The Middle East Channel

When Egyptian-Americans vote

Egyptian-Americans let out a collective sigh of relief this week. After months of governmental handwringing, the Egyptian High Elections Commission finally confirmed that Egyptians abroad will be able to exercise their right to vote in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Egyptian expatriates were permitted to begin registering yesterday on the Commission's website. Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian-Americans have struggled to find their place in the new Egypt. But their participation in Egypt's first real elections will prove what they already knew -- that they too are Egyptians and they too will help chart Egypt's new course.

Like their fellow Egyptians in Tahrir Square, Egyptian-Americans rose up and demanded the fall of the regime on January 25. But unlike their compatriots in Tahrir, Egyptian-Americans also had to prove -- to others but more importantly to themselves -- that their demands were just as legitimate, that their voice was just as authentic.

On the one hand, the revolution caused a resurgence in pride in the homeland, propelling a once largely inactive and apolitical diaspora to seek out avenues of participation. According to Amin Mahmoud of the Alliance of Egyptian Americans, Hosni Mubarak had successfully "brainwashed" Egyptian-Americans to destroy their "ethic of political participation." But January 25 helped Egyptian-Americans to raise their heads high once more. Egyptian pride surged so strongly that noted political dissident Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim suggests it even "almost bordered on chauvinism."

On the other hand, the revolution exacerbated pre-existing insecurities over the authenticity of the community's Egyptian identity. Many Egyptian-Americans who could not physically participate in Tahrir Square cannot help but feel a sense that their "Egyptianness" is now somehow lacking. As Dalia Mogahed of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies observes, "I don't know any Egyptians outside Egypt who didn't feel an incredible sense that they were left out, that they had missed out, almost like a sense of loss."

When Asmaa, a young Egyptian-American from New York, heard Hosni Mubarak had resigned, she began to cry as pride intermingled with longing. She recalls, "I really wanted to be there. I wish I had been a part of it, but I really wasn't. I did what I could here. I did my share here. But I still wish I had been there to be 100 percent a part of it."

This potent mix of pride and longing has spurred the Egyptian-American community into action. Instead of fixating on the inability to participate in Tahrir Square, Ibrahim Hussein of the Alliance of Egyptian Americans urged the community to build a "chapter of Tahrir Square" here in the United States. So they organized, protested, broadcasted, lobbied, and fundraised.

More than any other issue, Egyptian-Americans have fixated their demands on their right to vote. Just as Tahrir Square defined Egypt's 18-day uprising, the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections will define post-revolutionary Egypt. Egyptian-Americans could accept that geography prevented their direct participation in the first seminal event. However, they will not accept the Egyptian government preventing their participation in the second. But more fundamentally, elections will now also define what it means to be Egyptian in a society in which citizens choose how they are governed and by whom. Nothing else would so definitively support the Egyptian-American claim of authentic Egyptian identity and voice than voting in Egypt's elections.

This week's announcement by the High Elections Commission thus represents a great victory for Egyptian-Americans, but several concerns remain. First, it is not clear how many Egyptian-Americans will actually get to vote. The High Elections Commission will allow Egyptians outside Egypt to register to vote from November 10 to November 19. With the first round of parliamentary elections scheduled for November 28, time is quite short to validate the registration process and work out any kinks. Moreover, many Egyptian-Americans do not possess an identification card, and only those who secured one before September 27 will be eligible to vote in the parliamentary elections. Poll stations will only be available at Egyptian embassies and consulates, so those Egyptian-Americans who do not live near one of these locations will either have to travel or forego their right to vote. Additionally, there is always the concern that votes cast will still not be counted honestly.

Second, beyond administrative obstacles, Egyptian-Americans also face a difficult political environment in Egypt. Since the revolution, Egypt has experienced a sharp increase in xenophobia, paranoia, and distrust of anything perceived as foreign. In this hostile environment, Egyptian-Americans can often struggle to find acceptance, especially with the underlying resentment that they did not suffer under Mubarak, as did others. Egyptian-Americans are even occasionally dismissed as khawaga, a colloquial term for foreigner.

Last month, Egyptian-Americans planned a conference in Washington, DC to host many of the major presidential candidates. These candidates faced a political backlash largely driven by paranoia of foreign conspiracy. Due to the fear that any attendees would be perceived as "American lackeys," only three candidates participated in the conference, none of which have any chance of winning. Yet this paranoia over foreign plots does not extend throughout Egyptian society, and the Egyptian revolutionaries have especially shown strong support for expatriate participation. At the conference, April 6 Youth Movement co-founder Ahmed Maher praised Egyptian-Americans for their role in building a new Egypt. Also, presidential candidate Bouthaina Kamel encouraged Egyptian-Americans to seize their fate in their revolution.

Third, beyond the fear of foreign conspiracy, there are concerns that expatriate voting will be susceptible to fraud. The judiciary branch typically monitors Egyptian elections, but there already too few judges to monitor all of the polling stations in Egypt at once. That is why parliamentary elections will have to be drawn out over several rounds. Having judges fly across the globe to monitor polling at embassies and consulates is simply impossible. Special exceptions will have to be made to allow foreign ministry officials to monitor international ballot boxes.

