Change Egypt’s Expats Can Believe In

Egyptian-Americans are fueling Mohamed ElBaradei's campaign for reform.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Waleed Ali had never gotten excited about politics before. A recent immigrant to the United States from Cairo, he had a lot on his plate: a day job designing software in Nashua, New Hampshire, and part-time graduate studies in international business at Southern New Hampshire University. But something about Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning former International Atomic Energy Agency chief, lit a spark.

When ElBaradei burst onto Egypt’s political scene in January as a possible presidential challenger to creaking strongman Hosni Mubarak, Ali became a deep believer in his message: constitutional reform, an end to the country’s 29-year-old state of emergency, and free and fair democratic elections.

If the status quo prevails, Egypt’s scheduled presidential election in September 2011 will only rubber-stamp Mubarak’s hold on power. Article 76 of the Egyptian Constitution prohibits any individual who hasn’t occupied a senior leadership position in a political party for a year from running for president — making ElBaradei ineligible to run. However, ElBaradei is pushing hard for constitutional amendments that would remove these restrictions. If he can rally public opinion to his side, he may yet be able to force Mubarak’s hand and engineer real political change in Egypt.

As ElBaradei has been shaking things up in Egypt, Egyptian expats have felt the tremors. An important aspect of his reform platform is addressed to them: He is calling for all Egyptians living abroad — an estimated 3 million to 5 million people — to be given the right to vote in elections monitored by the international community. Supporters of voting rights for Egyptian expats argue that these changes would be a welcome antidote to the country’s history of rigged elections.

Ali was one of those Egyptians who has been caught up in the possibility of change represented by ElBaradei. When he heard that ElBaradei was coming to Boston in April to speak at Harvard University on nuclear nonproliferation, he knew he had to get involved. So he and a group of Egyptian-American friends booked an event room at Harvard and asked ElBaradei’s handlers if he would speak with the local Egyptian-American community there. Once the talk was confirmed, the group created a Facebook group and invited 100 people — all the Egyptian-Americans they knew. Soon 300 people confirmed that they would attend, and word of ElBaradei’s address to Egyptian-Americans was spreading up and down the East Coast. Ali’s Facebook group began to get out of hand.

"People were RSVPing from all over and coming in from lots of other states," says Ali, whose ad hoc organizing committee eventually changed venues to a more spacious downtown hotel. "If we let everyone come I think we would have had over 2,000 people there. People would have made any arrangement they could to be there."

Suddenly, the young man who avoided politics back home found himself knee-deep in his country’s most important running debate. "I spent like three days with no sleep preparing for his talk," he said. He drove each morning from Nashua to Boston to fine-tune arrangements for the big day. "I was so nervous about the event. I know we live in a free country, but you still have doubts."

Ali is not the only Egyptian expatriate who has recently turned into an unexpected activist for Egyptian democracy. "The leaders are new faces, young faces, and that is in keeping with what is happening in Egypt now," says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the exiled founder of Cairo’s Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. He has been a fixture of U.S.-based anti-Mubarak activism since his 2003 release from Egyptian jail. "There is an awakening and a greater awareness among young Egyptians about what is happening politically, and what you see in America is an extension of that."

It may not be difficult for these new activists to get the attention of some very influential Beltway types. Since the days of George W. Bush’s "freedom agenda," democracy in Egypt has been a topic of heated debate in Washington — largely between those who see Mubarak’s secular state as a bulwark against extremism and a friend of Israel, and others who would like to see the United States engineer his democratic ouster. Barack Obama’s administration in many ways embodies this schizophrenia: Tamara Cofman Wittes, the author of Freedom’s Unsteady March, on democracy promotion in Egypt and the Arab world, was appointed deputy assistant secretary of state for the Near East, but democracy advocates have complained of funding cutbacks for their efforts.

"We have very many friends in high-level congressional offices, the House and Senate appropriations committees, [and] the White House," said Ibrahim, who spoke to Foreign Policy between meetings with Washington Post editors and National Security Council advisor Samantha Power. "Some of them are my former students from the American University in Cairo."

Of course, those personal relationships are no guarantee that the Egyptian reform movement –under ElBaradei or anyone else — will find a warm reception in Washington. Ever since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, it has maintained deep diplomatic and financial ties with the United States — roughly $1.5 billion in U.S. aid flows to Cairo every year, and the U.S. Agency for International Development estimates it has sent more than $28 billion in development assistance to Egypt since 1975. The United States has made a considerable investment in the Mubarak regime, which it sees as a guarantor of regional stability, and many U.S. officials will be loath to endorse any plan that upsets the status quo.

Egyptian-Americans’ political strength still pales in comparison to other ethnic blocs, such as Cuban, Irish, or Jewish groups. But if strength is in numbers, the community could well play an important role as the United States formulates its plan for a post-Mubarak Egypt. The Census Bureau estimated in 2007 that there are roughly 200,000 Egyptians living in the United States — but many activists think that the number is closer to 800,000 because many Egyptians don’t mark their nationality on census forms. Many of those who are getting involved are wealthy and tech-savvy professionals whose U.S. passports give them far more influence than relatives and friends still living in Egypt.

"If [members of the diaspora] were able to organize themselves into even one or two big organizations … they could communicate loud and clear to the Congress and the president and the U.S. media that they were unhappy with U.S. policy toward Egypt," says Samer Shehata, professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University. "They could renew the debate, which is an important debate, about what U.S. policy on Egypt should be."

That is exactly what some Egyptian-American activists are trying to do, says Mokhtar Kamel, the vice president of the Coalition of Egyptian Organizations, a Virginia-based umbrella group for expat organizations founded last year. The coalition advocates on behalf of political prisoners in Egypt, and some of its member organizations send donations to the needy there. But Kamel says its work is focused on the United States. "We want to encourage people to be empowered, active American citizens," he says. "When you influence what happens in the United States, that transfers over into influencing what happens in Egypt, and vice versa."

Online activists are hoping to create this sort of spillover effect as well. Nadine Abdelwahab is a board member of the newest Egyptian-American advocacy group, the Egyptian Association for Change. It has "informal" ties with ElBaradei’s National Association for Change. Abdelwahab is trying to use online advocacy to lay the groundwork for an on-the-ground movement in Egypt. Launched just two months ago, the group has already sprouted chapters in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, North Carolina, California, and Michigan.

"It’s important to continue to network and to share experiences of what has worked and what hasn’t," says Abdelwahab, who immigrated to the United States at a young age. She has previously been active in local campaigns and voter-registration drives and is now aiming to use her experience in U.S. politics to inform her Egyptian political activism. "What can we learn from and campaigns on Facebook and Twitter?" she asks.

Although young, the Egyptian Association for Change has already staged at least one creative protest that grabbed headlines in Cairo. Last month, it held a mock presidential election in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. Fifty Egyptian-Americans lined up to cast their ballots. The result: ElBaradei won in a landslide, while Hosni Mubarak’s son and rumored heir Gamal took just one vote.

Of course, it will take much more than a mock election to throw Mubarak out of office. However, the event — and others like it — demonstrated a new sense of hope felt by many in the Egyptian diaspora.

"Everyone wants to get involved, and they can tell that it is different now because of ElBaradei," says Ali, who organized the Egyptian opposition leader’s Boston event. "They have started to feel like they can do something to get rid of the dictatorship in Egypt."

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