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El Baradei and the Mobilisation of the Egyptian Diaspora

30/09/2010

This is a giant that needs to be awakened to save Egypt…look at what other diaspora communities are doing,” said one enthusiastic participant in a recent London conference for the Egyptian National Assembly for Change (NAC). The conference was one of a series of public events aimed at fostering ties and coordinating pro-democracy efforts between Dr. Mohamed El Baradei and traditionally apolitical Egyptian expatriates. The latest event was a September 17-20 conference organised by the Alliance of Egyptian-Americans in Washington D.C., following other events in New York and Boston. The NAC has quickly found strong support among Egyptians in more than ten countries including the large expatriate communities in Saudi Arabia (1 million), the United States (350,000), Kuwait (250,000), Jordan (230,000), Canada (120,000), Italy (110,000), and the United Kingdom (50,000).

The Egyptian diaspora, estimated at between 3 and 8 million worldwide, has until now not been a factor in Egyptian domestic politics, in contrast to the active roles played by Armenian, Irish, and Cuban expatriates. Political apathy has dominated the behaviour of most Egyptian expats—and indeed most other Arab expatriates, with the exception of some Palestinians. Most Egyptian expats have been more concerned about building economic fortunes and retaining the ability to go back home without fear of government reprisals. Moreover, for decades strong Arab nationalist sentiments and slogans such as “no voice is above the voice of the battle” (i.e., the Arab-Israeli conflict) made it shameful to criticise Arab regimes from abroad.

The days when Egyptians withheld criticism of the regime, however, are over. The Mubarak regime’s blockade on Gaza, mishandling of the Egyptian-Algerian soccer crisis, and the June 2010 torture/murder of young Alexandrian Khalid Said are a few of the recent incidents that have compounded longstanding concerns about economic deprivation, social injustice, and political repression to convince many Egyptian expatriates that the welfare of the country and the interests of the regime are two very different matters.

ElBaradei and his NAC entered the fray earlier this year with their efforts to mobilise a diaspora still divided along political, ideological, religious, and social class lines. And in fact the recent conferences in the United States and United Kingdom marked a significant new development: Egyptians rallying for democracy and united against authoritarianism regardless of ideology, religion, or class. The London conference, for example, gathered Muslim Brothers and Coptic activists, liberals and Nasserists, wealthy businessmen, university professors, as well as waiters, and maids. Many different Egyptian accents were represented including the Upper Egyptian, the Cairene, the Alexandrian, and the Sinai. The same phenomenon has occurred at the conferences held in the United States.

The agents of change are as important as the frustrating conditions driving the calls for it. While socioeconomic and political grievances articulated now in the diaspora have been around at least since the early 1990s, the emergence of a credible messenger able to articulate those grievances and courageous enough to demand political reform has made a difference. El Baradei and diaspora Egyptians understand each other. When El Baradei speaks about “socialist democracy,” for example, expatriate Egyptians do not conflate it with Nasser’s Arab Socialism (now associated with demagoguery, military dictatorship, and economic failure). Rather, Egyptians who have lived in the United Kingdom, Canada, Austria, and Scandinavia understand well what El Baradei means: a representative democracy, a social justice system, and a well-developed welfare state.

What can Egyptians living abroad do to promote political reform in Egypt? El Baradei and the NAC realise that the potential advantage of the expats lies in their numbers, and thus have made permitting Egyptians abroad to vote in Egyptian elections via consulates and embassies (as Iraqis and Algerians already do) one of the seven demands on a petition that is now close to garnering a million signatures. The argument is that it is unacceptable to disenfranchise as many as 8 million Egyptians who contributed roughly $8 billion to Egyptian GDP each year (according to the World Bank, Egypt is the biggest recipient of remittances in the Middle East).

The expatriate voting proposal is important not only because it has mobilised diaspora Egyptians, but because it potentially could have a significant impact on elections were it to be adopted. There would be no Central Security Forces on the streets of London, Washington, or Montreal to block the entrance of the consulates, intimidate voters, arrest activists, and harass journalists who report on violations. If independent and international monitoring was allowed—another of the NAC’s seven demands—and if the results were declared immediately following a monitored vote-count in the embassies, the likelihood of wide-scale electoral fraud could be minimised.

Egyptians in the diaspora face many obstacles to playing such a role. The Mubarak regime so far is ignoring the demand for expat enfranchisement. And while Egyptians in Western countries can organise freely so far, the many in Arab countries face a darker prospect, highlighted by the April deportation from Kuwait of 21 supporters of El Baradei. Such an extreme episode is unlikely to be repeated, but Arab governments have at their disposal many tools to discourage activities against the Mubarak regime should they chose to do so.

Added to all of that is the fact that Egyptian expatriates are far from deciding on a strategy: push seriously for enfranchisement, work on influencing policies toward Egypt in their new home countries, raise money for the causes? And they also face real challenges in terms of overcoming their differences in order to form strong organisations. Still, it is clear that for now diaspora Egyptians are responding in a way they never have before to El Baradei’s message to them “if you don’t act and participate now, then do not complain tomorrow!”