But the concern over fraud is likely overblown. American University of Cairo professor Samer Soliman contends in a recent Al-Ahram Online article that expat Egyptians are less susceptible to voter coercion than Egyptians at home. In fact, he suggests the "interim powers" have cynically raised such concerns because they actually fear Egyptians abroad will be able to vote freely.

Fourth, it is not clear how the Egyptian expatriate vote will affect the election results. Egyptian-Americans will likely vote more for liberal parties than the Egyptian population as a whole for a few reasons. As Khaled Elgindy of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association observes, Egyptian-Americans are not completely representative of Egyptians generally because of their higher standard of living, level of education, and access to information. In addition, Coptic Christians enjoy a far stronger voice in the Egyptian-American community than they do in Egypt. And perhaps most importantly, Egyptian-Americans are more accustomed to and supportive of the liberal, free market American system.

Yet Egyptian-Americans represent only a fraction of the approximated eight million Egyptian expatriates who just gained access to the ballot box. Historically, the money and ideas flowing from Egyptians living in Gulf countries have had a tremendous effect in promoting a more conservative Egyptian society generally and Islamist groups particularly. They too possess the right to vote, and they too will exercise it. While it is not clear which political groups stand to gain the most from the expat vote as a whole, the recent Tunisian elections may prove instructive. The Islamist party Ennahda garnered approximately 40 percent of the Tunisian expat vote, far exceeding its nearest competitor.

Finally, while Egyptian-Americans have fixated on their right to vote, others are advising them to not forget the other ways they can help build a new Egypt. At the October conference, James Zogby of the Arab American Institute urged Egyptian-Americans to mobilize their economic resources stating, "Egypt doesn't need your vote. It needs your investment and your ingenuity to help create jobs. You can't feed people with a vote, but you can with a job." Meanwhile, Shadi Taha of the liberal al-Ghad party hopes Egyptian-Americans will become more active and effective within not just the Egyptian political system, but the American system as well. He encourages them "to become better organized, to take a stronger stand, to vote, to build relations with their representatives, to make their voices heard and to put the interests of the motherland at the top of their agenda."

Of course, Egyptian-Americans understand voting is not the only way to act upon their pride and longing for Egypt that has intensified since Mubarak's fall. They understand their vote will differ from other Egyptian expat communities and from the Egyptian population as a whole. They understand concerns over fraud must be addressed. They understand they confront a political environment in Egypt that can show counterproductive hostility toward anything perceived as foreign. And they understand that the Egyptian government failed to deliver on a clear, well-conceived process to ensure all expats will be able to exercise their right to vote.

Despite all these concerns, voting in Egypt's elections remains the best way for Egyptian-Americans to assert their Egyptian identity and to definitively prove the authenticity of their voice. As Dr. Samia Harris proclaimed at the October conference, "I'm not shy. I won't apologize for it. Our role is to support all Egyptians in Egypt and empower Egyptians living here. Voting is a right, not a gift, and we are demanding our right."

Jason Stern is a master's candidate at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He tweets and blogs under the handle @IbnLarry.


Marc Lynch

Arab leaders shouldn't kill their people?

The Arab League is today considering the demand by the Syrian National Council, human rights organizations and a wide array of other actors that it freeze Syria's membership over its killing of civilians. Few expect that the Arab League will seriously affect the Assad regime's behavior.  But the very fact that it is even considering such a move is frankly astonishing.  Since when do Arab leaders agree that a regime's legitimacy can be forfeit if it kills too many of its own people?

The rapid spread of a new norm against Arab regimes killing their own people is a frankly astonishing, but largely unremarked, change in the regional game.  Since the Arab League backed the UN intervention in Libya in March, the idea that regimes might be sanctioned for their domestic brutality has become a normal part of the Arab political debate and enshrined in official Arab League resolutions. Both the GCC's political transition plan for Yemen and this month's Arab League peace plan for Syria condemned regimes for their violence and called for far reaching political changes.  They haven't stopped the violence.  But the idea that they should is something genuinely new -- and has major implications beyond the immediate outcome in either country.

Let's recall how odd it is that Arab leaders would agree with even an empty principle that regimes which kill their own people should forfeit their legitimacy. Almost every regime in the Arab world has been doing exactly that for decades. Jordan's King Hussein kept his throne in 1970 when his troops massacred Palestinians in the infamous Black September. Syria's President Hafez al-Assad didn't forfeit his Arab legitimacy when his forces leveled Hama in 1982. Iraq's President Saddam Hussein suffered no great normative sanctions for his genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s.  Arabs responded tepidly to the Sudanese brutality in Darfur in the 2000s. There was certainly great public concern over Israel's treatment of Palestinians or the suffering of Iraqis under international sanctions in the 1990s, but those were framed as the abuse of Arabs by hostile foreign powers rather than as a condemnation of Arab leaders for their repressive ways. For decades, then, rejection of any external standards for regime legitimacy lay at the very core of Arab norms of state sovereignty. 

