Is expressing your take on Egypt’s internal affairs overstepping the mark once you cross the border? Egyptian expatriates now have the vote, and so they technically have as much of a say as any of us in how the country is run. However, in the wake of leaving the country they are often left feeling less entitled to participate in the public sphere than those who remain behind because they are not experiencing life in Egypt at first hand.
Our votes may count equally, but are our voices equally welcomed and heard? Commentator Patrick McGuinness likens patriotism to a “spectator sport, in the sense that there are more spectators than players,” and suggests that simply through collective self-mockery and a certain commonality of humour, your “country makes you patriotic despite itself, despite your distance and your irony towards the country, and most of all, the country’s own irony towards you.
” Egyptians have long agreed that while the airing of national grievances is only natural, most kvetching (light-hearted or otherwise) is best kept entre nous if we are to challenge misconceptions and represent our homeland in a positive light internationally. But in reality this “us” should stretch to encompass all Egyptians, whether in Egypt or abroad, and whether temporarily or permanently.
Egyptians of the diaspora tend to practise long-distance nationalism in a bid to maintain or create some semblance of a shared experience with those back home. They diligently follow the latest goings-on, enterprisingly produce and avidly consume nostalgia goods, and constantly correspond with family and friends in Egypt. Although not direct stakeholders immediately affected by government policy and the latest developments in the country themselves, they take an interest in their countrymen’s debates, often more than in the politics of their own host countries.
Non-resident Egyptians maintain a relationship with Egypt that may be more formative of their identity than their role as citizens or non-citizen residents elsewhere.The emigration state, in the shape of government institutions responsible for populations abroad, looks after their consular needs, but if we are to be truly receptive and inclusive of expatriate voices we need to adjust how they are seen in the public imagination as well.
A crucial first step is to acknowledge that spaces of citizenship are not binary. From an “us, here” (Egyptians in Egypt) perspective, Egyptians not in Egypt are by default “them, there”. This seems logical on the surface, but it is a restrictive projection. While to Egyptians in Egypt they may be emigrants, to them they are the “us, there” – not “here” (in Egypt), but not abstract “spatially invisible citizens” “there” either.
Wherever they happen to be, they are very much visible and still very much citizens. Originating in post-classical Greek philosophy and cemented by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “cosmopolitan point of view,” the movement for extending citizenship rights to those outside the nation sees moral belonging take precedence over political borders.
The commentator David Fitzgerald defines extra-territorial citizenship as “citizenship in a territorially bounded political community without residence in the community.” For theorists of migrant transnationalism, the state-citizen relationship remains central, but it can occur anywhere: it is the state itself, not citizenship, that becomes mobile and de-territorialised. By decoupling the demos from citizenship, non-resident citizens retain membership, with the perks and duties this entails, beyond the polity itself.
Article 87 of the Egyptian constitution states that the “participation of citizens in public life is a national duty. Every citizen shall have the right to vote, run for election, and express his/her opinion in referendums,” it says. Article 88 follows this up with an assurance that “the law shall regulate the participation of Egyptians living abroad in elections and referendums in a manner consistent with their particular circumstances.”
Egyptian embassies and consulates will serve as polling stations for Egyptians living abroad to cast their votes in the upcoming presidential election on the 16-18 March. If no candidate secures an absolute majority of the votes cast, run-offs will be held on 19-21 April. If you are over 18 years old and have an Egyptian national ID card or machine-readable passport that shows an address in Egypt, you are eligible to vote in any of the 139 polling stations in 124 countries regardless of where you actually reside and without prior registration. Voting is done in-person to guarantee integrity and to avoid the risk of fraudulent or misused proxy votes, system failures or hacks.
Despite ongoing promises to find a solution to this problem, those who do not have an address on their ID or passport are still unfortunately unable to vote in the elections. Voters are placed on the electoral rolls based on their home district, and all the votes (even those from abroad) are then tallied according to these home districts: a vote does not count without an address determining the neighbourhood in which it is to count.
However, an address in Egypt is a lot to ask from someone who does not live in the country and whose family may have left a generation or more ago. This bureaucratic barricade prevents thousands of politically conscious Egyptian expatriates from exercising their right to participate in elections. Could it not be dismantled by creating a fictional constituency called “out of country”? This would be merely for the purpose of voting eligibility, not special representation.
The feasibility of this ought to be studied. For all Egyptians, those who have the right to vote and those still waiting for it, it should be clear that times of crisis and high risk heighten fervour, but our shared goal of bettering our great nation should stir us all actively and consistently to engage in the political process, even when the dust seems to have settled.
The writer is founding director of the Egypt Diaspora Initiative.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly