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For UK's Egypt expats, revolutionary fervor gives way to electoral lethargy

Egyptians in the UK celebrated Mubarak's ouster along with their compatriots in Tahrir Square. That being said, voter turnout among UK-based expats was surprisingly low this week

Naira Antoun, Thursday 17 May 2012
Expat
A torn paper listing the electoral candidates is seen near a stack of passports (Reuters)
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On the day that Hosni Mubarak stepped down when countless numbers were celebrating on the streets of Cairo and other cities across Egypt, the closest thing in London was the Edgware Road.

A group of Egyptians who had been demonstrating outside the embassy every day marched the short distance to the Arab hub that is this central London street. They were joined by many in what must have been the largest, most spontaneous and joyful public display of 'Arabness' the British capital has ever seen.

Walking down Edgware Road in the weeks leading up to the Egyptian presidential elections, however, one would be hard pressed to find any evidence of these elections. There are campaign posters in no more than a handful of shop windows.

With voting for Egyptians expatriates, closing on Thursday 17 May at 8pm, turnout in the UK has been quite low, as it has with Egyptians internationally. It is expected that when the polling stations close only a few thousand of the estimated quarter of a million Egyptians living in the United Kingdom will have voted.

There is more to it than a lack of enthusiasm says, Shady El-Sayed, coordinator of the Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh campaign in the UK.

El-Sayed, a pharmacist who came to the UK five years ago, is one of a group of representatives monitoring the vote. He said he saw around 120 people come from different parts of the country to the London-based embassy to vote but were able to as many had failed to register.

"There should have been a longer period in which people could register, and more work done. There was too much bureaucracy, too little effort, publicity or infrastructure," El Sayed said.

Others cast their ballots by post. However, according to El-Sayed, some people put their personal information and their ballot paper in the same envelope, meaning that their vote is void.

As far as El-Sayed is aware, the Abul-Fotouh campaign in the UK is the only campaign with representatives monitoring the voting. They are also the only supporter group to observe the counting the votes. "It’s not that we think anything will go wrong, but just in case."

Clashes between protesters and the military police in the area surrounding the defence ministry in Cairo early May impacted campaigning in the UK. There had been plans for Abul-Fotouh, along with other presidential candidates, to speak to voters at a video-conference organised by a group called United Egyptians, which was formed in the wake of the January 25 Revolution.

The idea behind the event was for voters to be able to interact with presidential candidates who may not be, what the members of United Egyptians describe as," pro-revolutionary" but who are at least not felool (remnants of the old regime).

It was scheduled for 5 May but cancelled in solidarity with the protesters who were attacked and killed.

El-Sayed very much approved Abul-Fotouh’s decision to suspend political lobbying during the bloodshed, despite the negative impact on campaigning in London. "There was blood on the streets, and we could not ignore that."

United Egyptians had organised a similar event in the run-up to the parliamentary elections.

During the 18 days, it was United Egyptians who ensured there were permits for the demonstrations outside the Egyptian Embassy in London. Collectively they recorded 50 interviews during that two and a half week period.

The group has continued to be active. They have organised solidarity demonstrations at times of clashes in Egypt, encouraging Egyptians to register to vote, crated events explaining the platforms of the different elections' candidates and even hosted a constitution workshop in April.

The group has no political or religious affiliation. "Our only bias is to the revolution," says Mohamed Abdel-Ghani, 33, a psychiatrist and co-founder.

Its key aims include encouraging the political awareness and involvement of Egyptians in the UK as well as making people in Egypt feel that those abroad do take part.

Indeed while many Egyptians went back to their home country when the revolution kicked off, many others did not, some because they simply could not and also as Abdel-Ghani says "we thought we could do more here."

Abdel-Ghani attracted international media coverage in April of this year when he filmed Mubarak's finance minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for corruption charges in absentia, on the streets of London. As Boutrous Ghali hurled insults at him, Abdel-Ghani shouted that there is an Interpol arrest warrant issued against him.

While Arabs in the UK are concentrated in London, the presence of Egyptians has never been particularly marked.

There has been little to bring Egyptians together and cultural centres were too often moribund.

All this changed with the revolution. It brought together first and second generation Egyptians as well as people from all walks of life.

At the demonstrations outside the embassy fluent Egyptian Arabic mixed with broken Arabic, and heavily accented English mixed with the English of native speakers, as protesters echoed the calls of their compatriots in Tahrir Square.

From waiters to doctors, hotel porters to engineers, students to the unemployed, they were united by their desire to see Mubarak go.

Mahmoud Fawzi, a hotel porter, said it was the first time in the nine years that he has been in London that he felt as if he were in Egypt.

"Everything after Mubarak leaving was more complicated than him leaving," says Abdel-Ghani.

The debates pro-revolutionary Egyptians have had abroad reflect and mirror those taking place within Egypt itself.

"“How loud or harsh should our criticism of the ruling military council be? How loud or harsh should our criticism of the behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood following the fall of Mubarak be? Should we attack the parliament as lacking legitimacy or address demands to it? These are the questions we discuss," says Abdel-Ghani.

Strategic or hopeful?

Lara Magdi, 22, an Egyptian student activist born in Italy but studying in London, says that she will be boycotting the elections. "I just don’t see that elections under military rule have any legitimacy," she says. "How can they be ‘free and fair’?

"As with the parliamentary elections, there’s been killings just before, this time in Abbasiya, last time in Mohamed Mahmoud."

Abdel-Ghani, as part of United Egyptians, has been encouraging people to register and vote.

"Let’s be practical. A boycott wouldn’t be useful at this point. With small numbers, it will just give more support to our opponents. And let’s be honest, these elections are a stage that the revolution will not win, so the issue is damage control."

There haS been a lot of talk about whether to vote strategically or for who you believe in.

Abdel-Ghani says that if it came to a run-off between Amr Moussa and Abul-Fotouh, he would vote for Abul-Fotouh. "But he should not think he gets our support automatically. If we vote for our preferred candidates now, and then vote for him en masse during the run-off, he will know he is also accountable to us."

Assem El-Sabeeny, a dentist who has been living in the UK since 2005, had been acting as co-ordinator for the European campaign of the banned Salafist presidential contender Hazem Saleh Abu-Ismail. Despite Abu-Ismail's exclusion, he will still be voting for liberal human rights lawyer Khaled Ali.

Although the two candidates stand poles apart on the ideological spectrum, the same reasons that led El-Sabeeny to Abu-Ismail, lead him to Khaled Ali. El-Sabeeny wants someone who would not compromise or bend in the face of the ruling military council or the United States. "That’s why I am voting for Khaled Ali. The others, whatever they say now, will compromise."

Abu-Ismail was forbidden from entering the presidential race as his mother allegedly held American citizenship. El-Sabeeny describes the documentation presented by the government as proof of this dual-nationality "as only good for wrapping falafel in". Now he is now encouraging people to vote for Ali.

He describes the attitude of voters who do not vote for Ali because they worry he does not have a chance, as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"It is not the issue whether he has a chance to win or not. The important thing is to vote for the one you most believe in. I will vote for Khaled Ali because I think he represents the revolution, and he will stick to his word like Abu Ismail. The reason Ali doesn’t have a chance is because that even those who support him will not vote for him, and that’s the only reason," El-Sabeeny explains. 

Although United Egyptians has been organising activities in relation to the presidential elections, the group does not rally around any candidate.

 "It is more important to maintain the integrity of United Egyptians," concludes Abdel-Ghani, "rather than put ourselves behind one particular person, because the struggle will continue and it will be long."

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