What's more, it's not like those leaders can now look back smugly on their past moral blindness from a safe distance. Almost every Arab leader is either currently repressing protestors or knows that within weeks it could be them in the docket.  The Saudis endorsed the intervention in Libya at the exact same moment that they sent troops into Bahrain and supported a crushing, blanket repression which violated a wide range of international human rights norms.  If Amman, Rabat or Algiers decided to send in the military against unarmed protestors, could they really be certain that they would not be held accountable to the same standards they have endorsed for Damascus, Sanaa and Tripoli?  Most likely, these leaders did not believe that they were creating a precedent when they moved against Qaddafi. But they did. 

What explains the embrace of this new norm, then? I doubt that the Arab leaders thought they were setting a precedent which might be used against them.  I wouldn't doubt that the Saudis and Qataris were just motivated by personal animosity towards the Libyan leader, or hoping to pursue their regional ambitions at Libya's expense.  It's possible that many Arab leaders simply hoped to distract Western attention from their own repression by pointing the international community towards North Africa. They may have been confident that such norms would only be wielded against those outside of the West's alliance structure -- Libya and Syria, sure, but not Saudi Arabia or Jordan.  But whatever their intent, the Libyan intervention has established a new normative framework and language of political contestation in Arab politics which is driving the regional agenda. Its use now in Syria suggests that this will not be easily controlled or set aside. 

The new norm has traction at multiple levels.  Arab public sphere is filled with complaints at various levels against the repressive acts of almost every sitting government, any of which could in principle be taken up by concerned outsiders. NGOs, youth activists, and activist media from independent websites and newspapers to al-Jazeera have all for many years devoted their energies to shining a harsh spotlight on human rights abuses. International organizations and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have been empowered to demand the consistent application of the norms used. The relentless barrage of graphic videos documenting the brutality, circulated over the internet and routinely broadcast on al-Jazeera, makes the violence visceral and undeniable.  Now, any one of these leaders who signed on to the revocation of legitimacy from Qaddafi, Assad or Saleh can be called to account if he unleashes military force on his own people. 

That makes it all the more remarkable that these leaders have now largely accepted the normative principle that regime legitimacy can be forfeited at a certain level of internal violence. Nobody would say that the Arab League has acted effectively to defend this new norm -- the ongoing bloodshed in Syria, the decimated civil society of Bahrain, and the grim stalemate in Yemen attest all too clearly that they have not.  But they now speak almost all speak the language of international norms against impunity. Norms do not need perfect behavioral compliance for them to be significant in international relations.  The simple fact that both popular and official Arab political discourse now begins from the premise that domestically violent regimes should be sanctioned or even removed from power has already significantly changed the game of Arab politics. 

Obviously this has not deterred Assad or Saleh from unleashing the hounds of war.  But it has fundamentally and undeniably changed the regional and international response to those decisions -- raising the political costs, shaping media coverage, giving meaning to the public's revulsion, guiding the strategy of opposition movements.  It has introduced into the strategic equation the potential (though of course not certainty) of novel responses such as International Criminal Court indictments, UN-backed sanctions, the freezing of Arab League membership, or even military intervention. The possibility that calls by the Syrian National Council or by Yemeni human rights activists for Arab and international protection might just be answered changes everyone's strategic calculations. 

Beyond the specifically Arab dynamics, the Libya intervention, the Obama administration's rhetoric, and the new international discourse on the Responsibility to Protect clearly also matter.  UN Resolution 1973 gave a clear international mandate for the NATO intervention in Libya, even if many complain that it was then stretched to include regime change and military support operations not found in the original mandate.  That mandate was rooted in the controversial but increasingly robust discourse of the Responsibility to Protect. This remains the subject of bitter debate, of course, with many critics complaining that RTP represents thinly veiled imperialism or that it actually encourages more civil conflict.  

This perspective would place the demonstration effects and the strengthening of global norms against impunity as a core component of the strategic and normative logic of the Libya intervention.  Beyond the immediate, and worthy, goal of saving Libyan lives, the architects of the intervention likely hoped to deepen and strengthen the global norm against impunity. That means taking the lesson of Libya and applying it broadly to other cases in the region and around the world. Thus Obama's statement that Assad, like Qaddafi before him, had lost legitimacy could not force the Syrian President from power but did reinforce this evolving norm.

This shouldn't be seen as a happy ending, of course. The fact is that these international norms continue to be flouted.  The body count in Syria is growing every day.  The Yemeni stalemate shows no signs of breaking.  Bahrain is mostly out of the news.  The Arab League, the UN, and all other international actors are struggling to find any effective course of action. But nor should this be seen as a simple failure.  It matters that both Arab publics and Arab leaders now work from the shared rhetorical principle that regimes which kill too many of their own people should forfeit their legitimacy.  That unheralded normative evolution should be recognized and applauded. It should be strengthened by taking serious steps to enforce it, and by applying it in an even-handed fashion. 

Building this norm won't be easy, will be rife with hypocrisies and double standards, and like virtually all international norms will be honored more in the breach than in practice. But we've come a long way in the space of one year we have gone from an Arab regional order which rejected any limits on state sovereignty to one where both Arab public opinion and the Arab League could agree that leaders should have their assets frozen, be forced from power or be brought to the ICC because they brutalized their people.