Monday, November 14, 2011

More on Egyptian-Americans

As many of you know, I just published an article at Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel on Egyptian-Americans and their right to vote in Egypt's elections. The fall of Mubarak has mobilized the community in unprecedented fashion. They have organized, protested, lobbied, fundraised, and broadcasted. In three weeks, it has been finally confirmed they will get to vote. They have done all of this to be part of the revolution which they claim belongs to them as much as every other Egyptian.

Because the article focuses on the debate over expatriate voting, its effects, and its importance, I'd like to use this blog to broaden the scope a bit to give a general sense about the Egyptian-American community post-Mubarak.

The days after the fall of Mubarak were filled with boundless optimism. Like their fellow Egyptians in Tahrir Square, Egyptian-Americans had risen up and caused the regime to crumble. Now they sought to harness the energy of the revolution to strengthen their community and thereby strengthen Egypt. But as we have seen in Egypt itself, reality has begun to encroach upon the magic of the revolution. The days of euphoria seem to have passed - the victory over voting not withstanding.

In particular, three challenges have dampened the community's optimism and hinder its effectiveness: lack of organization, sectarian tension, and a difficult political environment.

First, the community suffers from a lack of organization. I've heard that there are over 200 Egyptian-American groups from multiple sources. But no one knows exactly what these groups do or even whether they do anything at all. The revolution has inspired myriad entrepreneurial initiatives, but without some cohesion from above, there is likely significant duplication and inefficient allocation of resources. Moreover, the lack of a strong umbrella organization with broad grassroots support make it difficult to lobby the government (both US and Egyptian) for changes in policy. This failure to organize likely stems from a historical lack of purpose. Unlike other Arab-American communities (which are also weakly organized), Egyptian-Americans have had little reason to organize politically since the Camp David Accords sealed the US-Egyptian relationship.

In the revolution, the community has finally found a reason to become better organized. In fact, many Egyptian-Americans point to the example of the highly successful pro-Israel lobby as their motivation and inspiration to become more effective. Progress toward that goal is being made. At an Egyptian-American conference this October, Randa Fahmy Hudome announced the formation of a new group that will seek to strengthen the US-Egypt relationship by leveraging the community's "intimate understanding of the language, political landscape, and social nuances of Egypt." This could be an important step towards better organization.  But for now, the community still speaks with many voices at once instead of many voices as one.

Second, one of the main causes for this disunity is the divide between Muslims and Coptic Christians. Despite the popular revolutionary slogan "Egypt for all Egyptians," religion continues to divide Egyptians on both sides of the Atlantic. The sectarian divide within the Egyptian-American community both exacerbates and feeds off of the sectarianism in Egypt. Each tragedy like the recent massacre at Maspero strengthens the minority of hardliner Muslims and Copts who push their sectarian narratives upon others. Part of the sectarian divide admittedly results from divergent but legitimate interests, but they are often expressed in unproductive ways. At another Egyptian-American conference this April, a shouting match erupted over the role of Islamic sharia in the future constitution. Just as tempers reached a boiling point, a well-timed joke about the Irish defused the situation.

Importantly, the majority of Egyptian-Americans are striving to overcome the sectarian challenge. According to Sherif Nasr, a doctor from New Jersey, Egyptian-Americans need to openly "confront the problem head on and set an example for Egyptians back in Egypt." The community's experience with American secularism may prove its strongest asset in combating sectarianism. Most Egyptians misconstrue secularism as anti-religion. But Egyptian-Americans can show that the American model actually promotes tolerance while preserving an important role for religion in society.

Third and finally, Egyptian-Americans face a difficult political environment both in Egypt and in the US. Like any diaspora group, Egyptian-Americans straddle both here and there, home and homeland. As one Egyptian-American student explained to me, "you're stuck in between two worlds which don't fully accept you."

I describe the unwelcoming environment in Egypt in the FP article, so here I'll focus on the States. Racial stereotyping, Islamophobia, and general anti-immigration fervor all hinder the full integration of Egyptian-Americans into the political system. Especially since September 11th, too often Muslim Americans take a position of leadership, only to find their reputation destroyed by shameful fearmongering and unfounded conspiracy. This chills the ethic of participation in Egyptian, Arab and Muslim American communities. It even hurts those who are falsely perceived as Arab Muslims, like the Sikh-American community.

Yet the revolution has helped improve the image of Egyptians, Arabs, and Muslims in the American public sphere. Amin Mahmoud of the Alliance of Egyptian Americans sees a "new opening in America" for Arabs as a result of the admiration felt for the "persistence, nonviolence and sacrifices of the Egyptian people" during the revolution. In fact, one of the ironies of the Egyptian-American community is that in their effort to overthrow Mubarak and help build a new Egypt, they have become more active and engaged American citizens as well. As a result, their desire to serve Egypt has simultaneously strengthened American democracy.

Despite these challenges of lack of organization, sectarianism, and hostile political environments, Egyptian-Americans are determined to move forward. Beyond their key demand to vote in Egypt's upcoming elections, they hope to stimulate foreign investment, push for a US-Egypt free trade agreement, and place human rights conditions on US military assistance to Egypt. Today, the outcome of Egypt's revolution is anything but certain. But if Egyptian-Americans are successful in pushing their agenda, the chances for a real Egyptian democracy will improve.

As Khaled Elgindy of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association told me recently, "the euphoria has dissipated, but the urgency has increased" for Egyptian-Americans to rise to the occasion. To do so, the community will have to rekindle the optimism of the revolutionary days and undergo its own revolution to become a more cohesive and effective political force. Thus for Egyptians within and beyond Egypt, the revolution continues.

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