Egyptian expat votes up for grabs

Representatives of the New York City-area Egyptian community met with Consul General Youssef Zada on 5 June to discuss how Egyptians abroad can vote in upcoming elections. The Egyptian group included representatives from the Egyptian Association for Change USA, the Alliance of Egyptian Americans, 25 January Solidarity for Democracy.

Egypt's cabinet issued a law in April granting Egyptians abroad the right to vote, but the methods for doing so are far from clear.

The decree originally stated that Egyptians abroad could vote in both presidential and parliamentary elections, currently slated for September and November respectively, but Zada confirmed Egyptian expatriates would only be able to vote in presidential elections.

“This was not my decision, this was Cairo’s decision,” he said of the change, which is unpopular with many Egyptian expatriates.

Zada stated that new national identification numbers will be used to vote, that Egyptians abroad will have to fill out an application ahead of time in order to be registered, and that he will personally supervise the voting process.

“It was the first time the consul has had an open town hall meeting like this,” said attendee Mayssa Sultan. “It was a great starting point for the conversation.”

Zada, who started his job in New York in September last year, said that his willingness to meet with the community and convey requests and concerns to Cairo has nothing to do with the revolution. “I’m just a man coming to do his job,” he said, “and my job is to serve the people.”

Voting procedures are being similarly worked out at embassies and consulates around the world as Egyptian expatriates from Toronto to London to Riyadh prepare to vote in the first free elections in recent history. In Egypt, everyone is left guessing how the votes cast overseas could affect the outcome of the elections.

The World Bank estimates that in 2010, there were 3.7 million Egyptians, or about 4.5 percent of the population, living abroad, though other estimates range from one to 12 million. The World Bank ranks Egypt eleventh in the world for its number of emigrants and fourteenth in terms of remittances received through official channels.

Ayman Zohry, president of the Egyptian Society for Migration Studies and chief author of the 2010 International Organization for Migration study on the Egyptian diaspora, estimates that there are 7 to 8 million Egyptians living abroad, with approximately two-thirds living in other Arab countries.

With the first free parliamentary democratic elections in modern Egypt on the horizon, a divide is emerging between Egyptians, both at home and abroad, about the direction that the new Egypt should take. A big issue is the role that Islam can play in the future government, with some Egyptians hoping for a secular state and others advocating an increased role for Islam.

There is much debate over what expatriates will support, and whether it will make a difference at all.

Zohry predicts that, despite their large numbers, expatriates will not have a significant impact on the outcome of the presidential election because their opinions closely mirror those of voters in Egypt.

“Not all Egyptians living in the west are secular or liberal as you might imagine,” he said. “The demographics are mixed and many people are living in a time capsule from the time that they left Egypt and are more conservative.”

Zohry said that vocal communities in western countries, who arouse fear in many Egyptians with their demands for a more secular and liberal state, are not representative of the majority of Egyptians abroad. He also noted that while Egyptians living in Arab Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, may be influenced by their surroundings and thus be more conservative than when they emigrated, the difference is not enough to skew the vote toward Islamist parties.

“They’re going to affect the total numbers but not the percentages for different parties or candidates,” he said.

Samer Soliman, an associate professor of political economy at the American University in Cairo, who estimates the expatriate population to be between 5 and 6 million, has a different view of the potential impact of this voting bloc.

“Many in the US and Europe and Australia are well educated and living in a democracy and could have an impact in advancing democracy [in Egypt],” he said.

Soliman contends that Egyptians in Gulf countries are significantly more educated than they were 30 or 40 years ago and while more conservative than those living in western countries, they are not significantly more conservative than Egyptians back home.

“There is support for the Brotherhood, but less than inside Egypt,” he said, based on his extensive study of Egyptian politics.

Soliman believes that a majority of all expatriates would support a relatively liberal candidate in the presidential election.

In addition to the theories of Zohry and Soliman lie other opinions as varied as those who hold them.

“Egyptians living in the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, tend to be more conservative both socially and politically,” said Dina Ibrahim, an associate professor at San Francisco State University and an Egyptian activist, “while those in the US are a lot more in tune with western ideals of democracy.”

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