In a historic ruling, Egyptian court confirms voting rights for millions of expats

Zeinab El Gundy, Tuesday 25 Oct 2011

The Administrative Court, responding to a lawsuit and a demand by millions of expats, said on Tuesday Egyptians living abroad can vote in the country's elections in world embassies and consulates

Egyptians in Times square
Egyptians living in the US support January revolution in New York's Times Square last winter (Photo: Reuters)

More than 120 countries around the world currently allow their expatriate citizens to vote in national elections and referenda whilst abroad.

That list includes Tunisia, whose citizens stood in long queues outside Tunisian embassies around the world last weekend to vote in the first democratic elections the country has seen in its history.

In Egypt, one of the issues that found its way into public discourse after the fall of Mubarak’s regime was the participation of Egyptians abroad, whether expats or permanent immigrants, in the political process back home through voting in elections.

On Tuesday, the Administrative Court granted Egyptians abroad the right to vote, in a ruling on a lawsuit filed by a group of expat Egyptians, including famous novelist Ahdaf Soueif, and supported by the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, against the chairman of the High Commission of Elections, the military council (SCAF), the prime minister and the minister of interior.

This court ruling allows Egyptians to vote at Egyptian embassies and consulates abroad, and is a victory for the Egyptian expats who have been campaigning on this issue for some time.

According to New York-based Egyptian activist and blogger Raafat Roheim, there were several movements calling for the right to vote for Egyptians abroad before the revolution, but they were small and not very active. After the events in January, the ideas began to garner more interest.

“The campaign to vote in elections back home began to be more vocal when we read in May of 2011 in the Egyptian press that some military source claimed that Egyptians abroad will not be allowed to vote because they can sell their votes, and they do not care who will represent them back home. That statement made us all angry and we began to comment and speak about it on social-networking site Twitter, using the account @EgyAbroad to coordinate our efforts in different countries,” Roheim explained to Ahram Online.

The statements by the unnamed military source last May offended many Egyptians working and living outside their home country, as they considered it an insult to them and their loyalty to the country.

From protests to online campaigns

After the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, many Egyptians in Europe began to register at Egyptian embassies.

Tarek El-Manadily told Ahram Online that there were Egyptians who had not entered their country's embassy for 20 years who came to register, including himself. "At the embassy, I told the officials that I was registering in order to eventually be able to vote," El-Manadily said.

In the Arabian Gulf, things might look different than in Europe.

Despite the fact that there are about half a million Egyptians working and living in Kuwait and three million in Saudi Arabia, there are little signs there of similar expat mobilisation.

This is due to the restrictions on political activity in the country itself, says Hany Shehata, an Egyptian engineer working and living in Kuwait.

"Egyptians in Kuwait do not participate in political activities; not because they do not care about their homeland, but because they respect the laws of the country. In addition, they do not wish to have any problems that could threaten their jobs."

“We are depressed that we can't do anything regarding voting abroad, except shouting our demands," added Shehata.

Just like other new political movements in Egypt, the Egyptian abroad vote movement is now using social media to connect with supporters around the globe and to gain supporters back home in Egypt, using Twitter hashtags like #EgyAbroad and #right2vote, as well as raising support for the issue on Facebook.

Periodically, protests are organised in front of Egyptian embassies in London, Paris, Ontario and other locations demanding the right to vote. The protests are usually announced online via Facebook. One such protest is planned for 30 October, to be held simultaneously outside embassies and consulates in London, Washington , New York and Paris.

Back home, the first person to bring up the right to vote of Egyptians abroad was popular liberal and potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, who talked about it in the media before the revolution.

In fact, ElBaradei included the Egyptian expats’ right to vote in the six major political reform demands that he and his allies at the National Association for Change raised before the revolution started.

Currently, it is not only ElBaradei who supports the right of Egyptians abroad to vote; other potential presidential candidates such as Abdel Manam Abu El-Fatouh, Hamdeen Sabahi, Hisham El-Bastawisi and Amr Moussa also agree on this issue.

Abdel Moanam Abu El-Fatouh, for example, stated on his official campaign’s Twitter account that the right of Egyptians abroad to vote is not a demand nor a wish, but rather a legal right.

The April 6 Youth Movement also supports the right of Egyptians abroad to vote.

However, most political parties and movements are too busy with internal issues to devote much attention to the issue.

Procedural questions remain unresolved

According to statements from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no country has rejected the idea of allowing Egyptians to cast ballots in the Egyptian embassies in case their government grants them the right to do so.

Constitutionally, all Egyptian citizens are allowed to participate and vote in the elections, as long as they have Egyptian passports and are in good legal standing.

In addition, according to Law No. 73 of 1953, which was amended by Law No. 173 in 2005, Egyptians abroad have the right to vote in Egyptian consulates as long as they are not deprived of their political rights.

Law No.73, amended later in May of 2011, created a problem for Egyptians abroad by insisting that people vote in actual voting polling stations in the exact district that is listed on national identity cards.

Many Egyptians abroad are not registered at their embassies; nor do they have national identity cards.

The Administrative Court’s rule resolved this issue by designating the Egyptian embassies and consulates abroad as valid addresses for Egyptian expats who want to vote.

There are questions, however, over whether the government will respect the court’s ruling.

A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf held a cabinet meeting to discuss the issue.

The ministerial meeting included military council representatives, representatives of the High Commission of Elections, and nine ministers, including the ministers of international cooperation, justice, the interior, foreign affairs and telecommunications.

At the same time, there were statements from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, saying that the Ministry has three scenarios for voting processes once the government and the military council issue the decree to allow expats to vote.

The Ministry of Interior has also sent delegations from civil service organisations abroad to issue national identity cards to Egyptians abroad at the consulates in the USA, Canada, France, the UK and other European countries.

However, despite all talk, the government has not taken any decision on the matter, and the parliamentary elections are only four weeks away.

Human rights activist Hafez Abu Saada suggested in an appearance on Al Hayat 2 television channel last Sunday night that "the Egyptian parliament could solve this problem by adding some seats for parliament to represent Egyptians abroad in different areas around the globe."

However, most unofficial sources indicate that Egyptians abroad will be allowed to participate in the presidential elections and referenda, but not the in the parliamentary elections.

Expats wield economic clout

There are between 6.7 million and 10 million Egyptians living and working abroad.

According to official sources, most of them are concentrated in the Gulf area, although lately there has been an increase in the number of Egyptian immigrants to Europe and the USA.

The number of Egyptian abroad is mainly determined by registration at Egyptian embassies and work permits issued by Egypt to Egyptian expats.

Based on the official numbers, 74 per cent of Egyptians abroad work mostly in the Gulf region, while 26 per cent are immigrants in the United States, the EU and Australia.

Despite living abroad, these expats contribute to the country's welfare in a serious way.

Minister of Manpower and Emigration Mohamed El-Borai stated in June that the average amount of money transferred annually by Egyptians abroad back home was $9.7 billion. After the revolution and the ousting of Mubarak, the amount increased, reaching $12.6 billion in October.

Remittances from citizens abroad have been for more than 40 years a vital source of national income, particularly given the current economic situation in Egypt.  

Now that the Administrative Court’s ruling has confirmed that Egyptians abroad have a right to vote, the key question remains: when will the ruling military council issue a decree allowing Egyptian expats to vote and to participate in shaping the future of their homeland ?

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