Egypt will not prosper unless all its energy is invested in rejuvenation and development in order to put an end to injustice, poverty, backwardness, ignorance and unruliness.
Millions of people during the January revolution expressed their desire to build a country free of political oppression, social injustice, garbage and sexual harassment — a country that is built on solidarity, love and opening the arena up for everyone to participate in building society.
Nothing exemplifies the spirit of the Egyptian revolution in terms of giving everyone the right to participate more than the handicapped taking part in demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The image of them participating in cleaning up the square after Mubarak was removed from power is one that intensifies the spirit of the revolution that declared that we will walk together towards the future and will not leave behind the weak, sick or old. We are all equal and everyone has something to offer to the future of this country.
Egypt is not rich with natural resources. What we have is some water and some oil and natural gas, as well as a few minerals, beaches, etc. Egypt’s true wealth is its human potential; therefore it is unacceptable to marginalise on purpose or out of ignorance a vital part of the country’s human potential; it is unacceptable to insist on blocking Egyptians from deciding the future of the country; it is unacceptable to insist on blocking the right of Egyptians abroad from voting in the coming elections.
The farcical justification for this position is that there are technical problems preventing Egyptians living abroad from voting. So why not remove these obstacles? How is it that Tunisians were able to resolve these problems allowing Tunisians abroad to vote for their Constituent Assembly last week?
There are claims that Egyptians abroad are susceptible to being coerced, but aren’t Egyptians back home susceptible too? And isn’t poverty the main reason that humans find themselves in a weak position? Is not the living standard of Egyptians abroad higher than their brethren back home? Their votes cannot be bought in return for a bottle of cooking oil or one kilogramme of sugar, so why are they being blocked?
I believe they are banned for this very reason; the votes of Egyptians abroad are difficult to sway and the interim powers — born of the former regime — seem afraid of Egyptians voting freely.
The “conspiracy” began in forming a committee to amend the constitution, headed by Tareq Al-Bishri. The declared mandate of this committee was to amend the constitution to curtail the powers of the president of the republic. What was needed was to limit the terms in office to only two and opening the door to citizens to nominate themselves for this position after constitutional laws regarding Article 76 were tailored to only allow those who are controlled by the ruling elite to nominate themselves.
The Committee to Amend the Constitution, however, went beyond its declared mandate by dabbling in Article 75 dealing with the requisites of citizenship for a presidential candidate. The committee took an extreme position when defining a true Egyptian who has the right to nominate himself for the presidency, questioning the patriotism of an Egyptian married to a foreigner. It also opens to doubt the loyalty of an Egyptian either of whose parents are foreign nationals and who is a dual citizen, even if he abandons his other nationality.
Accordingly, anyone who is born abroad and is a dual citizen by birth would not be eligible to run for president. When Al-Bishri was asked about this veto, he said that these candidates would not be allowed to attend military schools and hence neither should they be allowed to nominate themselves for the top job in the country. How strange; applying military standards to civilians? Are we seeking to make top positions “civilian” or militarising them?
The armed forces have physical and fitness specifications, such as a minimum height of 160 centimetres for officers and soldiers, so should we demand that presidential candidates should also be taller than 160 centimetres? What kind of logic is this? Is Al-Bishri pandering to the military at the expense of Egyptians abroad? How does that make sense? Has he not studied Egypt’s history to know that many of the pillars of Egypt’s renaissance in the 19th and 20th centuries took on Egyptian nationality and were dual citizens? Does he not know that Al-Ahram newspaper itself — the backbone of official newspapers — was established by Syrians? Does he not know that the mothers of two of Egypt’s presidents, Naguib and Sadat, were from Sudan?
They will tell me to be quiet, this is “the will of the people”. They will say that constitutional amendments were supported by the majority of the people in a “free” referendum. What freedom gives a committee that was not elected and does not represent the diversity of Egyptians the right to single-handedly amend the constitution and put it to a vote? What freedom allows us to ask people a number of questions about a variety of topics at once, and require them to comprehensively respond to all of them with a yes or no answer?
What if I supported limiting the terms of the president to two but I object to tough criteria about the citizenship of the president? What should I do? Is there a third choice other than yes and no? “Yesno”, for example? Does this remind you of anything? Do you recall Sadat’s famous referendum in 1980 where Egyptians were asked two questions and they could only respond one way or another to both questions at once? The first question was whether you agree that Islamic Sharia should be the main but not only source for legislation in Egypt; the second, was whether you agree to remove the two-term limit for president. The result of that referendum was flawed and unfortunately the majority “yes” vote put Egypt in Mubarak’s grip for 30 years.
The “conspiracy” against Egyptians abroad continues. There are those who are still lobbying to exercise their right to vote. What would Egypt lose by politically isolating Egyptians abroad? The loss would be immense. It is a sign that Egyptians abroad are viewed as demi-citizens and are not welcome in deciding the political future of Egypt. How can we ask them to support the country’s renaissance?
Everyone should know that successful models of development — such as China whose products are invading our markets — rose on the shoulders of expatriate communities that are educated, experienced and wealthy. Closer to home, Israel is currently led by a dual Israeli-US citizen and its industrial and military capabilities are built by dual citizenship experts and scientists. Millions of Egyptians living abroad are the power engine for any genuine development programme because of their knowledge, expertise, connections and money. What would you say to those who want to push them aside on purpose or out of ignorance?
Questioning the identity of Egyptians abroad and stirring fear about their political choices should not fool anyone. In Tunisia, the Islamist Al-Nahda Party won half the ballots of overseas voters, the vast majority of whom live in Europe, specifically in secular France. This is a higher percentage than the votes the party won inside Tunisia. Travelling or emigrating overseas does not mean cultural detachment from the motherland. Sometimes the opposite is true because of culture shock.
Frankly speaking, sidelining Egyptians living abroad is not because of doubts about their patriotism but because of their potential. They are “suspected” of being competent and therefore pose a threat to the quasi-talented in government positions. They are also “suspected” of not succumbing to the authorities or being guided to vote in a certain way because their living standards are high and they are beyond the reach of the state security agency that continues its operations under other names.
Should we leave the arena to those who would sever part of the body of the Egyptian people? Should we allow them to abort the aspirations of the Egyptian people of rising once again and achieving development that would only be possible through mobilising the energies of all Egyptians at home and abroad? Should we let them throw away the future of the country while defending narrow interests?
Only one thing remains to be said: elections where Egyptians abroad do not vote are elections whose legitimacy is suspect.
The writer is associate professor of political economy at the American University in Cairo.