Change Egypt's Expats Can Believe In
Change Egypt's Expats Can Believe In
Thursday, June 24,2010 20:37

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."