Egyptian nationals living abroad are voting for the first time in general elections by casting their ballots at embassies and consulates. After stern opposition by Egypt’s interim military council, Egyptian expatriates obtained the right to vote as a result of a court order. Unfortunately, the initial euphoria was blunted by endless complaints from citizens who were unable to vote.
Egypt has a total population of 80 million, an estimated 7-10 million of whom live abroad for work, education or immigration. Egyptian expats were expected to play a key role in deciding the outcome of the parliamentary elections. However, according to the English-language website of the government daily Al-Ahram, only 300,000 Egyptians living abroad had registered to vote and even less were able to send in their ballots. Most of the complaints came from citizens living in the North America where only 5 percent of eligible voters were able to cast their votes compared to 40 percent of those living in Saudi Arabia. The results of the initial round of voting, both abroad and at home, saw Islamist parties garner a 61 percent share, an all but certain parliamentary majority.
In his final days in power, Hosni Mubarak warned that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party would exploit the ensuing power vacuum if he stepped down. This is a version of the narrative the Egyptian president had used to justify 30 years of political suppression. Many suspect that same narrative is now being used by the currently ruling military council to justify staying in power. Hypothetically speaking, if the generals were to favor a majoritarian Islamist parliament, they would have reason to fear a potentially strong liberal vote from expats living in the West, in particular the Coptic Diaspora, three quarters of whom live in the United States.
In a recent interview, Abdel Nasser Abdel Wahed, secretary general of the Muslim Association of Greece claimed that some Egyptian consulates and embassies were deliberately seeking to influence the votes of expatriates in favor of certain political parties. According to the association’s president, Mr. Naeem al-Ghandour, certain employees at Egyptian consulates and embassies are members of the notorious State Security and Investigations Service who are vehemently opposed to the revolution. Mr. al-Ghandour questioned whether these employees should be entrusted to handle the voting. But conspiracy theories aside, Egyptians living abroad, particularly those in North America have had a lot to complain about.
Constitutionally, all Egyptian citizens are allowed to participate and vote in the elections as long as they hold an Egyptian passport. Additionally, both Law No. 73 of 1953 and Law No. 173 in 2005 grant Egyptians the right to vote at consulates.
Initially, Egypt’s military council issued a decree this year that perpetuated Mubarak’s trend of depriving Egyptian expats from voting in their countries of residence. In October, Egypt’s Administrative Court overturned the ban as a result of a lawsuit brought by political activists, including famed novelist Ahdaf Soueif.
The military council then created an additional problem for expats by amending Law No.73 to require that citizens only vote in the district listed on their national identity cards. This meant Egyptians abroad could not use their passports to vote and many do not have national identity cards. This is particularly damaging to voters in North America many of whom are immigrants compared to residents in the Arabian Gulf who mainly travel for work. Moreover, a subsequent decree issued on the participation of Egyptian expatriates required that national identity card be issued before September 27, 2011.
Since the army’s coup d’état in the 1950s, voting was made compulsory, with non-voters facing the possibility of sanctions. These sanctions were not enforced and stood, until recently, at approximately 15 USD. Expecting a low voter turnout, the military junta raised the penalty to approximately 90 USD, a significant amount for most Egyptian families.
Although theoretically the same rules should apply, no such fine was imposed in the case of the expatriate vote. Egyptian expats were asked to register online in order to be eligible for voting, suggesting the whole process was voluntary. Voters in the United States were given 5-6 days to register; those who tried on November 18 and 19, found a message saying: “Sorry, the site is not available; please wait or try to visit us again in a little while.”
Curiously, the first phase of elections abroad (November 23 to 27) preceded the vote at home and coincided with the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. According to Shahi Abrahim, an Egyptian small business owner who lives in San Francisco and was unable to cast her vote, “we initially thought we would vote in our corresponding consulates and then suddenly, after arranging for transportation, we were told to mail our ballots to the Embassy in Washington, D.C.” But because it was a national holiday, the Postal Service was closed both during Thanksgiving (a Thursday) and on Sunday (the deadline). No doubt, this reality must have discouraged many people, especially those on the West Coast, since the average piece of mail takes 2-3 days to travel across the country. Additionally, express services such as FedEx or UPS would cost significant amounts of money for the ballots to reach Washington, D.C., on time.
Mary-J, an Egyptian-American who lives in New York, also complained about the lack of information regarding the voting procedures as well as the candidates. She recounted how the lack of transparency regarding voting procedures and the arbitrary instructions had led many potential voters to mistrust the government’s handling of their personal information. Some Egyptian immigrants were concerned that the Egyptian authorities would use the information to make lives more difficult for them abroad.
Egypt’s Coptic Christian leader, Pope Shenouda III, who was receiving medical treatment in Cleveland, Ohio, during the elections, was unable to cast his vote because he had not registered as an Egyptian abroad in time.
Some observers have attributed these shortcomings to inexperience and the novelty of democratic procedures in Egypt. Meanwhile, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry has offered little in terms of explanation and said it was not responsible for any obstacles that voters abroad may have encountered. Surprisingly, the second phase of voting, which started this month, was better organized. This time, consulates in New York, Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles were able to receive votes.
The theory that Egyptians in North America were directly targeted as part of a wider vote manipulation scheme in favor of Islamists assumes a complicity between power, politics and religion that borders on the conspiratorial. What is clear is that many expats in North America have been denied their constitutional right to vote as a result of the difficulties they have faced. And this, no doubt, will contribute to the formation of a non-representative parliament, and constitutes a set-back on Egypt’s path towards democracy.
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Tamer Fouad is an Egyptian physician and blogger commenting on political and current affairs in Egypt as well as on the Arab transition towards democracy. He has also published several awareness articles promoting liberalism and free speech on the Muslim Brotherhood's English website Іkhwanweb.com, but is not affiliated with the Brotherhood. Tamer is a regular contributing author on MiddleEastVoices.com.