again. Mansour says, “There is a place for them now in Egypt. They have a lot to contribute in building the country.”
Carmel Delshad is a freelance writer who splits her time between New York and Cairo.
[Photo courtesy of Mosa'ab Elshamy]